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Department of Unintended Consequences

Against Jane Jacobs

by DAVID Ker THOMSON

As she left the room, her followers were “sucked up in her wake like sand particles drawn into the vortex of a giant worm…”

–from Children of Dune

"What an extraordinary rendition,” I think to myself as I stare at the artist’s depiction of the vast new police campus squatting in our neighborhood like a surreal object from a David Lynch film. 

Topping the masthead alongside the rendition: David Miller.  Miller is the political darling of Jane Jacobs, the much-loved progressive who lived, until her death a few years ago, in the Annex, at the easternmost perimeter of my gleaning rounds, ten minutes streetsurf on the longboard, half that with the bike and single-wheel’d gleaning trailer.

Rendition.  It’s not my word.  It appears on the painting itself, and is probably not ironic.  Irony?  Here on the south coast of what they call Canada?  “Not fricken likely,” I think to myself.

In this corridor of the city, where Dovercourt Avenue squeezes in past the Comintern-style architecture of the 14 Division precinct building, I keep everything to myself.  Today I edge over as an unmarked suddenly crests the rise, elusive as the noun that “unmarked” adjective flanks in this sentence.  Stay alert.  Visible through the windshield, plumping out the velour of the American vehicle, two cops with a blimpish biomass at odds with the constraints of the vehicle.  A steroidal arm pressed against the passenger glass.  The police are growing and nothing can contain them.  It’s post-G20 Toronto, and the men in blue have been given strong mandates by the voters for the expansion of the police state.   

I keep my eyes and shoulders down in submissive posture as the squad car passes.  Ask any street person, and we’ll tell you that Canadian cops do more street executions with tasers than American cops do.  You don’t mess around here.  I’m a big man with long hair and a difficult-to-parse criminal record, and I dress like my tribe.  You don’t mess around.

Unless you do.

Just yesterday I’d been juggling my four balls on my bike-trailer rig, which is how I get around, and I’d gotten too close to Dovercourt with my balls in the air, and a steroid had yelled over and over from his window, “$110 fine, $110 fine,” but thank the powers-that-don’t-be, the paperwork on someone like me stays the hand of many an eager cop.  I’m just not worth it for the half-hour’s immersion in literacy and print culture it would take them to write me up. 

On days when they do write me up, they present me with a piece of paper upon which the always-third option is innocence.  Guilt, guilt, innocence.  There’s an order to things.  Welcome to democracy.  If you wish to protest innocence for municipal offenses, you have to go to the provincial-level building—a little reminder of the interweaving corruption of the various levels of leaderville.  Like me, Jane Jacobs thought our city should secede from the province.  But the governments at every level stay fully in bed with each other.

I have one hand at the helm of my pickup truck as the cops come abreast.  No Chevy Luv, this pickup, it’s my hand truck.  All jobs are hand jobs in my neck of the woods.  I’ve got a good load of ¾” ply and some two-bys, and the cops aren’t going to like me taking up four feet of their car road.  But they pass.  Who needs the paperwork?

I look over at the rendition again.  Behind the sign a phalanx of cranes and dozers worries the ground.  Wasn’t there a school here last week?  In extraordinary detail, the rendition renders the prophecy of an ending: the end of the school playground in favor of an immense tree-lined parking lot for cruisers.  How many cruisers could one city need, let alone one little neighborhood?  I’m carting my load of lumber along the street to frame out my passive solar box, and the rendition offers an extraordinary detail—a green roof on the 14 Division gulagestery.  A green roof!  In my experience, the only people who get green roofs handed to them are people with dirty, money-rich jobs.  George Bush’s solar home near Waco comes to mind.  The rest of us try to build them, despite every obstacle the city throws up.

When I first came to this nation-state, I assigned Jane Jacob’s final book in my first graduate seminar, “Nature’s Futures.”  Jane had been dead for five months. 

Jane Jacobs was, or had been, the best of the best.

Jane Jacobs, the woman who took on Robert Moses and the whole power structure of pro-highway Manhattan.  Jane Jacobs, the advocate for walkable cities.  Jane Jacobs, who stopped the Spadina Expressway here in town.  Jane Jacobs, who understood that cities need lots of people (“density”) and lots of different sorts of organic architecture.  Her name has a mantra-like quality for progressives in a city surrounded by a nation-state of increasingly reactionary provinces eager to send troops to Toronto to beat up uppity locals and eager to overtax the city to pay for it.  How have we come to such a pass, that Jane Jacobs’ champion presides over an expanding police state?

Readers of my “Against” series in CounterPunch will remember that the series emphasizes the two most common meanings of the preposition—abutment and opposition.  At seewalk-the-ungoogleable (the term seewalk indicates, roughly, the three billion mostly urban people in the world who don’t show up, who for various reasons of chance and choice do not ratify The Franchise, do not send their vote off to the system to sustain it) we are against the empire in the sense of abutment and opposition. 

Call us anarchists if that makes you feel better.  Every day we are out here on the street literally bumping into cars, cutting diagonally across bike lanes and other rez-mentality configurations, edging our way past lines of voters: squeezing through, getting by.  We are against the empire.  Abutting, touching, groping.  This is our city. 

