July 24, 2018

Walking in the City with Jane: A Story of Jane Jacobs

Written by Susan Hughes
Illustrated by Valérie Boivin
Kids Can Press
36 pp.
Ages 6-9
April 2018

Jane Jacobs is an icon of urban activism both in her birth country of the United States and her adopted home of Canada. In both places, her support of cities as communities for the people pitted her against traditional urban planners and developers but won her the support of her neighbours near and far.

Susan Hughes, author of numerous fiction (e.g., What Happens Next, The Four Seasons of Patrick, Virginia) and non-fiction (e.g., Off to Class, Case Closed?, Coming to Canada) books for young readers, takes Jane's story from humble but passionate beginnings–an anecdote about Jane being sent home from school when she wouldn't promise to brush her teeth everyday and trying to incite her classmates to follow is especially telling–to a move to New York City where she saw her city through "eyes on the street" and recognizing life in the city as a "ballet of the sidewalk."
From Walking in the City with Jane by Susan Hughes, illus. by Valérie Boivin
She knew that animals, plants, river, sunshine and rain all worked together as part of a healthy ecosystem. "But a city is also an ecosystem," she realized. "It is made of different parts – sidewalks, parks, stores, neighborhoods, City Hall ... and people, of course. When they all work together, the city is healthy. (pg. 14)
After her marriage to architect Bob Jacobs, Jane continued to work as a journalist. She used her writing to criticize city planning that supported businesses and transportation and thought seldom of the people upon which communities were built. She initiated protests that stopped the razing of her own neighbourhood for construction of a highway. It took years of protests and activism, including an arrest for interrupting a city meeting, before Jane and her fellow activists were able to stop the development of the expressway and even save a local park from traffic.  Her family's move to Toronto did not suppress her love of cities or the need to advocate for neighbourhoods.
She inspired communities to take a stand for their neighborhoods. She also encouraged everyone living in cities to look around them while they walked and to listen, linger and think about what they saw. (pg. 34)
From Walking in the City with Jane by Susan Hughes, illus. by Valérie Boivin
By highlighting key events in Jane Jacobs's life–school, the move to New York City, marriage and family, the protests against Robert Moses's plans for development, the move to Canada and continued advocacy for cities for people–Susan Hughes distills Jane's story to one of action. Of course, there is much more to her long-life story (she was 89 when she passed) but these milestones shaped the trajectory of her influence about the way we think about cities.
Illustration by Valérie Boivin used in Walking in the City with Jane by Susan Hughes retrieved from https://valerieboivin.carbonmade.com/projects/6410126
Quebec artist Valérie Boivin, already well-known for illustrating French-language books including 752 lapins, Le livre où la poule meurt à la fin, as well as her own Un après-midi chez Jules, brings structure and dynamics to Jane Jacobs's story. Just like the cities Jane Jacobs supported with her action, Valérie Boivin blends work and play and landmarks with conventional buildings to create landscapes that are familiar and still noteworthy.

Walking in the City with Jane honours Jane Jacobs's urban activism and reminds us to be functional players on the stages of our cities, not merely bit players with walk-on roles, and the best way to do that is to open our eyes and engage.

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