Woo Voice #10: Joyce Mandell, The Original Jane Jacobs In The Woo

In honor of urban theorist and activist, Jane Jacobs’ 100th birthday last May 2016, Joyce Mandell dusted off her computer keyboard, stretched out her typing fingers and opened up a Squarespace account for a new website that she named, “Jane Jacobs in the Woo”.  Her commitment was to blog for one full year about her home city, Worcester, Massachusetts.  Here were some driving questions:  How would Jane Jacobs view Worcester’s development from our past choices of action to our potential future course?  What would the ghost of Jane Jacobs say or do if she arrived by train at Union Station?  And how can Worcesterites collectively engage in conversations and actions to build an organic, lively, people-centric, inclusive city inspired by the building blocks outlined so well by Jane Jacobs?

Now that the one year of “Jane Jacobs in the Woo” is complete, Joyce reflects on this concentrated period of writing and activism:

Public policy group talking "Jane" with City Manager Ed Augustus in April 2017

Public policy group talking "Jane" with City Manager Ed Augustus in April 2017

Why “Jane Jacobs in the Woo”:  Some people have asked me why I started this project.  There was no clear goal I had in mind at the beginning.  I knew I wanted to do something to honor Jane Jacobs whose writings have inspired my community development work and my view of cities for over twenty years.  As a former urban studies professor, I have orchestrated important debates and mentored student projects focused on ways to revitalize Worcester and other mid-sized gateway cities.  The website seemed like an opportunity to widen the circle of conversation to people in the community outside of the traditional classroom.  I wanted the website to serve as a large community-based urban studies seminar.

By far, the most intriguing reason for Jane Jacobs in the Woo was to answer the question: Could one person spark a mini-revolution just by putting pen to paper and then posting on the World Wide Web?  In my work as a community organizer, I was used to the tried- and- true methods of building a winning movement – the slow and careful relationship building through one-on-one conversations at homes and coffee shops, the door knocking to meet new people and then the mobilization of committed people to make a change.  The phone was always a tool in my work.  I still have the phone roster list of a nuclear freeze campaign I organized in the 1980s! 

Yet now social media has emerged as a method that is even more potentially powerful for an activist to use in the work of community organizing.  Think of all the large social movements that have grown in the past five years or more – the Arab Spring, Occupy Movement, Black Lives Matter, the Tea Party for example – and one can see how social media played a key role in disseminating information widely AND quickly and created avenues for collective action.  For me, Jane Jacobs in the Woo was set up as a mini-experiment to test the efficacy of Internet communication in building a social change movement. 

One of my favorite murals brings me back to the hint of the past shtetl on Water Street

One of my favorite murals brings me back to the hint of the past shtetl on Water Street

Surprises: I was surprised by so much – how far the blog traveled beyond the borders of Worcester and how challenging it was to get a critical mass of readers.  Some of the posts made their way around the world to Africa, Europe, India.  The blog also at different times was featured not only by many local media sources but also Strong Towns, a national movement of over 20,000 members dedicated to building fiscally responsible cities and towns. Some of the posts I never thought would go viral actually did.  It was a kick to know that almost 6000 people visited the website and blog during the year.  In the world of social media, 6,000 may not be a large number but I was thrilled.  I’m used to publishing articles in academic journals that people barely read!

In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell outlines the process of how yesterday’s unknown cause, behavior, product becomes today’s latest “thing”.  If one wants to create the groundwork for a social epidemic, then one can turn to three types of people to spread the word – the connectors (people who have 2000 or more social media friends and take pleasure in connecting them up), the mavens (people who know subjects deeply so that others rely on them for information) and salespeople (charismatic types who know how to sell an idea or concept).  As an introvert, I knew at the very beginning of this project that if I wanted to bring “Jane” to full-fledged movement status, I would have to find others in my network who could make connections, provide more information and get people excited about the ideas.  I was lucky to have found a fair share of connectors, mavens and salespeople who spread the word.  They know who they are out there!  Any “tipping” of Jane this past year is due in large part to the people in the network who were inspired by the ideas and joined in together online, in the public policy group formed last summer or in all the face-to-face events of Jane Week this month.

