NEPA Scene Staff

Who is Jane Jacobs? The life story behind the citywide Observe Scranton festival on May 4-8

Who is Jane Jacobs? The life story behind the citywide Observe Scranton festival on May 4-8
Decrease Font Size Increase Font Size Text Size Print This Page

From a press release:

The inaugural Observe Scranton festival that is set for Tuesday, May 4 through Saturday, May 8 is a tribute to hometown hero Jane Jacobs, but who was this iconic city activist and how will her hometown celebrate what would have been her 105th birthday?

She was born Jane Butzner on May 4, 1916 in Scranton. She was one of five children; her parents were Bess Robison Butzner, a nurse, and John Decker Butzner, a prominent doctor. She attended Dunmore’s George Washington School and then Scranton’s Washington School in the School Admin Building. She became a student leader and poetry editor of the school magazine while at Scranton’s Central High. A devoted Girl Scout, she attained Eaglet rank. Choosing a newspaper internship at the Scranton Republican (later the Scranton Tribune) instead of college, she gained the respect of the reporters and editors.

Despite the Great Depression, she moved to New York City in 1934 to pursue a career as a writer. Although she became closely associated with Greenwich Village, among her early professional writing efforts was a successful effort to bring attention and industry to Scranton, which had been hit hard by the Depression. In 1943, the Chamber of Commerce and Scranton Tribune publicly expressed their gratitude for her part in boosting the city’s economy.

She became a feature writer for the Office of War Information, and then a reporter for Amerika, a publication of the U.S. State Department. While working there, she met Robert Hyde Jacobs Jr., a Columbia-educated architect who was designing warplanes for Grumman. They married in 1944. Together they had a daughter, Burgin, and two sons, James and Ned.

In 1961, she published her first major book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” whose seeds had germinated in Scranton and grown during her years in New York and travels around the United States. She had no formal training as a planner, and yet the book introduced groundbreaking ideas about how cities function, evolve, and fail. It continues to reach new audiences, change the way people see cities, and increase appreciation for diverse and vibrant neighborhoods.

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody,” she said in the book.

Jacobs organized grassroots efforts to protect neighborhoods from “urban renewal” and “slum clearance,” in particular plans by public official Robert Moses to overhaul her own Greenwich Village neighborhood. She was instrumental in the eventual cancellation of the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have passed directly through an area of Manhattan that later became known as SoHo, as well as part of Little Italy and Chinatown. She was arrested in 1968 for inciting a crowd at a public hearing on that project, and as a woman who criticized experts in the male-dominated field of urban planning, she endured scorn from established figures.

Jacobs and her family lived in Greenwich Village for decades, then moved to Toronto in 1968 where she continued her work on urbanism, economies, and social issues, joining the opposition to the Spadina Expressway and the associated network of expressways in Toronto that were planned and under construction.

She wrote eight more influential books, becoming a world-famous author. Her books on the life and design of cities, economics, ethics, and human civilization – all influenced by her hometown and translated into dozens of languages – are widely read by architects, city planners, urban designers, landscape architects, economists, politicians, sociologists, philosophers, and others who love cities around the world. The impact of her observations, writings, and activism has led to a “planning blueprint” for future generations to practice.

Jacobs saw cities as integrated systems that had their own logic and dynamism, which would change over time according to how they were used. With an eye for detail, she wrote eloquently about sidewalks, parks, retail design, and self-organization. She promoted higher density in cities, short blocks, local economies, and mixed uses. She helped derail the car-centered approach to urban planning in both New York and Toronto, invigorating neighborhood activism by helping stop the expansion of expressways and roads. A firm believer in the importance of local residents having input on how their neighborhoods develop, she encouraged people to familiarize themselves with the places where they live, work, and play.

She participated in and led history-making activist efforts in both New York and Toronto, but she never forgot Scranton. During the 1960s and ’70s, she was distraught about the demolition of Scranton’s Central Tech African American community, where some of her classmates and friends had lived. 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.