This is our life.  Food, shelter, curiosity.  That’s it.  All of the city without the fat.  We recognize that eighty percent of jobs people perform for the empire are bullshit, as the workers will often tell you themselves. With my credentials, I could write for a bullshit newspaper like The Globe and Mail and get paid bullshit money, but I bring typo-free, grammatically perfect, aesthetically experimental sketches of the city to CounterPunch once a week.  I’m up to a book and a half on the site now, 80,000 words or so, and not a single word of it has been blogged or otherwise offered as an exercise in bad grammar or bad faith, and I haven’t been paid a dime, because seawalkers walk and poke wherever they want.  We’ll take money, but there are no purchases on us, no fissures to attach strings, nowhere for the system to get a purchase.  And if you noticed the change in spelling on c-wokkers just now, and know why that isn’t a typo, you’ve been with me too long, dear reader.  Get out now and go for a walk.  Shorter, seven-hundred-word articles coming in December, but hang in for now, or bust out.

When I move from the urban forest to the groves of academe and report to you on matters of scholarly interest, I write as my colleagues cannot—with the willingness, every day, to give up my career.  Academics do wonderful work in the world, but their defining aspiration—to get and hold on to their jobs and to present CVs to their superiors demonstrating their submission to the prime directive of job acquisition and retention—makes it hard for them to criticize and to accurately report upon the nonsense of their superiors.  I have no superior, so I just tell it like it is.  Seewalkers have long since emancipated all leaders, with the remarkable corollary that there are no inferiors.

This is the meaning that goes into a simple Wednesday tableau: a handtrucking seewalker caught between the rock of an unmarked and the hard place of a ruined schoolyard.  Three seconds in the eternal song of the city.  Cops to the left, cops to the right, but it shall not come nigh unto thee—words from my parents’ religion are tossed up on the existential shores of the old lake-bound city and flashchanged in an instant to fit a new complexity.

What’s left is the hardscrabble of the yard, the cranes and dozers, and the dull, lifeless name of a champion on the rendition, someone who entered the lists as mover and shaker of voteville, someone to whom Jane Jacobs surrendered her precious name and power.  Jane is gone.  The Jane Jacobs police state remains.  Now it’s my neighborhood.

Jane and the seewalkers share almost everything in the realm of desired content: walkable neighborhoods, density, a city independent of antagonistic provinces, a disgust for superhighways and for subsidy-rich suburbs.  But when it comes to form, when it comes to a permanent workable walkable structure that will bring this about, we are as opposed as life can be.  The mere word “sellout” does not describe Jane’s willingness to work with the system, receive awards and rewards and cultural capital from the system, for she was as principled as anyone could be, given the terms of such engagement.  She was the best of the best.

Jane and I have both spent the first half of our lives as Americans, much of it around the Hudson River.  Both of us came to Toronto midway through the course of this life, and for similar reasons.  Both of us are longtime car fighters.  She died in the same hospital in which I was born, and our ‘Canadian’ experience will have played itself out in the same neighborhood.  I can’t believe I never met her.  Am I writing a tribute here, or am I against her?

It is seawalkers who have to pick up the pieces when the best of the best of our own gives away her name.  It all comes down to a Wednesday afternoon, enough cops to throw me into submissive posture, a handtruck bearing the hopeful bones of a solar system.

My back garden is a small corner rectangle on the largest unroaded green space in downtown Toronto between High Park and the ravines farther east.  Bloor Street connects each of these stray ecosystems.  Since a subway runs under Bloor, there is no need for the road itself, other than to give access to suburbanites who get to have big houses and then blast through in one-car-per-person contempt boxes on their way to high-paying jobs in the city.  For this privilege they pay not more but fewer taxes!  Imagine a green corridor for foxes and children instead of a black corridor for cheating fat-fuck suburbanites.

Go back a few decades.

The plans for the Spadina Expressway, which would have destroyed Toronto and moved what was left out to the suburbs, consist of an ugly line drawn through the urban forest and pointing at my neighborhood.  The expressway began in the Sixties and smashed its way south and forward in spacetime until, I gather, Jane and a large alliance of people working with/against the system arrested it.  The portion that was built remains as an ugly ditch filled with slow-moving traffic congestion.  Looking most directly down the barrel of this threat were the people whom my dad—who pronounces Ker, our shared name,  “car,” and who drives a Chevy Caprice Classic V8 with more than a million miles on it—calls the “rich Jews of that neighborhood.”

Is the blocking of the Spadina Expressway the best example of what can happen if people work within/against the system?  Is it enough?  Have we paid in other coin for the compromises necessary to fend off the extension?  What kind of activism sustained the resistance? How do we get from the Jane of resistance to the embedded Jane of later years?  Why is Toronto so unendingly devoted to cars?  Send me your stories. 

For my part, I’m writing today not about the Sixties and Seventies, but of three seconds in my own life in nowtopia.

