Jane Jacobs - discussion notes

The Real Jane Jacobs

Grounds for Thought

565 Bloor St West (at Green Beanery)

July 26, 2016

The discussion notes for the talk given by long-time colleague Lawrence Solomon.

Let me tell you about a letter Jane wrote for the Energy Probe Research Foundation, the organization that owns Green Beanery. Jane was a founder, along with me, of Energy Probe in the late 1970s, and she remained one of its most active directors for almost two decades. Energy Probe’s policies and Jane’s policies were like this [crosses fingers] – there wasn’t much daylight between them.

One of Jane’s initiatives was launching a consumer division called Consumer Policy Institute. This was in the mid-1990s. It was a consumer advocacy organization that would complement the environmental work that Energy Probe was doing. Jane asked me to draft a letter for her signature that would go to Energy Probe’s 50,000 donors. She wanted the letter to explain what our new advocacy division would be about.

I must admit, it felt a bit odd for me to draft a letter for Jane Jacobs, especially one in which she’d be arguing for policies that many would find controversial, even radical. I was conflicted. I didn’t want to pull any punches in the letter but I also didn’t want it to appear inflammatory.

Anyway, I drafted a letter that pushed the envelope about as much as I thought reasonable and took it to her house, just 5 minutes from here on Albany – that’s where we always met, in her living room. The letter I drafted focussed on problems with the TTC, which was in the news a lot then. Service was terrible and fares were high. The way to fix public transit, the draft letter said, was to get the government out of the public transit business and to let private transit operators compete for customers by providing better service and lower rates.

Jane looked at the letter and asked me why it was so timid, why it only recommended privatizing the TTC while ignoring other government-run businesses. Via Rail also had terrible service and high rates. The Post Office also had terrible service and high rates. Jane took out a pencil and beefed up the letter. She inserted the railways and the post office as services that needed to be privatized and she also singled out Public Private Partnerships as ventures to be avoided. She didn’t want any government involvement when it came to operating commercial services.

In that letter Jane talked about the need to get government out of bed with industry in all commercial enterprises because when the two get together, corruption isn’t far behind. Government is best as a regulator; business is best running commercial enterprises. They each need to be kept in their own spheres of responsibility. That was the message in Jane’s letter and it was a message welcomed by those who received it. The letter wasn’t pro-capitalist. It wasn’t pro-socialist. It was just common sense, without ideological baggage. People pulled out their chequebooks and financially supported this fledgling new organization.

That letter, to me, exemplifies the Real Jane Jacobs. Principled. Fearless. Non-ideological. That was why she was loved so much then.

But I wonder how many people would respond so favourably to that same message today, given how polarized society has become. Many of Jane’s positions would be anathema to supporters of Bernie Sanders, for example. Jane disliked big government, disliked central planning, disliked public housing, disliked welfare. She believed in competition, she respected property rights, she opposed efforts to control population growth, she scoffed at the idea that there were resource shortages that would limit economic growth.

How would her ideas be treated by today’s progressives? They think they know her and they claim to embrace her, but do they embrace the Real Jane Jacobs, do they embrace what Jane actually believed, or just some one-dimensional view of her that conforms to today’s orthodoxy.

Perhaps we can answer that question later this evening.

Return to the recap of The Real Jane Jacobs Grounds for Thought discussion evening

Related Reading

That’s not the Jane Jacobs I knew