Launched by a group of activists, practitioners, and academics in 2005, the Center for the Living City holds the singular distinction of being the only urbanist organization founded in collaboration with Jane Jacobs. It has become a leading global urbanist organization; advancing social, environmental, and economic justice forms the core of its purpose. The center works to invite all perspectives, particularly those of the marginalized, to participate in the creation of solutions that are empathic, responsive, and community-based.

Jacobs died in Toronto Western Hospital on April 25, 2006 at the age of 89 after suffering what appeared to be a stroke. Upon her death, her family’s statement noted, “What’s important is not that she died but that she lived, and that her life’s work has greatly influenced the way we think. Please remember her by reading her books and implementing her ideas.”

Now, the Center for the Living City, in partnership with the Scranton Fringe Festival, is doing just that by planning a nearly week-long community festival celebrating Scranton through Jacobs’ eyes – there will even be giant black glasses placed on Courthouse Square like the pair she often wore.

Dubbed Observe Scranton, this new event running May 4 through May 8 will feature free community exhibits located all over the city in collaboration with the Lackawanna County Library System, Lackawanna College, Marywood University, the University of Scranton, the city of Scranton, and many private community-minded developers, organizations, and businesses.

Expect live music, First Friday exhibits, a book launch and signings, flag raising, history walks, and more, concluding with the return of the Scranton StorySlam. The life, work, and legacy of Jane Jacobs ties it all together, offering many ways to learn more about this local icon.

Observe Scranton events

Tuesday, May 4

10 a.m.: Festival kick-off with Jane Jacobs Day and flag raising
Location: Scranton City Hall (340 N. Washington Ave., Scranton) and virtual stream

Join Scranton Mayor Paige Cognetti and the Center for the Living City for the inaugural Jane Jacobs Day proclamation, a day of community conversations and gatherings, and the Jane Jacobs flag raising on what would have been her 105th birthday.

6:30 p.m.: Book launch for “Jane Jacobs’s First City: Learning from Scranton, Pennsylvania”
Location: Theater at Lackawanna College (501 Vine St., Scranton)
Tickets: Free via Eventbrite

Author Glenna Lang will give a slide presentation to celebrate the publication of her new book, “Jane Jacobs’s First City: Learning from Scranton, Pennsylvania,” by New Village Press on Jacobs’s 105th birthday at Lackawanna College, formerly Scranton Central High School, which Jacobs attended. Special guests will include Scranton Mayor Paige Cognetti, architect John Cowder, and Center for the Living City Director Maria MacDonald.

Ticketed but free, this lecture is part of the Center for the Living City’s Jane Jacobs Lecture Series.

Wednesday, May 5

2 p.m.: Jane Jacobs Walk – explore the historic Forest Hill Cemetery and find who in “Jane Jacobs’s First City” is buried there
Location: Forest Hill Cemetery (1830 Jefferson Ave., Dunmore), meeting outside the cemetery caretaker’s office

Join cemetery caretaker and archivist Norma Reese for a fascinating tour of Scranton’s first landscaped cemetery, founded in 1870. Within the beautiful grounds overlooking the city, you will be introduced to some of the 18,000 people laid to rest. African Americans and Caucasians, coal barons and miners, and immigrants from the world over have always been buried side by side here. The author of “Jane Jacobs’s First City,” Glenna Lang, will join the walk.

5:15 p.m.: Jane Jacobs Walk – the architecture and history of Lackawanna Avenue in Central City
Location: The Marketplace at Steamtown (300 Lackawanna Ave., Scranton), meeting outside the front entrance

Architect and local historian Richard Leonori will lead a several block walk along Scranton’s main downtown street, laid out as part of the original plan for the city in the 1850s. He will discuss the origins of its beautiful historic buildings and the efforts to preserve and restore them. The author of “Jane Jacobs’s First City,” Glenna Lang, will accompany him. A book signing follows immediately afterward.

6:15 p.m.: “Jane Jacobs’s First City” book signing
Location: Library Express Bookstore at The Marketplace at Steamtown Mall (300 Lackawanna Ave., Scranton, second floor)

Immediately following the Jane Jacobs Walk, join author Glenna Lang for a reading of passages from “Jane Jacobs’s First City” and book signing. Sales from Library Express Bookstore benefit the Lackawanna County Library System.

