“Citizen Jane: Battle for the City”,” Matt Tyrnauer’s gripping new documentary about urban politics, plays out like a mental boxing match between two heavyweight intellectuals.
In one corner is Jane Jacobs, bespectacled and slight of frame, but with a talent for community organizing and a fierce unwillingness to yield to the powers that be. At the other side of the ring is Robert Moses, the towering city planner, who swept away old neighborhoods, erected motorways in their place, and generally treated Manhattan and its surrounding boroughs as his fiefdom. When Moses tried to realize his vision of the Lower Manhattan Expressway, a highway that would have bisected Jacobs’ neighborhood of Greenwich Village, he discovered what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.
“What brought me to the story was Jacobs,” Tyrnauer told Variety. “She was a bad ass who used the power of the pen and the force of her intellect in a brilliant and heroic way that was way ahead of her time.”
He’s less charitable about her chief adversary, calling Moses, “one of the great villains of the second half of the 20th century.” But, then again, Moses’ reputation has been badly tarnished since Robert Caro published his magisterial biography, “The Power Broker,” in 1974, revealing that the urban planner had troubling racial views and was indifferent to the social upheaval he caused by placing his city projects in thriving communities. Tyrnauer sees parallels between Moses’ imperious nature and the public persona of Donald Trump, the real-estate-baron-turned-Republican-presidential nominee.
“He is similar to Moses in that he has this authoritarian, racist, white guy knows best thing,” said Tyrnauer.
If Moses’ actions are widely known and documented, then perhaps it is time for a new generation to familiarize itself with Jacobs’ legacy. She was sharply critical of the urban renewal movement in her work for Architectural Forum and in her 1961 book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” arguing that modernist planning was responsible for the decline of major metropolises. Housing projects of the sort that social planners of the day advocated for were overly concentrated and lacked natural gathering places, allowing crime to fester, she maintained. She also believe in the power of creating social movements as a means of combating bureaucracies that could be indifferent to the people on the streets.
“We want to bring her ideas to a mass audience in a way that can inspire a few more Jane Jacobses,” said Tyrnauer.
Jacobs ultimately prevailed and the Lower Manhattan Expressway was never constructed, preserving the original character of SoHo and Little Italy. With his planned highway shelved, chinks began appearing in Moses’ armor and he would eventually fall from power towards the end of the 1960s. But the struggle between their views still plays out in the construction of cities in China and other rapidly urbanizing nations.
“Jacobs won on points,” said Tyrnauer. “She absolutely changed the thinking and the ethos of the urban planning movement and her ideas infiltrated academia. Moses won in the real world… His vision of urbanization, of collusion between moneyed interests and government, has come back with a vengeance.”
“Citizen Jane: Battle for the City”” will premiere today at the Toronto Film Festival, where it is looking for distribution. It is Tyrnauer’s second film following “Valentino: The Last Emperor,” a profile of fashion designer Valentino Garavani on the cusp of retirement, that was highly acclaimed when it debuted in 2009.
Before venturing into directing, Tyrnauer was best known for his work for Vanity Fair, where he specialized in stories of classic Hollywood. That will be the setting of his next project “Scotty,” which will look at Scotty Bowers, who allegedly helped arrange gay encounters for movie stars in the pre-Stonewall era.
“It’s one of the great untold stories of Hollywood,” said Tyrnauer. “It’s part of its secret history.”