Kyla, John and Paul talk "Jane" on WICN's Business Beat

Kyla, John and Paul talk "Jane" on WICN's Business Beat

 Thank Yous:  This may be very strange to hear but I consider myself somewhat of a Neo-luddite, kicking and screaming my way into reliance on technology for just about everything these days including social connection.  I’m somewhat shocked and in awe of the power of social media to spread ideas and bring people together.  At the same time, I miss the slow pace of relationship building, long meandering conversations over tea at the local cafes or even on the phone.  I miss getting REAL letters in the mail and getting to know people not only through the words on the page but the shape of the handwritten cursive. I miss silence and solitude, untethered daydreaming and present moments so challenging to find in a time when we feel the need to be constantly “plugged in”.  This past year’s journey was worth it because of the real face-to-face friendships that I was blessed to have made in the city and away from the keyboard.  For me, online acquaintances are only frosting of the cake of “real time and place” friends, people I can see, touch, hear. 

I want to offer thank you to the key people I met through the blog and then became friends with in person:

·       Paul Dell’Aquila and I first met for coffee at Lock 50 last summer and pondered, “Hey, what if we get all our friends together to see if we can make something happen?”  We did and out of that coffee date, a public policy group was formed bringing together historic preservationists, walk bike advocates, neighborhood development, open space and urban design enthusiasts.  I consider Paul to be the “Jane” co-pilot of the policy group and of Jane Week this past May.

·       I have a deep respect for Deborah Packard of Preservation Worcester and her ability to walk the fine line between collaboration, consensus building and organizing resistance to flawed ideas.

·        Susan Ceccacci of Preservation Worcester knows how to put a fine walking tour together. The Jane Walks during Jane Week were in part so successful due to her work with the docents from Preservation Worcester. 

·       Jerry Powers (WalkBike Worcester) first introduced me to the idea of “Complete Streets”. He was brave enough to accompany me for over two hours on a cold winter day on a walk starting from Union Station to identify places for wayfinding signs.

·       Casey Starr, feisty, direct and refreshingly honest, smart as heck, committed to neighborhoods and great public green spaces, made me miss my CDC days. 

·       The only person I knew prior to “Jane” was Allen Fletcher who over twenty years ago was the one to introduce me to the ideas of Jane Jacobs.  Before I ever put pen to paper, Allen and I discussed this project over dinner at El Patron. “You’ve got to show people what you mean,” he advised me, “Show people a photo of Mechanics Hall and how mixed use activates the street.”  I hope I have honored his advice this past year and demonstrated the concepts in a way that readers could really see and then understand. 

·       Ruth Seward (Worcester Tree Initiative) and Deb Carey (Mass Audubon/Broad Meadow Brook) who spoke for the trees, good open spaces and parks rounded out our public policy group.

·       Kyla Pacheco will always be my favorite “one to watch” millennial.  I am in awe of her energy, her ability to juggle a million placemaking projects and her dedication to building great neighborhoods based on new urbanist principles.  I loved working with Kyla!

·       Mark Henderson of the Worcester Sun and Steve Jones-D’Agostino who hosts WICN’s Business Beat were key media partners and helped spread the word about “Jane”.

·       Chuck Marohn of the national movement, Strong Towns, reprinted several articles and posts.  It was an honor to be interviewed for the Strong Towns podcast and to engage in real conversation with Chuck.  A hearty thanks to the work of Strong Towns that provides us local activists with the facts and theoretical frameworks to advocate for a “Strong Towns” approach.

·       John Giangregorio gave me plenty of laughs during our omelet breakfasts at the Broadway.  Paul Cooney is the sweetest, most passionate online and offline cheerleader of “Jane” and the new urbanist way.  John and Paul were definite connectors and salespeople during the year especially during our coordinated effort to get-out-the-vote for Crompton Place in Strong Towns’ Strongest Infrastructure contest last November.

·       City Councilor Moe Bergman introduced the resolution before city council to declare the week of May 1 – 7, 2017, “Jane Jacobs in the Woo” Week.

·       Joy Alexander, graphic designer extraordinaire, created the “Jane Jacobs in the Woo” logo and the Jane Week logo.  The success of Jane Week is due in large part to her professional, playful design of the brochure.