6 p.m.-7:30 p.m.: Community Conversation: A Scranton City Dialogue
Location: Virtual event on Zoom

The University of Scranton, together with city partners, will host a Jane Jacobs-inspired community conversation focusing on questions and themes she raised in a seminal 1987 letter to the city about “What Scranton is, has been, and can be.” This event will involve small group-facilitated dialogues via Zoom.

Thursday, May 6

5:30 p.m.: Book reading with Glenna Lang and community members in Scranton
Location: Lackawanna County Courthouse (200 N. Washington Ave., Scranton), outdoors across from the Electric City sign

Accompanied by special guests, author Glenna Lang will provide an outdoor book reading of “Jane Jacobs’s First City,” followed by an audience Q&A and book signing.

Friday, May 7

5 p.m.-9 p.m.: First Friday #ObserveScranton
Location: Downtown Scranton

First Friday Scranton features a wide variety of cultural events found in some of the city’s best restaurants and cafes, as well as galleries, boutiques, and other small businesses. All events associated with First Friday take place from 5 p.m.-9 p.m. in a walkable, close-knit footprint, though a trolley bus is available to provide shuttle service at designated stops. First Friday serves as a conduit to artists, connecting them to prospective venues, art lovers seeking entertainment, and venues looking to attract new customers. For over 10 years, First Friday Scranton has been a foundational event fostering growth and supporting local businesses and the arts in downtown Scranton.

5 p.m.-9 p.m.: Observe Scranton exhibits

Full descriptions are listed below the event schedule.

Saturday, May 8

10 a.m.-11 a.m.: Jane Jacobs Walk – walking in the footsteps of Jane Butzner (Jacobs)
Location: Jane Jacobs’ childhood home (1712 Monroe Ave., Dunmore)

Architect and longtime Dunmorean John Cowder will retrace Jacobs’ routes to her neighborhood school, the potato chip factory in the alley, and other mom and pop stores she and her family and friends frequented. Discover some commercial sites and many homes still in existence today and learn about those that did not survive the ravages of time. Stories and information from participating walkers will be most welcome. The author of “Jane Jacobs’s First City,” Glenna Lang, will join the walk.

Noon-8 p.m.: Observe Scranton exhibits

Full descriptions are listed below the event schedule.

7 p.m.: Observe Scranton StorySlam with Scranton Fringe
Location: North Washington Avenue, Scranton
Tickets: $12 via Eventbrite

A major part of the Observe Scranton week of programming is the return of the Scranton StorySlam. This unique program, produced by the Scranton Fringe Festival, will take place outside in downtown Scranton. Tickets are required. Doors open at 6 p.m., and the show starts at 7 p.m.

The Scranton Storyslam has been a popular recurring event within Northeastern Pennsylvania, starting with its first slam in March of 2012 and becoming part of the Scranton Fringe Festival’s year-round arts programming in the spring of 2016. The events feature some of the Electric City’s most colorful characters in a head-to-head storytelling competition that gives a platform to the voices of individuals from across the region. Scranton StorySlam has been on a hiatus since 2019, so organizers are excited to bring this event back to Scranton in a COVID-safe outdoor environment.

Scranton StorySlam is a celebration of diverse voices, welcoming all to share their stories of triumph, disappointment, humor, and heartbreak with our supportive audiences. The joy of a StorySlam is that any kind of story can be spun within the theme. Stories can range from pants-peeing hilarity to soul-wrenching heartbreak. Within the framework of (approximately) five-minute true, firsthand stories, StorySlams are an irresistible fusion of theatre, memoir, and documentary art.

