citizen jane battle for the city
Courtesy of TIFF

A fascinating documentary captures the showdown, half a century ago, between the activist Jane Jacobs and the Trumpian urban planner Robert Moses: a fight for the future of New York.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City,” directed by the gifted journalist and documentarian Matt Tyrnauer (“Valentino: The Last Emperor”), tells the story of a David-and-Goliath fight over urban planning that took place more than 50 years ago. Yet the movie just about pulses with contemporary resonance. It has moments of uncanny overlap with this week’s election, and it explores the scope and meaning of that overly familiar thing — the city — in ways that will box open your thinking. It’s a finely woven tapestry that feels as relevant and alive as the place you live.

It’s also got great sparks of conflict. The movie, which kicked off the seventh DOC NYC film festival last night, features two nearly mythological antagonists. In one corner is Robert Moses, the scabrous New York power broker and construction czar who, in the years after World War II, transformed the city by gutting its poorer sections and erecting miles of concrete-slab housing projects and snaking superhighways. In the other corner is Jane Jacobs, activist and author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” (1961), who led an uprising against Moses’ dehumanized dream of a paved-over utopia. She fought his plans to destroy Washington Square Park, to bulldoze the beautiful historic buildings of Greenwich Village, and to bisect lower Manhattan with an expressway that would likely have been the most ruinous — and influential — disaster of urban “renewal” in the history of the United States.

It’s no trick figuring out who to root for, but the fascination of “Citizen Jane” isn’t just in seeing how Jacobs took on the system and won. The movie invites you to sink into her challengingly supple and vibrant analysis of why cities, which we mostly take for granted, are in fact rather magical places. Even if you live in one and think you know it inside out, you come away from “Citizen Jane” understanding, more than you did going in, the special chemistry of what makes a city tick.

It comes from the ground up — and that’s the tricky thing to see, since urban planning generally occurs from the top down. Moses started out in the ’30s as a progressive thinker, but his idea of what it would take to make cities better evolved into a Teutonic, machine-age vision of monolithic apartment buildings in massively organized rows and “clean” streetscapes erected in place of all the neighborhood hurly-burly. We see Moses in clips from the ’40s and ’50s, a blustery, dour-looking man whose eyes gleam with reptilian cunning, and each time he talks about making things better, he expresses such high-handed contempt for those who’ll be displaced that he sounds like he’s talking about roaches. His “philosophy” walks a thin line between improvement and incineration.

Jane Jacobs rejects all of this, but not just on basic common moral human grounds. At heart, she’s an anthropologist, and her subject is the mysterious spirituality of neighborhoods: the way they evolve, over generations, into thriving organic places that are nurturing and protective and are embedded with stories that rise out of the streets. Jacobs makes the point that true neighborhoods, with clusters of small businesses and people sitting on stoops, are far safer than the stark moonscapes proposed by Moses — there are more people around, so the streets are more naturally patrolled. (Sure enough, once housing projects started to get built, they turned out to be far more dangerous places.) More than just “blocks,” they’re human networks, enveloping hives.

This is only Tyrnauer’s second feature, but he has taken a subject that might have been dryly academic and turned it into a visual hymn to the streets of New York — to how their development, over the 20th century, influenced everything around them. Tyrnauer interpolates clips from the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, to the point that the past starts to feel like a living thing. New York was built, but more than that it metastasized, so when Moses treated low-income sections of it as a “cancer” that had to be cut out (he would happily have razed Harlem), he was violating the city’s essence.

Jacobs’ first fight with him is over his attempt to extend Fifth Avenue through the center of Washington Square Park. Sure, it’s just one park, but ask anyone in London or Paris — or the stroller-wheeling mothers of Greenwich Village — how serenely uplifting a park can be. What Moses really wanted to do was take a gathering place and put a spike through it. Jacobs, who at this point was an unknown journalist thought of by her foes as a “housewife,” wrote letters, went to meetings, formed and led a coalition, and in the end shot the plan down.

With her long thin nose, graying hair, and elfin grin, Jacobs bears a striking resemblance to the film critic Pauline Kael (with a hint of a female Poindexter), and she’s got some of Kael’s playful imperiousness. Born in 1916, she’s a bohemian scamp who starts off writing about the city for places like Vogue. By the time she reaches her forties, she has evolved into an activist, but in the least self-righteous way possible; she wants to preserve her home. In the duel between herself and Moses, gender is far from incidental, and not just because Jacobs emerged out of the same second-wave-feminist era defined by writers like Betty Friedan (“The Feminine Mystique”) and Rachel Carson (“Silent Spring”). Jacobs’ vision of the city was bravely and spectacularly feminine: She viewed it as a teeming enigmatic cooperative, a garden of earthly delights, whereas Moses, offering a degraded version of the ideas of the Swiss-French architect and urban planner Le Courboisier (who’d created the template of the future presented at the 1939 World’s Fair), was all about abstract masculine dominion: tall hard buildings, no hint of mess, a city that was nothing but sharp edges.

Since we’re talking about buildings, it’s no stretch to say that there’s something more than a little Trumpian about Robert Moses. His drive to erect looming, impersonal housing was a form of control; his desire to sweep everything else away was even worse — a fascism of the spirit. “Citizen Jane” provides stunning evidence that as the population explodes, more and more cities around the world are being built in the spirit of Robert Moses: acres of skyscraper cages for the anonymous horde. Yet the spirit of Jane Jacobs is heard each time a neighborhood is allowed to evolve. What she fought and defeated, most dramatically by keeping a highway out of lower Manhattan, was the prototype for urban planning that would steamroll everyone it was supposed to be planning for. Jacobs insisted that the city is a place for the people. That’s why it can’t just “serve” them; it has to express who they are.

Film Review: 'Citizen Jane: Battle for the City'

Reviewed at SVA Theatre (DOC NYC), New York, November 10, 2016. MPAA Rating: Not rated. Running time: 92 MIN.

Production

An Altimeter Films production. Producers: Matt Tyrnauer, Robert Hammond, Corey Reeser, Jessica Van Garsse.

Crew

Director: Matt Tyrnauer. Camera (color, widescreen): Chris Dapkins. Editors: Daniel Morfesis, Andrea Lewis.

With

Jane Jacobs, Robert Moses.

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