Street Fighter: 'Citizen Jane: Battle for the City' chronicles the life of urban activist Jane Jacobs

Movies Features

What makes cities thrive? For author and activist Jane Jacobs, the answer could be found in crowded neighborhoods filled with shops and pedestrians. In the Sundance Selects documentary Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, opening in theatres on April 21, director Matt Tyrnauer sets out to show how Jacobs' theories helped shape urban planning in the latter half of the 20th century.

Tyrnauer originally wanted to examine urban planning in China and India. "The developing world is the place where city rebuilding is really happening," he says during an interview. Poor urban planning is contributing to catastrophic living conditions, including dangerous levels of air pollution.

"In Beijing, our hotel lobby was on the 103rd floor, and you could not see out the hotel window," the director says. "It was like a dense, poisonous fog. We had to wear oxygen masks. And India was worse than China."

But as Robert Hammond, one of the documentary's producers, points out, "When we showed early drafts of the movie with that focus, people were more interested in Jane Jacobs. They wanted to learn more about her. I was worried. Would people find her interesting enough?"

A journalist for Vogue and other magazines in the 1950s, Jacobs reached a broader audience with the publication of her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. According to Tyrnauer, that work uprooted the conventions of city planning.

"But she wasn't just a theoretician or analyst," Hammond adds. "She was also an on-the-ground activist. Her battles lasted for decades. She protested, appeared in demonstrations, but she took it further. It's not just about writing a letter to the President. It's often never about writing a letter to the President. It's about studying how politics actually work, going to Board of Estimates meetings, figuring out how to fight."

Citizen Jane sets Jacobs against Robert Moses, "the most powerful unelected official in American history," according to Tyrnauer. But the real villain in the movie is Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known by his pseudonym Le Corbusier.

Corbusier doesn't appear until halfway into Citizen Jane, in part because his ideas filtered slowly and, as Tyrnauer notes, incorrectly into American culture. But another reason is because Moses, the subject of Robert A. Caro's magisterial biography The Power Broker, is such a tempting target.

"Moses comes out of the Progressive movement, the tradition of Jacob Riis and How the Other Half Lives," Tyrnauer explains. "He was very interested in helping the poor, in improving conditions in inner cities. After World War II, in an era when there was a lot of money around for urban renewal, Moses became a very powerful czar in 'clean-slate city rebuilding.'"

Moses was hardly the only proponent of tearing down tenements and replacing them with housing projects based on design principles that have since fallen out of favor. But he may have been the most bombastic.

Obsessed with public relations, Moses had brochures, leaflets, canned interviews and other props prepared to introduce and legitimize his projects. Movies were a valuable weapon in his arsenal, one that Tyrnauer was able to turn against him.

"Moses, like other famous autocrats and dictators, filmed his own great works," Tyrnauer notes. "A lot of that film ended up in the MTA [Metropolitan Transportation Authority] archive, in all these Robert Moses boxes, many of them unopened for decades. Some of the film hadn't even been processed. So we paid for the processing, which yielded color footage that's never been seen before."

Moses' projects, and others across the country, received considerable support from both the government and the press. And from developers eager to cash in on urban-renewal money. The housing projects they slapped together in St. Louis and Chicago quickly turned into wastelands riven by crime.

As architect and urban planner Geeta Mehta points out in Citizen Jane, developers turned to modernism, to bland, concrete-and-steel modular architecture, because it was cheap to build, an easy way to make money. "And Robert Moses totally understood that."

Tied to massive housing complexes and expressways, urban renewal tended to empty out cities, not enliven them. Jacobs turned to activism to protect her neighborhood from one such project. Unlike Moses, she was viewed by some as a crackpot with no real power.

"One of our filmmaking challenges was Moses was on camera all the time because he was a media whore, beloved by the establishment press," Tyrnauer says. "Jacobs was just a book author. Moses was overpowering her in the edit, and we needed to find good Jacobs footage."

Fortunately, Tyrnauer came across Empire City, a 1985 documentary by Michael Blackwood. Jacobs appeared in it briefly, although Blackwood had actually interviewed her for three hours. "That was a huge resource for us. You see her talking about her own theories in her own words."

Securing financing for the movie was difficult. As Tyrnauer and Hammond point out, Citizen Jane is funded almost entirely by foundations, including major contributions from The Rockefeller Foundation, The Ford Foundation and The Knight Foundation. The Rockefeller Foundation also helped fund Jacobs' book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. "Ironically, David Rockefeller was one of Robert Moses' great colluding partners," Tyrnauer adds.

The National Endowment for the Arts also contributed to the documentary. "I hope we're not the last grantees," Tyrnauer says, referring to threats by the current administration to eliminate the NEA. "It would be a tragedy if the NEA is killed. The NEA helps documentaries like ours reach a broad audience, and I think it's more important now than ever to do that.

"We knew for a fact that this movie could not have been made in a traditional film-financing model," he goes on. "Because when you're going around pitching a movie about urban planning, that meeting will end sooner rather than later. Or you get answers like, 'Movies like this don't work.' 'No one wants to see a movie about urban planning.' 'No one cares about Jane Jacobs.' 'Robert Moses is passé.' 'We're not interested in cities, we're doing climate change now.' 'Do your movie about China.'"

Hammond believes Citizen Jane eventually received funding because it offers a possible alternative to the current political climate. "What's really scary is when people lose hope," he says. "When you lose hope, you make very bad decisions. That's the Trump election—it wasn't that voters thought he was an outstanding person, they felt like they had no other hope.

"For this movie, I can say this until I am blue in the face, I don't think anyone was particularly receptive to our idea," Tyrnauer argues. "The fields of urban planning and architecture are kind of siloed professions that have their own language, and it seems like you're always preaching to the converted. I felt it was very important to make a movie for as broad an audience as possible, that reached beyond that constituency."

Tyrnauer describes independent filmmaking as a constant struggle in which directors defend their theses against waves of pessimism. But Hammond reminds him of a different kind of response they received after screening their documentary for a Los Angeles community board.

"At the Q&A afterwards, I couldn't get a word in edgewise," Tyrnauer agrees. "People were debating, arguments were breaking out. I was like: Whoa, okay. Obviously this was an interested constituency. But we've been saying all along we want this movie to start arguments. We don't want to convince everyone that they should worship this woman Jane Jacobs."

"Or demonize Robert Moses," Hammond adds.