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“Citizen Jane” examines the past, present and future of American cities

Matt Tyrnauer’s new documentary “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City” is a story about Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. Jacobs's focus on organic growth clashes with Moses's goal of redeveloping New York City from the ground up during the 1950s and 60s. The film delves into these two contrasting visions of the city's future.

Moses, a developer with authority from city government, is seen as someone who has become corrupted over time and is solely focused on making money. His focus on rebuilding New York City involves tearing down block after block of old housing, but in the process, he tears down communities as well.The film shows how the many housing projects he builds become worse than the buildings that preceded them because there is no sense of community. Jacobs, on the other hand, lives in the West Village neighborhood of Manhattan with her family. She was a writer her entire life with a long time passion for urban issues. “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” is widely seen as being her most famous and impactful book, which blames  urban planning policies of the 1950s for contributing to the decline of cities.

The documentary focuses on a few specific conflicts between Moses and Jacobs such as Moses’s proposed extension of Fifth Avenue through Washington Square Park, a proposed highway that would have run right through Manhattan’s Soho Neighborhood and the proposed development of Greenwich Village, which was even more personal to Jacobs because she lived in the area. In all cases, the power of grassroots activism organized by Jacob’s and other concerned citizens were highlighted as a major reason the proposals were defeated. 

Unfortunately, the rise to these conflicts is very slow and the film does not do a very good job of filling the space in between. There are recorded interviews of Jacobs, who has since died, but there are no such recorded interviews with Moses, who also has since died. The documentary primarily leaves it to various commentators to critique Moses. It is focused too strongly on Jacob’s and Moses’s contrasting views of how the city should grow. The conflicts the documentary describes are fascinating and thought provoking but are not enough to sustain the film. It does succeed in showing how devastating housing projects developments have been to urban areas across the country. Today, many of the projects built in the post war 1950s are being torn down or already have been. However, projects are seeing a revival in other countries such as China.

As the film concludes, it changes its focus from the past to the future. It spotlights China, which is seeing tremendous population growth right now, leaving the nation struggling to manage this growth. Many of the all too familiar projects being torn down in the United States are being built in large numbers in China. A frequent critique of the projects by Jacobs are that the office-like buildings eliminate the street life which is so crucial to cities fostering safe and strong communities. An economist in the film concludes, “China today is Moses on steroids,” which is a very disconcerting notion.

Sadly, the film only briefly touches on the Chinese development issue before concluding. It could have easily spent more time discussing China and other places around the globe that are concerns for the future.

Overall, the documentary bravely embarks on a discussion of a topic that is frequently ignored for other more pressing matters. While it could have gone into more depth about the conflicts between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses, it still is impactful. Jacobs is a courageous woman who challenged the housing system at a time when most women were excluded from the discussion. In the end, it leaves the viewer to ponder what makes a city great and how the future of city life be preserved. 

Grade: B

Citizen Jane: Battle For The City is now playing in select theaters.

jreilly@theeagleonline.com


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