The photo shows the late Jane Jacobs sitting on a stool at the White Horse Tavern, in Greenwich Village. On Saturday evening, I saw Jane Jacobs sitting on a table at Ada Books. She was in the form of a stack of books on display (and for sale). A wine-and-cheese was afoot for the newly published Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs. It is edited by Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring. Storring has run Providence’s Jane’s Walks (I’ve given several of these tours), and now lives in New York. Zipp is a professor of urban studies at Brown.
Jacobs would have been a hundred in 2016, and so all things Jacobs are big this year, even though “Big Plans” are trying to mount a comeback against the “little plans” for which she argued back in the 1950s, ’60s and beyond, maintaining her urbanist activism after she moved to Toronto in 1968. The short pieces in Vital Little Plans are taken from both periods, starting with a poem and then “Diamonds in the Tough,” an article for Vogue on the jewelry business in the Bowery. “The Missing Link in City Redevelopment” concludes with this prototypically delicious Jacobsean paragraph from the June 1956 issue of Architectural Forum:
We are greatly misled by talk about bringing the suburb into the city. The city has its own peculiar virtues and we will do it no service by trying to beat it into some inadequate imitation of the noncity. The starting point must be study of whatever is workable, whatever has charm, in city life, and these are the first qualities that must find a place in the architecture of the rebuilt city.
Two plans in Providence that tried to sterilize and suburbanize the city were the Downtown Providence 1970 plan and the College Hill plan, both around 1960. The first died of neglect because nobody really wanted to do something so ugly. The second succeeded because benign neglect enabled so many to act on their own to avoid the urban removal the plan had in store for College Hill and Benefit Street (in spite of its reputation for saving them).
Jane Jacobs seems to have taken over official planning doctrine in America, including Providence, but in so many cases it amounts to lip service. No city planning department, if it truly respected the mother’s milk of Jane Jacobs’s urbanism, could abide what’s being proposed along the Route 195 corridor, or a decade ago, the toppling of a decade of public-spirited design by the architecture of the 1 percent, epitomized by the GTECH building.
Jane Jacobs would find herself at home in Ada Books, at 717 Westminster St., just beyond Route 95. Enter its very Jacobsean shopfront and you will find yourself cuddled about by bookshelves that seem to embrace a mixture of old and new books, mostly small ones that fit many to a shelf, featuring the widest range of subject matter, interspersed with comics, cards, posters and other non-book media. The eyes on the street in this literary neighborhood belong to Brent Legault, its founder and proprietor, who opened the shop in 2008. He has expanded, but he like all other independent booksellers has felt dark shadows pass over his institution. But it is still there, and anyone who loves words must pray that Ada Books will be around to enchant us for many, many years.