Jane Jacobs on foot

By Nicole Davis

If the name Jane Jacobs conjures just a vague notion of the urban activist, that’s all the more reason to get acquainted with her legacy during the city’s first “Jane’s Walk” series of tours this weekend. Begun last year in Toronto, where the Canadian-born Jacobs relocated after spending many years in the West Village, they make their debut here in time for the Municipal Arts Society exhibit, “Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York,” which opened Tuesday.

Six of the eight tours will be led by people who do not normally work as guides. But just as Jacobs herself was a self-taught city-planning scholar, that doesn’t make them any less qualified. “They’re not professional tour givers,” explains Jane’s Walk director Jane Farrow. “These are people who are locals who know their neighborhoods really well.” A few are well known themselves: New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, for instance, is leading a tour in the West Village with author Bill Bailey, and Dean Olsher, host of the WNYC program ‘The Next Big Thing,” will be leading one down Eleventh Street.

Some of the tours, like the “Miracle on Second Avenue” walk, will directly address Jacobs’ preservationist effect on neighborhoods like the East Village. Others are more idiosyncratic, and not at all typical of the “this building was built in 1907” brand of urban tours. Gopnik’s walk will take in the shops of Greenwich Ave., and the Atlantic Yards tour on Saturday will visit the future footprint of Bruce Ratner’s plan for Downtown Brooklyn. But each will reinforce some of Jacobs’ core beliefs, namely, that “a walkable city is a livable city,” says Farrow, and that mixed-use development is the key to keeping neighborhoods vibrant. “You don’t have to be an urban planner to get that basic connection you get when you walk around your neighborhood and [experience] that ‘sidewalk ballet’ that Jacobs talks about that is specific to different streets.”

The weekend tours are just a teaser of the expanded series of Jane’s Walks to come in May, when the high-profile tour leaders will be replaced by what Farrow calls “fabulous nobodies” — people who simply care about their ’hoods and want to share their appreciation. “It’s just a really great way for people to spend a few hours and connect to their neighborhoods.”

Local tours include one of the Eldridge Street Synagogue Sun. at 11 a.m., led by Roberta Brandes Gratz, chair of the Center for the Living City and a former colleague of Jacobs, and an East Village tour Sat. at noon by public historian Marci Reaven. To register for Gopnik’s tour (Sun. at 2 p.m.) and Olsher’s (Sun. at 4 p.m.), email director@janeswalk.net. Visit centerforthelivingcity.org for more info.