The theme for this particular Scranton StorySlam is, naturally, Observing Scranton. Anyone interested in being considered for a featured storyteller is encouraged to email

Observe Scranton exhibits

Exhibit hours: Friday, May 7 from 5 p.m.-9 p.m. and Saturday, May 8 from noon-8 p.m., unless otherwise noted

Illustrating “Death and Life of Great American Cities” – A Creative Response to Diversity, Equity, and Social Justice in Urban Design
Location: Bank Towers Building (321 Spruce St., Scranton)

Curated by students from the School of Architecture at Marywood University under the direction of Professors Dr. Miguel A. Calvo Salve and Russel B. Roberts, this exhibit will be a visual expression of the problems of city planning and the strategies planners followed throughout most of the 20th century. The relevance, importance, and implication of this project has never been more necessary to the fields of urban planning and design in 2021 given the political and social unrest in our country. They hope these illustrations lead to a greater understanding of these complex issues.

Marywood University’s Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Campus Center provided support for this exhibit.

Electric Jane – Attached Housing AH – Solar Decathlon
Location: Fancy Parsley (233 Oakford Court, Scranton)

Many people know of Scranton as the home of “The Office,” an immensely popular television comedy. More recently, Scranton made headlines as President Joe Biden’s “working class” birthplace. Built above hundreds of coal mines, Scranton is also known as the “Electric City” for its early adoption and widespread use of electric street lights and interior lighting powered by the local mining industry. As in many so-called Rust Belt cities, income and populations have declined steadily in the last century with the collapse of mining and manufacturing jobs. Vacant buildings have been torn down, leaving neighborhoods dotted with ecologically and socially detrimental surface parking lots.

Gritty, tough, and funny, Scranton also gave birth to tenacious urban activist Jane Jacobs. Through her influential protests and widely read books such as “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” Jacobs upended prevailing attitudes about urban renewal, shifting the focus from large-scale developments to what works for city-dwellers – diverse neighborhoods, front porches or stoops, and eyes on the street.

Curated by Jodi LacCoe and Lizz Andrzejewski, this exhibit demonstrates plans to revitalize Scranton’s residential neighborhoods by infilling vacant lots with affordable, net-zero-energy rowhouses that integrate Passive House principles for energy efficiency, improve conditions for Scranton’s blighted flora and fauna, and provide desirable, safe, functional, and healthy homes to sustain families in a vibrant community.

Celebrating Inclusion: A Retrospective
Location: 518 Lackawanna Ave., Scranton

Curated by Michelle Pannone, Kate O’Connor, and the Tau Sigma Delta Honor Society for Architecture and Allied Arts, this exhibit aims to promote awareness within Marywood University’s student body through research and presentation. This topic emerges from society’s current advocacy and need for awareness of minorities in the profession of architecture and the allied disciplines. As a result, we aspire to create awareness and advocacy for increased inclusiveness, diversity, fellowship, equity, and excellence in design.

Marywood University’s Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Campus Center provided support for this exhibit.

How Can Future Designers Empower Youth Through These Four Lenses? Racial Injustices, Sexual Identity, Mental Health, Gender Equality
Location: 518 Lackawanna Ave., Scranton

Placing empathy at the center of design, the competition brief prompted students to discuss and consider how architecture can act as a mediator for advocacy. The brief asked students to use their design thinking skills to respond to the statement, “How can future designers empower youth through one of the following lenses: racial injustices, sexual identity, mental health, or gender equality?”

Curated by Michelle Pannone, Kate O’Connor, and the Tau Sigma Delta Honor Society for Architecture and Allied Arts, this exhibit features eight unique community discussions, with both fact and experience-based exposure informing the conversations taking place with each design team as they worked together throughout the week. The student body submitted more than 100 thoughtful entries that were reviewed by an invited jury.

Scranton Lace and the Center for the Living City
Location: Radisson Lackawanna Station Hotel lobby and lounge (700 Lackawanna Ave., Scranton)

Senior interior architecture students in the self-titled “The Observation and Empathy Studio” spent a comprehensive year studying the redesign and reweaving of Scranton Lace, a century-old complex at the edge of downtown Scranton along the Lackawanna River.

By understanding how Jane Jacobs developed her powerful observational skills, the students gained new knowledge about cities. These elements include those which may cause concern or joy, inform a sense of history, address problems of housing, mobility, food justice, access to education, or a host of other problems witnessed through their observations. With their design thinking, students propose ways to preserve, celebrate, heal, or transform an area they discovered. In each case, their discoveries open pathways for creative action and a working vocabulary of the ecology of cities. Guided by the Center for the Living City, each student developed skills through the powers of observation, empathy, and action to identify a community stakeholder. The resulting work, curated by Maria MacDonald, is an empathetic response to interior architecture.

