Jane Jacobs passed away this week. I couldn't figure out how to blog about it, but I wanted to.
I was having a quiet coffee with my friend Sandra yesterday. She was telling me about how some rocky events of her personal life had played out over the unfortunately several months since we last talked. She told me that she was generally happy with the way things had worked out, but that during the time they were actually worse than she let herself believe. She had some perspective now that let her evaluate what had happened.
Simultaneously, she was in a professional transition that had led her to many positions, both paid and unpaid, with many organizations. While she was doing it, it felt like chaos. Now that she was on the other side of the chaos, she could see the gifts of that journey and all the good things it brought her.
One of the books in my recent-read list is Barack Obama's Dreams From My Father. I mentioned to her that his experience was similar. That his childhood and coming-of-age felt to him directionless and chaotic. However, when he reached a certain point in his life he was able to look back and see some coherence. That there was meaning in the chaos and that his journey - while neither scripted nor directed - had distinct destinations.
Perspective, it seems, requires a vantage point which can only be appreciated by actually arriving at it.
Here's the tricky part: just about every trail we hike down has its own spots with a scenic view. I think that's the blessing and the curse. We have to enjoy the views we get and not overly mourn the ones we never get to see. That can be frustrating - especially when a vantage point on one path let's you see what things might have been like on another path.
As we move through life, we become acquainted with many people - personally or throught their writing. We engage in conversations. And, like I mentioned the other day, we learn.
People therefore become dear to us because they help us be better people. They help us actualize.
Alas, as we move through life we also have to deal with the loss of such people - literally or figuratively. After a while one becomes almost numb or discounts the feelings.
Three influences of my journey
Jane Jacobs is a woman I never had the opportunity to meet. As an urban planner her books were obviously required reading for me. But her central message is one that has always resonated with me. Jane Jacobs wanted us to be a part of our own lives. She feared and resented the alienation that cultures and impose on people when people aren't being attentive.
She encouraged people to go outside, walk around, see what they liked about their community and then make sure they see to it that those things endure.
In Cities and The Wealth of Nations, she describes how local pockets of economic activity build a neighborhood and how neighborhoods build cities. In Seattle, I am lucky to live in a region that understands this dynamic. Our city is a network of walkable neighborhood centers. (Now if only we could have some transit to get between them). When you participate in your local community, you share yourself with that community. You become more aware of things happening in the community and more vested in making it a better place to live. (Jane Jacobs Video and here too <- the second one is way 60s, you've got to see the second one).
Francis Edward Elliot
In a similar vein, another influence of mine was a man named Ed Elliot. He was an architect who worked in transit design. Ed was a big advocate of making transit stations be pleasant. In keeping with this, his design of the Seattle Bus Tunnel (with artist Jack Mackie) created a space that captured people's imaginations while they were waiting to catch a bus. This may seem frivolous, but it's actually very important. Anyone who has felt the mundane, helpless air of the BART subway stations knows that nearly anything is better than feeling like you are standing in a tube.
I never actually had the chance to meet Ed either. We worked that the same company, but I came along a few weeks after he passed away from AIDS complications. I ended up talking to many people who had worked with Ed across the US and visiting stations he had designed in several cities. It was also because of Ed that I ended up coordinating activities for the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt for quite some time.
Like Jane, Ed wanted people to enjoy their communities and wanted their communities to reflect their worth.
People often tease me because Jim Benson sounds like Jim Henson. I'm lucky that I'm one letter off from someone I have always so deeply admired. (Thank God my name isn't George Tush!)
If it's hard to condence feelings about Jane Jacobs into a blog post - it's nearly impossible here. However, the essence of Jim Henson's message to me is - pay attention to your life and understand how you are a part of something wonderful. Most people reading this blog post can probably sing the "People in your neighborhood" song. It's fun and simple and somehow it resonates. And listen to the thing ... listen to the postman guy ... there's so much there.
Jim Henson seemed to inately understand that integration wasn't just about busing, but about how we all integrated with our surroundings. That's not possible by congressional mandate, but it is possible if we just observe, learn from each other, and talk.
These people and countless others have had a deep impact on me. In my current company, which designs software, these voices nudge me along. Software isn't just about how it looks on the screen or how an action is represented by some nifty animation or how Ajaxrubycomet will save us all. It's about how we can build the virtual world in the service of strengthening the physical one. How virtual environments can help us catalog our experiences, observations and desires in ways that will help us all learn and grow.
But above all, it shouldn't replace the physical world any more than day care should replace parents or freeways should replace neighborhoods. The virtual world, day care and freeways are all quite important - but used improperly they can diffuse society and make us all grow more distant. Jane, Ed and Jim show us that being observant and engaged is vital. Here's a good Jim Henson clip for being observant. Or this one.
Now, if you would have told me that while watching aliens from Koosbean make telephone noises at a phone that someday I'd be able to integrate it with socioeconomics and transit station design .... I'd probably be hard pressed to figure out why. But all this has been incorporated into my world view. All this has led me to this vantage point.
I'm going to tell you again to watch this Jane Jacobs clip from the 60s. It's pretty close to video blogging.
Photos via Wikipedia.
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