Jane Jacob and the city she lives in

Toronto has always been a dour place: unimaginative, intellectually entropic, complacent, disapproving, and pretty damn pleased with itself. Think of a kibbutz run by Scottish Presbyterians and you’ll get the idea.

My friend Max just got back from Toronto and says it’s a place of new excitement.

“Where’s the excitement coming from?” I asked him.

“Social justice types, mostly” he said. “Everyone you meet is a social worker or something. There are protests and movements. Stuff like that.”

Some years ago, this would have been music to my ears. Then I read Jane Jacobs.

When Max lays out his view of Toronto, he divides it into two categories: big business on the one hand and the social justice community on the other.

As a world view, this has problem. It sets up a dichotomy between big business and social justice. This founding distinction sets up a series of higher order distinctions:

conforming and individual
mass and micro
selfish and caring
bourgeois and street
complacent and engaged

This world view (city view?) puts economics and the marketplace city on the side of everything that is Scottish and Presbyterian about the city.

This is not the way everyone parses the city. Jane Jacobs, a long time resident of Toronto, is famous for supposing that the vitality of city life comes from the force of the economy.

Virginia Postrel sees the city as a “verge.” The dynamism of the city, she says, comes from the heterogeneity of the parties engaged there, the collision of their engagements, and the glorious messiness that must result. Cities are vital places in part because they create a verge called the marketplace in which conflicting aims and intentions meet, negotiate, redouble, and overflow.

Max sees the city as a conflict between two big ideas: capital and justice. Virginia sees it, perhaps as Hayek did, as a place in which an orderly disorder comes from heterogeneous parties pursuing separate projects in the unwitting creation of, now to quote Hayek, “a process more complex and extended that [they] could understand.” Isn’t this, the complex and extended, that most endears the city to us?

The real cost of Max’s worldview, I think, is that it discourages some people from full participation in the “verge” of city life. When we dichotomize the world in the Torontonian way we end up insisting that anyone with real intelligence and imagination must join the side of social justice and absent themselves from the marketplace. Worse than that, we commandeer their intelligence and imagination to engage in a pitched battle with the marketplace. This is simply tragic.

I have good news for the social justice camp. My trip this week to New York City to participate in “future forecasting” with three large enterprises reassures me that capitalism is newly appreciative of the dynamism of contemporary culture and it is now mobilizing to speak to this dynamism. If capitalism was ever the gray, conformist, conservative creature it is so often accused of being, this is about to change. I wonder if Toronto will ever get the news.


Hayek, Friedrich A. 1948. Individualism and Economic Order. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 13-14.

Jacobs, Jane. 1969. The Economy of Cities. New York: Vintage.

Postrel, Virginia. 1998. The Future and Its Enemies. New York: The Free Press, pp. 191-218.

2 thoughts on “Jane Jacob and the city she lives in

  1. Ian

    This is a pretty good summary of Toronto hipster culture, where it’s pretty unanimous that life is a zero-sum game and smugness is the rule. Good pubs, though.

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