Dwell: Global Settlements
Location: Stoehr & Fister Building (200 Adams Ave., Scranton)

Curated by James Eckler, Lizz Andrzejewski, and Liyang Ding, third-year architecture students of the Marywood University School of Architecture examine informal settlements of the world to explore place, identity, customs, and the politics of representation. They study everyday practices of people living in settlements existing outside legal constraints to find critical connections between architectural space and ritual.

These animations represent the first steps in a line of inquiry seeking strategies that position architecture as a source of empowerment for communities often marginalized or forgotten. They will use this research to advance an agenda that develops without erasure, that provides economic capital without displacing populations, that enfranchises communities without homogenizing neighborhoods.

Camp Archbald and Girl Scouting 100 Years
Location: Lackawanna County Children’s Library (520 Vine St., Scranton)
Special exhibit hours: Opening Friday, May 7 from 5 p.m.-8 p.m., other hours during normal library hours on Monday-Thursday from 9 a.m.-7 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5 p.m.-9 p.m.

Supporters of Camp Archbald (SoCA) celebrate the 100th anniversary of Camp Archbald, the second oldest Girl Scout camp in continuous operation within the United States. To showcase this anniversary, the group has put together a collection of Girl Scout and Camp Archbald memorabilia. Curated by Kate Crowley, this collection features the rich history of Girl Scouts and Camp Archbald.

Many of the pieces in this collection show that a girl’s experience at Camp Archbald, whether in 1920 or 2020, has a profound experience on the rest of her life, as it did for Jane (Butzner) Jacobs and her sister, Betty. Most of the display items are on loan from current SoCA members. The collection’s oldest item, a journal from a former camper about her adventures at camp, dates to 1930. Other items include camp guides, postcards, pictures, and mess kits. The Children’s Library is the perfect place to share with everyone the last 100 years of fun and leadership at Camp Archbald.

Interactive Exhibit: South Scranton and the Silk Mills
Location: Observe Scranton Headquarters (536 Spruce St., Scranton)
Special exhibit hours: Friday, May 7 from 5 p.m.-9 p.m.

Curated by the University of Scranton, share your thoughts about the past, present, and future of Scranton during First Friday.

Location: 343 N. Washington Ave., Scranton

Industrial advancement grew quickly in the early 19th century across the Great Lakes region through western New York and into Pennsylvania. Scranton’s economy prospered with immigrants coming to work within coal mines and new industrial factories. As the population grew, the workers settled into towns and developed neighborhoods with strong connections to community. The towns grew until the mid-to-late-1900s when factory owners outsourced work for cheaper compensation, new global competitors, and technology changes began to restructure and factories closed down within the small towns. The Rust Belt industry then inherited its name due to the large scale buildings decaying overtime. These industrial buildings not only were places of work, they represented new beginnings, hope, and brought a connection for their new communities. They were engineered for tough, long lives and they make a great starting point for new uses.

The third year interior architecture studio selected the silk industry that, along with coal and iron, made Scranton so prosperous. The students researched and diagrammed how the silk industry once operated in these large scale buildings. They studied the physical, emotional, and psychological effects the workers went through after the industry left the area and how the community changed after these industrial buildings once filled with people were now abandoned. The students wanted to understand the layers of the past, the industry, the development, and the people. They selected the site, 300 Brook Street, where the Lackawanna Mills, a prominent former silk factory, was once located to investigate and respond to. This studio has sought to come up with an intervention or architectural response that must not necessarily be seen as a building or object, but as a series of experiences and opportunities within the abandoned factory. The semester goal is to bring the community a developed program of gathering spaces, residential living, and a chosen wellness rituals that can be seen as a catalyst for revitalization within the city of Scranton. Curated by Catherine Armezzani, the idea is to “weave” community and wellness back into South Scranton after all of these years.

Photo of Jane Jacobs by Phil Stanziola, retrieved from the Library of Congress