President Joe Biden may be the most famous person ever born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, but the late writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs still gets her share of attention.
This spring, Jacobs’ admirers in Scranton and elsewhere are taking advantage of her status as a city native by planning a nearly-weeklong celebration of her life and legacy.
The citywide Observe Scranton festival, intended to celebrate Scranton and Jacobs with exhibits and events both in-person and online, will run from May 4, which would have been Jacob’s 105th birthday, through May 8.
“Join us for a weeklong community festival celebrating Scranton through the eyes of Jane Jacobs, its hometown iconic city activist,” organizers said in announcing the first-ever event.
Planned by The Center for the Living City and the Scranton Fringe Festival, the celebration includes the launch of a new book from New Village Press about Jacobs and Scranton entitled Jane Jacobs’s First City: Learning from Scranton, Pennsylvania, by Glenna Lang.
There will also be scholarly exhibits on urban design issues that Jacobs wrote about, community conversations, readings from Jacobs’ work, bike rides, a ‘StorySlam,’ and three of Jacobs’ patented ‘Jane’s Walks,’ including a guided tour of the neighborhood where she grew up. A giant pair of black glasses, like the ones Jacobs wore, will be displayed on Courthouse Square, symbolizing her advocacy for “eyes on the street.”
Participants include the Lackawanna County Library System, Lackawanna College, Marywood University, the University of Scranton, and the City of Scranton, as well as private developers and other businesses. Scranton Mayor Paige Cognetti will also proclaim May 4 “Jane Jacobs Day.”
It’s an ambitious tribute to the former Jane Butzner, one of five children of Bess Robison Butzner, a nurse, and John Decker Butzner, a doctor. After attending public schools and interning for the local newspaper, she moved to New York City in 1934 to pursue a writing career.
Jacobs is most famous for The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961 and considered one of the most influential books on urban planning written in the 20th century. She wrote other influential books about economics, ethics, and human civilization. A champion of urban living, she famously battled with power broker Robert Moses to protect Washington Square and other parts of New York City from demolition or inappropriate redevelopment.
Jacobs argued that cities are about people, not buildings. Sixty years after it was published, The Death and Life of Great American Cities is still widely read and discussed by architects, urban planners, preservationists and others who love cities. That’s especially remarkable because Jacobs had no formal training in urban planning or design.
“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody only because, and only when, they are created for everybody,” she wrote in the 1961 book.
Though she moved from Scranton to New York during the Great Depression and moved again to Canada in the late 1960s so her son wouldn’t be drafted to serve in the Vietnam War, Jacobs “never forgot Scranton,” according to The Center for the Living City.
“During the 1960s and ’70s, Jane was distraught about the demolition of Scranton’s Central-Tech African American community, where some of her classmates and friends had lived,” the Center’s website states. “In 1987, she wrote a letter about her beloved Scranton, imploring the powers-that-were not to destroy part of Lackawanna Avenue for a shopping mall. A stone marker on the grounds of the Lackawanna County Courthouse now celebrates her devotion to her first city.”
The Center for the Living City was launched in 2005 by a mix of professionals, academics, and activists. Working globally to address social, environmental, and economic issues that affect cities, it’s the only urbanist organization founded in collaboration with Jane Jacobs, who died in 2006.
The Scranton Fringe Festival is an affiliate of an international organization that promotes “alternative” or “fringe” performing arts festivals around the world. It started in 1947 in Scotland as a festival that took place ‘round the fringe’ of the Edinburgh International Festival and spread to other cities.
Incorporated as a borough in 1856 and as a city in 1866, Scranton is the seventh-largest city in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In recent years it has gotten a reputation as an economically depressed city, largely because it was depicted that way in the American TV version of The Office, as home to a branch office of the fictional Dunder Mifflin Paper Company. When he ran for president, Biden pointed to his birthplace as a sign of his working-class roots but said his family had to move away from the area to find work.
