Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

Urban planning meetings don’t sound like the most exciting of cinematic settings, but when Jane Jacobs showed up things got pretty lively.

So much so that this 60s architectural journalist and community activist is now the subject of a fascinating and relatively exciting documentary, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City.

I wouldn’t be surprised if it one day became a Hollywood movie, you know, like an Erin Brockovich – I can see Scarlett Johansson or Jennifer Lawrence already fighting for the role and trying out the specs and bowl haircut. They could both carry it off and probably spark a new craze.

Jane Jacobs (who is actually voiced by actress Marisa Tomei whenever her words are read out in the doc) was the author of seminal 60s book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It put her at odds with the sweeping town planning of one Robert Moses, very much billed here as the villain of the piece (he would be played by Robert de Niro in my movie).

The film shows how his vision was to drive highways through old neighbourhoods to accommodate what the old newsreels quaintlly call  “the motorcar”, while relocating people to high rise housing projects.

Jacobs believed in streets and stoops, in the people who lived, worked, shopped and played on the streets, arguing it was they who contributed to making a great neighbourhood, the co-existence of diverse people doing diverse activities in the same streets.

This is one of those beautiful archival docs full of wonderful old footage of New York, from the 30s, through the Great Depression and into the powerhouse changes of the 50s and 60s.

Subtly it is also about sexism, racism and class, as Jacobs’ activism brings neighbourhoods together rather than divided them, such as in the well documented battle to Save Washington Square from one of Moses’ great highways.

Some of this is very much part of a left v right, or of a protest culture against the big money croneyism of politicians and developers, a classic David and Goliath contest. The movement did not work on the infamous Cross Bronx Expressway, which gave rise to some of the most dangerous streets on earth (the film fails to mention that it can at least be credited with also giving rise to the birth of hip hop)…

But it was very much in action against the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have ruined what we now know as Soho and Greenwich Village, where Jacobs herself lived. OK, some classic urban architecture was preserved but now what was it all for? Another branch of J Crew and some overpriced cosmetics?

Nevertheless Jacobs’ healthy ideals are hauled into relevance for the present. One contributor likens the urbanisation of modern China to “Moses on steroids” and there are fears that continued urban planning in homogenous buildings is merely creating the slums of tomorrow.

This is a cry for people, not cars, for public realms not isolated communities where business and recreation and habitation are separated. City life is an Art form argues, Jane Jacobs, one in the public realm. It doesn’t take into account gentrification, which is perhaps a concept that eludes both Moses and Jacobs. Yet in the macro picture this film does provide an insightful guide as to how we can all shape how we’ll live in our own future.

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