Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Time Passages

By Mitchell

You know you're getting old when your heroes die; unfortunately, we don't make many of them anymore, and so their passing becomes that much more noticeable. Two more have left us in the last few days.

First off, Jane Jacobs died last week. I first heard of Jane Jacobs from Ric Burns' New York documentary series. (I'm not proud of the times when I learn my history from television, but there it is.) Jacobs came to prominence as a leader of the movement against Robert Moses and his destruction of New York City. Moses was a perfect villian for the documentary, and Jacobs was well-cast as the hero.

Jane Jacobs' most famous book was The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a book I can see on our bookshelves as I write this. She was one of the pioneers of what has come to be called the "New Urbanism," the movement to repopulate the inner cities and transform their character (for those urbanists among you out there, I'm well aware that this may not be a technically accurate definition of the New Urbanism, but I think it's a vital component when you consider the role that the urban neighborhood plays in the life of the city).

The legacy of Robert Moses lives on, and you can see it as you drive around Minneapolis - the swath cut by I-94 and 35W, the neighborhoods that reach to each other from across the freeways, never seeming to quite meet; the boarded-up houses, graffiti sprayed on the walls. In Richfield an entire city was split in two in the 60s by a freeway called "The Crosstown," leaving only two or three streets that carry all the way through the city. I only wish I'd read The Death and Life of Great American Cities before my term on the Planning Commission in Richfield; it might have changed the way I looked at a great many things.

The legacy of Jane Jacobs lives on as well, in the way designers have come to look at redevelopment. The gentrification of urban neighborhoods, the growth of mxixed-use housing, the desire to make the city a place that lives again - she played a large role in the creation of all that. And for those who think urban planning is strictly the province of the liberals, consider this from Sandy Ikeda's NRO appreciation of Jacobs:

One of the chapters of Life and Death, the one in which she coins the now-fashionable term "social capital," talks about the conditions in which city districts can use social ties to organize against the intrusions of government policies that would undermine those ties—and the precious personal connections that emerge from them.

It's one example of how Jacobs' philosophy helped shape the thought of people on all sides of the political spectrum.


Jane Jacobs was 90 when she died. Louis Rukeyser died, too young, of cancer at 73. I have tremendously fond memories of Louis Rukeyser, dating back to when I was 12 and first discovered Wall $treet Week. It was where I gained my first interest in economics and the stock market, but what I remember most is Rukeyser himself; his dry, wry wit, his pun-laden monologues at the start of the show, the endearing little smirk he would give that told his viewers that he and they both knew all this financial stuff wasn't rocket science, and it wasn't the end of the world.

When I hosted my cable-access talk show back in the late 90s, Louis Rukeyser was my role model. The droll delivery, the puns, the sly looks at the camera - all that came from him. It was a natural part of my own personality, which is what made Rukeyser appealing to me in the first place; but it was from him that I learned how to project it on the camera. A couple of guests said I reminded them of him, and I took that as one of the greatest compliments I could receive.

When Wall $treet Week first started, the market must have been around 700 or so; when Rukeyser left the show in 2002, it had topped 11,000. A lot happened during those years, but there was one thing that always remained consistent, and that was Louis Rukeyser. My campaign treasurer, Duane, was a devoted fan of W$W, and when Duane died in 2001 (on September 11, ironically), we spent the Friday night after the funeral in front of the TV. Friday was W$W night, and although we hadn't watched the show for a few years, we spent that evening in a silent toast to Duane, watching Louis Rukeyser one more time.

There's plenty of coverage of economics on TV now, but it's all shouting and posturing. There doesn't seem to be much room for the style and genuine wit of a Louis Rukeyser anymore, and we're the poorer for it; not only those of us who remember what style used to be like, but those who never got a chance to see it. Friday nights haven't been the same since he left the air, and now economics won't be the same, either.

Rest in peace, Jane Jacobs and Louis Rukeyser; thanks for the memories, and the work you left behind.

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