5 Questions with Martha Frish on pioneering urban planner Jane Jacobs, subject of the new doc, CITIZEN JANE

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Cities should meet the needs of the people who live and work there — the dwellers, not the developers. This may seem obvious, but in the 1950s and 1960s, when urbanization meant growing upward (with high rises and skyscrapers) and outward (through expressways and suburban sprawl), journalist Jane Jacobs was one of the few who argued that people — not buildings or cars — should be the driving force behind urban planning. She believed high rises and highways would only increase isolation and erase the “stoop culture” that fostered a sense of safety and community. Her adversary was modernist urban planner Robert Moses, New York City Goliath, whose projects and plans she challenged in her articles and landmark book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Their most pitched battles are recounted in CITIZEN JANE: BATTLE FOR THE CITY, which makes its Chicago premiere at the Film Center May 12 and runs through May 18.

We chatted with Martha Frish, the City Organizer for Jane’s Walk Chicago, organized by Friends of Downtown (FOD), about Jane Jacobs’ revolutionary yet common sense philosophy, as well as the annual walks she inspired.

Lori Hile: You’re the City Organizer for Jane’s Walk. Tell us a little about these walks: what are they, and what goal do they serve?

Martha Frish: Jane’s Walk, a program of Friends of Downtown, is a celebration of people and cities taking place all around the world on the first weekend of May, to coincide with the urban thinker Jane Jacobs’ birthday. Created in 2007 in Toronto by friends of Jane Jacobs, the 2017 Chicago Walks were the fifth local edition of these events. Through the simple act of walking together and discussing what makes a neighborhood, organized walks such as these provide opportunities to reach across Chicago’s socio-economic and racial divides while teaching about community, the built environment, and the city’s rich neighborhood traditions.

LH: In her groundbreaking book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” Jane Jacobs coined the phrase “eyes-on-the-street,” about the way people are naturally drawn to observing human activity in vibrant, walkable neighborhoods, which helps keep the community safe. Do we have enough “eyes on the street” in Chicago? If not, how can we improve on this?

MF: The number of “eyes on the street” varies by neighborhood, in Chicago as well as in all other cities. When Jacobs was writing — and before air conditioning became wide-spread — people often sat on the stoops of their buildings socializing while watching their children play outdoors. High-rise apartment buildings tend to make it harder to have a lot of “eyes on the street.”

LH: Jacobs openly criticized the ideas of well-known architects and urban planners, including Robert Moses, who became her nemesis in New York City. And she was often dismissed by this male-dominated community, as well as many mainstream media as “a housewife,” or a “crazy” or “militant” “dame.” Do you think her views were sometimes undermined because they challenged conventional wisdom, or because she was a woman in a man’s world, or a bit of both? And how did Jacobs respond to such dismissals?

MF: Jacobs trusted what her eyes told her about what made neighborhoods desirable places to live. If she were a man, she might have gained recognition for the validity of her insights earlier, but she placed herself in opposition to Robert Moses, who didn’t tolerate disagreement from anyone, male or female.

LH: Jacobs believed that restoring historical structures, rather than bulldozing them to make room for high rises and expressways, was a way to stabilize costs and encourage a lively and diverse populace. But some of the areas that incorporated her ideas — including her own neighborhood in the Annex section of Toronto — were subject to mass gentrification. How do you think she would respond to the contention that preserving structures doesn’t result in preserving or cultivating a diverse populace?

MF: Jacobs celebrated mixed-use and diverse communities long before those were commonly-understood ideas. She didn’t use those specific terms, but that’s what she was aiming for. One of her most famous statements was that “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” So, global generalizations about preserving structures or cultivating a diverse populace wouldn’t have been in her vocabulary.

LH: Jacobs believed that a healthy neighborhood consists of engaged citizens contributing to community decisions. What are some things that we citizens can do to effect change, however small, in our neighborhoods?

MF: Jacobs would have recommended actively taking a stand on issues, and making sure neighborhood voices are heard. She used a variety of tools — speaking at public meetings, circulating petitions, holding demonstrations with picket signs — that are all still valid today.

CITIZEN JANE: BATTLE FOR THE CITY runs from May 12–18. Click here for showtimes and tickets.

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