For me, right now on a Wednesday afternoon, the story of the Spadina Expressway isn’t enough.  I’ve been visiting Toronto for decades now, and I’ve been dug in to my family’s neighborhood for a few years, and Toronto’s the same, this minute, as it always has been—just another city dominated by cars.  But it’s worse than that, because so many of the people who might have been tempted to fight the system have struck deals with it and become part of it. 

It’s always the same story, isn’t it?  You have a choice in democracy between two barely distinguishable scumbags who can get elected, and the others, variously principled or reprehensible, who can’t.  Imagine if every one of the people who voted green in the last election (who told the system, “yes, you are legitimate.  I cast my vote knowing I will be rejected.”) worked instead by withholding their vote and just getting in the way.  That would be thousands of angry, determined people who weren’t and aren’t going to put up with a car-dominated, corporation-dominated city.

I gather that in Toronto right now we have this scumbag Jane adored who is our “leader” and who freely gives his name to the expansion of the police state.  Now apparently there’s a leader-elect who is “worse” and “under” him privileges will “erode” and then we’ll all be “sorry” we didn’t have the other scumbag who “would have been” “better” if you use a tape measure showing thirty-seconds or maybe sixty-fourths of an inch.

But every vote is really two votes, the more-or-less useless but often satisfying one that determines content (the more-or-less scummy “leader”) and, on the other hand, the vote’s more powerful shadow counterpart—the ratification of form.  Every time you vote, you concur that this shitty situation is legitimate.  Imagine what a world it would be if every progressive did the right thing at the level of form that they intend at the level of content.  Not just thousands, but millions of people taking to the streets instead of legitimating The Franchise.

Urban forest taunting the Spadina extension like a Tiananmen Square protester?  That’s a damn good thing.  I wasn’t here at the time the forest was imperiled, and I’m grateful for any trees.  But I can’t help wondering what it would have been like to have had a more pitched battle, with more to show for it.  Imagine, for example, what a bunch of angry, rich Jews whose homeland is imperiled could do by way of making a ruckus!  Whoah!

Think of all the people who are going to work with the system to make sure the average number of Toronto drivers per car goes up from 1.2 to 1.3 in the next twenty years, as I read recently in The Star as I was squatting over it for my humanure business.  Now imagine all of them getting together instead and shutting down the stupid, absolutely unnecessary car culture of Toronto in one day.  Roads are long, skinny things, vulnerable to principled, spirited opposition.  Talk is cheep, as the starling said. 

Those progressive, incremental ideas you have?  More people in each car, greener cars? It’s all useless—people will just drive more to fill the vacuum.  The only thing that’s going to work is outright pitched battle.  Still, you guys in leaderville appear to have had that success with the Spadina, so I’m willing to talk.

I’ve tried working with the system.  This tumescent expanding police station, for example, is the very one I approached last year to get the officers to do something about event #I142447.  This involved a reckless van driver who nearly struck me (one of my witnesses saw the vehicle as so close she thought I had been struck) as he drove through the flashing light of a crosswalk and veered into a road densely packed with schoolchildren.  I had witnesses, I had a motive as redolent of virtue as saving schoolchildren, I had persistence.  What did the cops of 14 Division do?  Nada.  Told me that without a body lying in the street, there was nothing they could do.  Of course, when there was a body, the “independent” newspaper wouldn’t print it.  I have other Toronto body stories that are a little grizzlier (I get off piste a lot), but for now, that’ll do, little pig.  That’ll do. 

Police aren’t in our neighborhoods to protect schoolchildren, but to discipline recalcitrant bodies into docility, to conform them to the needs of the state.  Police aren’t just vicious brutes for the hell of it, or not merely for the hell of it.  They’re twisted for a reason.  And the torque of such twistedness comes from their lackey position of being in one class and serving a different one.  They are class quislings.  Their cars say “serve and protect” but the slogans are very careful not to specify just who it is they’re serving and protecting.  As the good book says, you cannot serve two masters.

The hagiography around Jane Jacobs will be hard for some readers to see past.  Hell, I love the old girl myself.  But I know that on this Wednesday afternoon, for three seconds, I’m standing in the gap between a police car and an expanding police station—a position of abutment if not outright opposition.  I’m right here in my own neighborhood, and this moment is captioned with the name of Jane Jacob’s champion.  They’re building a new police station for the department.  A department of unintended consequences for the left.

Write to me and tell me how my neighborhood here in post-G20 Toronto is anything but the Jane Jacobs expanding police state.

DAVID Ker THOMSON has been a street person for many years.  He has taught (on and off the tenure track) at Princeton, Duke, McGill, the University of Essex, the University of Texas, the University of Toronto, Franklin and Marshall College, and Bard College, among others, and held research fellowships at Harvard and the University of Illinois.  His book project, A, on American anarchy, has received (ironically) funding in the form of year-long fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities (U.S.) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (Canada), and portions of it have been published in Early American Literature and South Atlantic Quarterly.  He is unemployed.  He is a sporadically enthusiastic correspondent. Dave.thomson@utoronto.ca