It was not always as economically depressed. Starting with its incorporation and extending into the 1940s, Scranton prospered because it was part of a mining region that was rich in anthracite, the so-called “hard” coal that was in demand because it contained fewer impurities than other types, making it “cleaner burning.”
Because anthracite was the least plentiful form of coal in the country and northeastern Pennsylvania was one of the few areas that had it in abundance, Scranton and neighboring Wilkes-Barre were to the coal industry what Houston later became to the oil industry.
In its heyday, the region was home to many business leaders who hired the best architects from New York and Philadelphia to design homes, churches, social halls, and other public buildings. In the 1880s, Scranton was dubbed the “Electric City” for its early adoption and widespread use of electric street lights and interior lighting powered by the mining industry.
Over the last century, Scranton’s economy suffered from the loss of mining and manufacturing jobs. Its population dropped from a peak of 143,433 in the 1930 census to 75,925 in the 2020 census. As in many Rust Belt cities, vacant buildings have been torn down, leaving neighborhoods dotted with parking lots.
Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, and the tourist town of Jim Thorpe were the subjects of a study tour organized several years ago by the Victorian Society in America. Many of Scranton’s most impressive buildings have survived, tour leaders noted, because the area’s economic decline after World War II meant there wasn’t as much pressure from developers to tear down historically significant buildings for new construction as there has been in more bustling East Coast cities such as New York and Philadelphia.
The schedule for Observe Scranton includes:
- Tuesday, May 4: Festival kick-off with Scranton Mayor Paige Cognetti in City Hall issuing a proclamation naming May 4 “Jane Jacobs Day”; a flag raising, and a book launch and slide lecture at Lackawanna College for Lang’s book, Jane Jacobs’s First City: Learning from Scranton, Pennsylvania. The site of Lang’s talk is the former high school that Jacobs attended. Guests will include Mayor Cognetti, architect John Cowder and Center for the Living City Director Maria MacDonald.
- Wednesday, May 5: A Jane Jacobs Walk exploring historic Forest Hill Cemetery, with caretaker and archivist Norma Reese and Lang leading a tour of Scranton’s first landscaped cemetery; a Jane Jacobs Walk exploring the architecture and history of Lackawanna Avenue in Central City, led by architect and historian Richard Leonori; a book signing for “Jane Jacobs’s First City” in the Library Express Bookstore at The Marketplace at Steamtown Mall, and a Community Conversation about Scranton on Zoom. The University of Scranton is hosting the Zoom event, which will focus on questions and themes that Jacobs raised in her1987 letter to the city about “What Scranton is, has been, and can be.” Sales from the event at the Library Express Bookstore will benefit the Lackawanna County Library System.
- Thursday, May 6: An outdoor book reading with Lang, followed by a Q&A session and book signing.
- Friday, May 7: First Friday Scranton, a series of cultural events in downtown restaurants, cafes, galleries, boutiques, and other businesses.
- Saturday, May 8: A third Jane Jacobs Walk, this time to her old neighborhood and her childhood home at 1712 Monroe Avenue in Dunmore, led by architect John Cowder. Participants will retrace the route she took to school and see the potato chip factory near the Butzner house and other stores the family patronized. Stories and information from participating walkers will be welcome. The Observe Scranton StorySlam, an outdoor, ticketed event, will take place in the event, organized around the theme of “Observing Scranton.”
The festival will include nine exhibits in locations such as Kenneth Murchison’s historic Lackawanna train station, now a Radisson hotel. Many of them focus on ways to revitalize Scranton, with topics ranging from infill housing that uses Passive House principles for energy efficiency to plans for redeveloping the former Scranton Lace curtain factory, a century-old industrial complex near downtown Scranton along the Lackawanna River.
One exhibit will examine the ways designers can empower youth through the lenses of racial justice, sexual identity, mental health, and gender equality, and how “architecture can act as a mediator for advocacy.” Another focuses on urban design that “responds to today’s goals for Diversity, Equity, and Social Justice.” Participants include students and faculty from Marywood University, the University of Scranton, and the Center for the Living City, among others.
A full list of events and exhibits is available at https://observescranton.org