The Irish have a saying: Is this a private fight, or can anybody join? For noted journalist and city activist Jane Jacobs, there was no such thing as a private fight. Everybody was welcome, and everybody was needed. That’s how you beat a bully, and as the documentary Citizen Jane: Battle for the City shows, Jacobs had a hell of a bully in her path.
He was New York City developer Robert Moses. During the Great Depression, Moses was NYC’s master builder. Moses built parks, beaches, and public housing. After World War II, Moses convinced the United Nations to stop looking for real estate in Philadelphia and establish its headquarters along the East River. As far as egotistical New York movers and shakers go, he was one of the biggest and most powerful. But, as the saying goes, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
While Moses busied himself converting neighborhoods of lower-class citizens into blocky, modernist project housing, Jacobs walked the streets of Manhattan, taking in the sights and sounds of people interacting, neighbors conversing, children playing, and parents watching from their stoop. A city is more than buildings and streets, Jacobs realized. A city is a collection of people. Where Moses saw chaos and decay, Jacobs found order and life.
Much like Moses, Jacobs had no background in city planning or architecture; she simply sought to understand what she saw and convey that as clearly as possible. And she did with her seminal 1961 book, The Life and Death of Great American Cities, a clear-eyed critique of 1950s urban planning. The book made Jacobs a star and the staunch opposition to Moses’s so-called progressive planning.
Though Moses and Jacobs first tangled in the mid-1950s over expanding Fifth Avenue through Washington Square Park—Jacobs ensured that the park remained closed to motor vehicles—it was their battle over Moses’s proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway that gave Jacobs her toughest battle and her greatest victory.
While the structure of Citizen Jane sticks closely to Jacobs and Moses’s war, director Matt Tyrnauer lets the documentary wander here and there, exploring similar cities and expanding on how ineffective project housing has been for reducing poverty, crime, and class warfare. Some of these diversions work better than others, but every time Tyrnauer returns his lens to Jacobs, the movie receives a jolt of energy.
That energy is part and parcel of Jane Jacobs. Like any reporter worth their salt, Jacobs knew the key to a good argument was a personal perspective presented clearly. There are many ways to look at a city, but she understood that a privileged view would teach her nothing. To understand a city, one has to get in touch with the people who inhabit it, shape it and make it theirs. Only then can you see what this generation hopes to pass on to the next. As Tyrnauer shows in Citizen Jane, that is something worth considering as the world population continues to rise.
Citizen Jane: Battle for the City (2017)
Directed by Matt Tyrnauer
Produced by Jenny Carchman, Robert Hammond, Corey Reeser, Matt Tyrnauer, Jessica Van Garsse
Starring: Jane Jacobs, Robert Moses
Sundance Selects, Not rated, Running time 92 minutes, Opened April 21, 2017.