Film Review: Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

A prickly pocket dissertation on urbanism centered on the titanic fight for New York waged by agitating writer Jane Jacobs and authoritarian city planner Robert Moses.
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You don’t often expect to get much juice out of a documentary focused on subjects like architectural modernism and city planning. But Matt Tyrnauer’s argumentative film is the cinematic equivalent of a particularly caffeinated op-ed about how to fix what’s wrong with the modern city. As the film’s myriad urbanists and architectural experts opine at the start, given the seismic shift in urbanizing populations, there aren’t many greater problems to be wrestled with.

At the risk of oversimplifying the debate, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City divides the participants into two camps: the “top-down” city planners and the “bottom-up” activists. To illustrate that divide, Tyrnauer handily reaches back to the most famous urbanist debate of the 20th century: the fight between New York planning czar Robert Moses and journalist-turned-activist Jane Jacobs. The struggle wasn’t always easily understood, but the stakes were for the future of the city itself.

A well-connected operator who built on the Jacob Riis-fueled urban reform movement of the 1930s and its zeal for cleaning up the slums, Moses used his unprecedented power and massive amounts of federal funding to massively reshape New York. In the postwar years, Moses and his car-friendly allies in other cities tried to implement the (not always correctly interpreted) ideals of modernist architect Le Corbusier and his plans for fantasy cities of regimented apartment towers and impossibly pristine parks. To them, the seeming chaos of New York’s polyglot tenement neighborhoods and its jam-packed streets were messy and unsightly things to be swept away.

But to the likes of Jacobs, there was invisible order in that chaos. Jacobs wrote about how neighborhoods like her beloved Greenwich Village were not just densely ordered communities with rich and economically sustaining economic and cultural lives, but also safe places to live, due to all the “eyes on the street.” Jacobs saw the blank tower blocks of public housing sprouting in bulldozed downtowns across America in the 1950s as crime-inviting dead zones that made it impossible for organic communities to develop. As Citizen Jane staunchly argues, America would have been better served listening to Jacobs.

Tyrnauer assembles a gold-star panel from the architectural and urbanist communities (Mike Davis to Paul Goldberger and Geoffrey West, but surprisingly, not Moses biographer Robert Caro) to hail the prophetic wisdom of Jacobs’ views, which were hardly commonplace when she started organizing citizen groups to stop Moses’ bulldozing of New York neighborhoods and the “vapid vulgarity” of what he wanted to replace them with. The battles to stop the demolition of both large stretches of the Village and SoHo in the 1960s—the late Ed Koch reminisces about battling Moses with Jacobs, even though he later championed many of the same inhumanly scaled developments—are repeatedly hailed here as totemic victories against the unexamined wisdom of “urban renewal.”

In a sense, the clash between Jacobs and Moses was a conflict between two different types of utopians. Jacobs’ urban ideals, as expressed in her 1961 call to arms The Death and Life of Great American Cities, could generally only be achieved on rare occasions—like Greenwich Village just before and for a couple decades after World War II—when geography, economics and the cultural zeitgeist came together in just the right mixture. The ideal city for Moses wasn’t even a city at all, but a latticework of bridges, parks, towers and highways that looked fantastic from the air but was soul-crushing death to live in. (Not that he cared, of course; though the film doesn’t note the irony, the great city planner Moses lived for many years out on Long Island.)

It isn’t hard to tell which side Tyrnauer is going to come down on. There are few fans these days for Moses’ bullying arrogance; also, the film isn’t called Citizen Robert. Some could argue that the film’s heroic portrait of Jacobs doesn’t allow for much nuance. But after a brief but damning section on the humanitarian catastrophe caused by Moses’ Cross-Bronx Expressway project, it’s hard to see finding much fault with the woman who simply though that cities should be about people, and not buildings or cars.

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