Ever wonder how New York City was able to escape L.A.’s expressway-choked fate? Thank Jane Jacobs, the journalist, author and community activist who continually predicted — and fought to stave off — the public-planning policies that would kill the American city. In Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, documentarian Matt Tyrnauer attempts to memorialize the now-deceased luminary by weaving archival film clips, talking-head interviews and Jacobs’ own public speeches. What emerges is an exploration of ideas and questions more incidentally related to Jacobs: How do we retain neighborhood diversity amid rapid gentrification? Can a metropolis retain its humanity when everyone’s living in high-rises?
Outside of a delightful Ed Koch, most of the interviewees don’t even mention Jacobs at all. But that’s not a bad thing. Tyrnauer transforms what could be a staid profile film into an urgent story about the dangers of “urban renewal,” something Jacobs herself would admire.
Tyrnauer opens with a series of unidentified talking heads pleading the importance of city planning today. He then cuts to Jacobs’ own voice describing the “endless homogenizing towers” that she first wrote about in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961): the projects. Footage lingers on busy, dirty, diverse NYC streets circa the 1930s and ’50s, when — as Jacobs says — you didn’t have to be rich to be able to “do something,”e.g. find entertainment and acquire social capital. This was a time when politicians began to label overcrowded neighborhoods “slums,” but Jacobs argues that the chaos that city planners wanted to excise like a cancer is exactly the creative system that makes a city thrive and function.
Cut to: Robert Moses, the notorious city planner, who dreamed of adopting Le Corbusier’s modernist, compartmentalized utopian concepts in NYC — giant gleaming towers plopped in the center of a park. The film sets up Jacobs and Moses as the David and Goliath of urban development, Tyrnauer letting them point and counterpoint each other through dueling archival interviews; Jacobs’ voice is loud, blunt and stilted, while Moses’ is suave, sophisticated and certainly condescending. But these two charismatic figures serve as the entry point to more pressing matters.
The most emotional and lengthy segment of this film jabs into the dark history of modern American slablike mid-century urban housing projects, designed with, supposedly, the best intentions. Tyrnauer shows a grainy PR video depicting grinning white kids scampering around a park with a pristine tower behind them, where presumably mom and dad keep a watchful eye — this is how the housing developments are imagined in wealthy white men’s brains.
But Tyrnauer then juxtaposes that footage with reality: A dreary 1980s nightly newscast segment surveys the same project’s grounds like a crime scene, showing empty, decrepit play spaces and a crumbling, prison-like tower. The director covers the projects in detail, invoking some of the lessons we’ve learned from Jacobs’ own mouth earlier in the film, like how a busy street is a safe street and a dead-end street is true to its name. Then we watch a series of haunting clips showing these very same projects literally imploding — lessons learned, right?
Not quite. Around the world, we see a boom of the same poorly conceived, inhumane housing in urban centers. By 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will dwell in cities. What Citizen Jane teaches us is that now is the time for smart NIMBYists to enlist with conscientious developers to find a better, more human means of housing all our citizens in the future.