Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

 

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Jane Jacobs in opposition to the planner who believed that eggs have to be broken to make an omelette.

 
Citizen Jane: Battle for the City


 

The titular figure here is the American Jane Jacobs and this documentary by Matt Tyrnauer has much to say about the development, both actual and proposed, of New York City in the 1950s and 1960s. That was the period in which Jane locked horns with the construction chief and city planner Robert Moses. Before concentrating on the conflict between them the film looks back to the 1930s and it reveals that in that earlier time Moses had been a progressive, somebody ready to declare war on the slums and recognising the desirability of a clean slate. But in the post-war years his outlook became such that he could be seen as a figure whose attitudes made him distant from the people.

 

Jane Jacobs represented a view that was diametrically opposite to his. The era might be one of modernist planning with Le Corbusier's endorsement of high rise buildings being adopted in America, but there was the vital difference that Americans saw them as homes and not for office use which is what Le Corbusier had primarily envisaged. Jane, a writer of articles for Vogue magazine, would become famous in 1961 as the author of the book The Death and Life of Great American Cities and it would see her approaching this subject from a totally different angle. In her eyes, cities were more about people than about buildings: she felt that every city had to be viewed as a community of people whose needs, including the importance of streets where they could mingle, had to be of prime significance.

 

This view led to her becoming a leading light in a series of events: the opposition to creating a road through Washington Square Park in 1954, resistance to her own area of the West Village being defined as a slum as an excuse for wholesale reconstruction in 1961 and the later campaign against the Manhattan Expressway proposal which, if not challenged, would have given priority to traffic in a way that would have destroyed the character of the area.

 

Tyrnauer covers these events through observations by modern-day commentators and through historical footage and, if the emphasis is on a past period, the issues remain relevant to the development of cities worldwide today. There is, however, relatively little about the personal life of Jane Jacobs and, while the material is interesting, the adoption of a running length for the film of just over an hour and a half does lead to a sense of repetition as one speech echoes another. Consequently, this is not a film to put in the front rank of documentaries, but it has worthwhile things to say and will undoubtedly please those who feel drawn to its subject matter.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  Thomas Campanella, Mindy Fullilove, Alexander Garvin, Paul Goldberger, Max Page, Steven Johnson.

 

Dir Matt Tyrnauer, Pro Matt Tyrnauer, Robert Hammond, Corey Reeser, Jessica Van Garsse and Jenny Carchman, Ph Chris Dapkins, Ed Daniel Morfesis, Music Jane Antonia Cornish.

 

Altimeter Films/Huntsman Films-Dogwoof.
93 mins. USA. 2016. Rel: 5 May 2017. Cert. PG.