Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

citizenjane-rev Citizen Jane: Battle for the City  (2017)    IFC Films/Documentary    RT: 92 minutes    No MPAA rating (some language)    Director: Matt Tyrnauer    Music: Jane Antonia Cornish    Cinematography: Chris Dapkins, Nick Higgins and Paul Morris    Release date: May 5, 2017 (Philadelphia, PA)

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 Citizen Jane: Battle for the City isn’t just a documentary about urban renewal, it’s a chronicle of a David and Goliath fight between a powerful titan of city planning and a heroine who lived among the people for whom she fought. Robert Moses had big ideas about how to improve cities. He thought that building huge skyscrapers and highways would make city living better even if it meant razing poor neighborhoods and displacing the residents. He didn’t care about the people at all; he saw them as obstacles that got in the way of his projects. Author-journalist Jane Jacobs didn’t like what Moses was doing. She saw cities as living, breathing entities and people as their lifeblood. It was she who led the fight against three projects that would do more harm than good if realized. She was the fly in Moses’ ointment.

 citizen-janeWhereas Moses and his colleagues took a bird’s-eye view of cities, Jacobs was more boots the ground in her views. She realized that streets were made safer by large numbers of people walking on sidewalks and sitting on stoops watching their children play. It’s people, not buildings, that make a neighborhood. Moses wanted to replace old stores and rundown rowhouses and tenements with housing projects that would supposedly improve the lives of poor/low-income families. Well, we know how that turned out; housing projects became the most dangerous places in the cities. Many of them have since been torn down (including Philadelphia’s Mill Creek Apartments, demolished in 2002). This is what we call “an epic fail”.

 In the 50s and 60s, Jacobs and Moses went head-to-head on three occasions. First, she stopped him from putting a highway through Washington Square Park (in Manhattan). Next, she halted his efforts to have her West Village neighborhood declared a slum. Finally, she prevented him from building an expressway over Soho. She couldn’t stop the Cross-Bronx Expressway which became a jammed-up mess within 15 minutes of its opening in 1972.

 Citizen Jane: Battle for the City is quite clear in depicting Jacobs as an intelligent, well-spoken activist who acted out of altruism and maybe a little self-interest (she lived in the West Village) and Moses as a callous, short-sighted sourpuss who wanted the people whose homes he proposed to destroy to just take the money and go away. Jacobs (who died in ’06) was quite the warrior; she was even arrested at one point for inciting a riot for daring to speak her mind at a public meeting. It was a time when women weren’t welcome in male-dominated fields like urban planning. She wrote the quintessential anti-urban renewal book (The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961) which introduced sociological concepts like “social capital”. She was (and is) a feminist icon.

 Director Matt Tyrnauer (Valentino: The Last Emperor) makes great use of archival footage highlighting how New York City used to look. It may have been dirty in poorer areas but neighborhoods were still neighborhoods. People looked out for each other’s children. You could walk around at night without fear of being attacked. That was before Moses (who died in ’81) tried to improve cities and instead made them worse. We see the decline in quality of life as public housing units, one just like the next, sprung up in major cities. Buildings no longer had personality, they all looked alike right down to their drab colors. People became isolated in their own apartments. There was no sense of community. Then there was the rise in crime. It’s a tragedy really.

 Citizen Jane: Battle for the City is a fascinating and informative documentary about a subject about which most folks know little. It’s interesting to see how cities evolved into what they are today. It’s scary to think about what they would have become had Jacobs not spoken up and against Moses who lost all his clout when Nelson Rockefeller became governor. It’s great to see how one person can affect great change. This is one for city dwellers and history buffs.

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