·       The greatest thank you goes to my husband, parenting partner and best friend, Michael Kantrowitz who supports and encourages all my out-of-the-box ideas.  It’s helpful to have an in-house computer expert.  However, what I most value about Mike is that he believed in my capacity to learn the technical aspects of blogging on my own.  Now I really own this success.

Nancy McBride's painting of her aunt, Jane Jacobs!

Nancy McBride's painting of her aunt, Jane Jacobs!

 A Final Confession: When I first moved to Worcester to work at Oak Hill CDC, I thought Worcester would be like the Peace Corps.  I would put in my two years and then move back to civilization!  More than twenty years later, I’m still here with a home and mortgage, kids and a darn lawn. My confession is this:  I’ve never really liked living here.  I wanted to live in a walkable, bike-able, dense and lively city like Boston from where I came.  It’s a horrible existence to wish you were living somewhere else – that somehow another place has to be better than where you are.  I didn’t want to live another twenty years wishing the time away until I could move. 

Maybe that was another impetus for the blog.  STOP!  Instead of complaining of Worcester’s lacks, let me make a commitment to THIS place.  Let me really BE HERE and play even a small role in instigating a change to make it the place I wish it could be.  Then something strange happened during the year.  Once I made the commitment to be here in this city and stake a claim in its evolution, I started to find all its hidden treasures in the stories of the people I interviewed for WooVoices, in the new restaurants I tried, in the hidden streets and the DIY skateboard park of Worcide, in the old historic buildings that have been creatively reused, in the cool fabric store at the Midtown Mall, on the neighborhood walking tours during Jane Week.  Sometime during this blogging year, I actually fell in love with Worcester!  I am reminded of Melissa Blacker’s wise words during the very first WooVoice interview last spring:

What Zen has to offer is a real appreciation of what is really here, that what is here is what you get to work with.  Even though we might want a thriving downtown, it isn’t what we have. So somehow to learn how to appreciate what IS here.  Worcester is like a jewel but it is buried.  You have to be willing to do the work to dig it up.  This appreciation of what is here and the willingness to enjoy the parts that are now enjoyable… there is something about meeting the present moment with enjoyment and appreciation that allows a positive change to start moving.
— Melissa Blacker, WooVoice #1

A Final Story

Stories sometimes have the power to wake one up to a deeper truth.  As my friends all know, I love to tell stories.  So, I leave you with one last teaching tale handed down by a Hasidic master so long ago:

This story is about Reb Eizik who lived with his family in Cracow, Poland. Every night, he had a recurring dream that a treasure was to be found under a bridge near the king’s palace in Prague.  He couldn’t get this dream out of his mind and finally, thrilled with the promise of treasure, he made the long, hard journey to Prague to find his prize.  He did find the place of the bridge he saw in his dreams.  Yet, day and night, guards watched over the bridge.  What was he to do?  Finally, Reb Eizek decided to tell the guard the truth about his dreams and the treasure under the bridge. 

After Reb Eiken’s confession, the guard burst out laughing and challenged Reb Eiken questioning his naïve belief in dreams.  Then the guard shared the dream he had had the night before.  He had dreamt that a treasure was to be found underneath the stove in a house of a man called Eiken in the city of Cracow.  Upon hearing the guard’s dream, Reb Eiken rushed home and dug the dirt under his very own stove to find the gleaming glitter of gems underneath.  If only he had known that the treasure he was looking for was with him all along!  Too often, we think the treasure is somewhere else, not in the very spot where we are now.  And now here is the truth:  The treasure is right here if you can only stop and dig to find it.


What’s Next: I’m planning on morphing the blog into a podcast for the upcoming fall. The audio format will give people a chance to listen to the voices of local change makers and Jane types. I’m also anticipating continued work on policy issues in Worcester – organizing a grassroots campaign for Worcester to adopt a Complete Streets policy, pushing for design review regulations for future development projects, creating mechanisms to increase civic participation in development decisions.  I have a venue for my writing with some of the local papers.  Worcester Sun has been a special friend.  It’s been a great year delving into some of the most creative work of my career.  For now, it’s time for new directions.  This blog is ready to go into Joyce’s file.