The developed city has often stood as the worldly representation of the United States’ expansion and excellence. Through her cities, fit with skyscrapers, beautiful parks, and an ever-expanding expanse of interconnected roads, America stood above the rest. During the 20th century, the creation of functional and efficient infrastructure remained of paramount concern. But for many living among the waves of change, the undertow proved too strong and destructive. Neighborhoods were threatened by large-scale urban renewal efforts and once-vibrant neighborhoods were deemed slums in efforts to greedily redevelop areas. It was through critics, like activist Jane Jacobs, that serious concerns were levied against the brash urbanization efforts in 20th-century America. Her personal papers, writings, and influential works on urban theory attest to this pointed stance in the Burns Library exhibit Dark Age Ahead or Systems of Survival?: Jane Jacobs and the Ethics of Economies.
Jacobs did not have a college degree or any formal training in formal planning, but that did not stop her from making her voice heard. Jacobs went toe-to-toe with figures like New York master-builder Robert Moses, and was instrumental in the cancellation of projects she saw as a detriment to affected communities like the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which threatened her home in Greenwich Village. Elsewhere, she championed opposition of the Spadina Expressway in Toronto and its many offshoots. Throughout her life, she brought these ideas to others through writing. Penning the influential book The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961, Jacobs outlined what she saw as the degradation of organic urban life in favor of a rigorous order at the detriment to existing communities.
The exhibit documents the life of the activist through her personalized papers and writings in the possession of the Burns Library. Several of the pieces attest to Jacobs’ relationship with the Boston area and Boston College itself.
A copy of Death and Life remains open to a before-and-after picture of Boston’s West End. One photo shows parishioners in 1958 walking to Mass at St. Joseph’s Church amid a horizon of other buildings and friendly-looking community edifices. The next shows the same pilgrimage to mass four years later, in 1961. Instead of other buildings, piles of dirt and debris decorate the side of the road, leaving only a bare landscape to to traverse through.
One panel documented an exchange between Jacobs and an urban city planner with regard to Boston’s North End. What the planner called a slum, Jacobs saw a beautiful community rich with culture. Additionally, she cited its infant mortality, disease, and delinquency as the lowest in the city.
“You ought to have more slums like this,” Jacobs said.
This exchange underlined the misuse of terms like “slum clearing,” Jacobs criticized. Under the auspices of renewed infrastructure, regions were condemned in order to further nefarious economic desires fueled by minority interests. In the activist realm, Jacobs proved she was a force with which to be reckoned.
As a writer, Jacobs proved to be just as impactful. One panel describes the impact Jacobs has had on one of BC’s most influential programs. She is cited as one of the influences on the founders of the PULSE Program, due to her extensive work in social capital, emphasis on community, and community enrichment.
Jacobs spoke at BC multiple times during her career, usually in conjunction with PULSE administrators and students, including a two-day symposium in 1987 and a talk in 1993. Correspondence, in the form of letters, from administrators and Jacobs speak to the successes of the programs and the feeling, held by both parties, that the dialogues were productive ones.
Other documents attest to the successes of Jacobs endeavors. A N.Y. Daily Report cover harbors the title “DOWNTOWN EXPRESSWAY KILLED.” On the margin of the paper, a note scrawled on the side from Jacobs thanks friends and states elatedly “We did it!,” Another snippet from The New York Times details Jacobs’ arrest for demonstrating and the subsequent riot charge she received. One photograph, as if peeking through the bars into a jail holding cell, show Jacobs sitting inside flanked by much younger delinquents. Her unassuming nature may suggest that her offense was less impactful, but history would say otherwise. All these things show just how influential Jacobs was as an activist and the personal jeopardy she was willing to put herself in for her stated beliefs.
Everything within the exhibit is touched by Jacobs. Many of her own handwriting remains on the pages and etched onto typed letters. As an activist, journalist, and writer, it is no surprise that her voice remains laden in every facet of her dealings. Her impact at BC is longlasting and this exhibit documents how one woman, regardless of education or social standing, could make a difference in communities she valued and saw as beautiful.
Featured Image Courtesy of The Village Voice