Jane’s Dance

In the middle of a breezy, pleasant spring afternoon, a cross-section of Chicago–small children, college students, retired grandparents–gathered under the dappled sunlight reflected off the South Loop’s towering skyscrapers. It was Chicago’s first-ever Jane’s Walk, held in honor of Jane Jacobs, an urban reform activist and author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Over the weekend, groups such as this one converged for community-centered architectural tours in Humboldt Park, Hyde Park, and over one hundred cities in twenty-two countries around the world, from Slovenia to Mexico. The walk is meant to connect these thousands of individuals across the globe through conversation, exploration, and celebration of their respective cities.

Jane Jacobs spent her life advocating urban planning that fosters the natural evolution of communities and a healthy turnover of populations. For Jacobs, street activity best works as an intricate “ballet,” with distinct parts coming together to form a unique whole. “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody,” she wrote.

The tour guide began by noting how the South Loop’s street environment has drastically changed over time. While it is now a diverse, largely residential community, the South Loop used to be an epicenter of railroads. Before that, it was home to a cluster of printing houses. Before that, it was one of the most notorious red-light districts in the city.

Architecture in the South Loop speaks to this patchworked past; old printing houses now serve as apartments, Dearborn Station has been converted into a retail center, and benches are adorned with printing-type letters and mosaics.

As the participants walked the streets from the South Loop to Printer’s Row, they added their own improvisations to the ballet, discussing the ways they could create a better living space. At a small park–an oasis of green grass and trees nestled between two busy streets–they stopped to talk about how to make it safer and more accessible for young children. “My children learned how to walk here,” said one father, while his small son clung shyly to his legs. “I want other children to be safe, too.”

Their contributions embodied Jane Jacobs’ belief that a city lives with its own distinct voices and visions–one concert hall playing host to a chorus of sidewalk ballets.