If you love lower Manhattan, especially Soho, Little Italy, and the Village, you have one person to thank — Jane Jacobs. In this inspiring documentary from Matt Tyrnauer (Valentino: The Last Emperor) the audience is given a front row seat to a David vs Goliath battle that saved New York from being permanently transformed into an unlivable city. Jacobs was no ordinary citizen. She was a journalist who had long written about her observations on what makes cities vibrant. She was up against Robert Moses who had been given unlimited power in remaking the city. He was responsible for an immense urban renewal plan that depended in large part on knocking down what he deemed “slums” and moving people into projects. And he had no idea who he was up against.

Jacobs understood that the functional city was messy and chaotic and especially diverse, that significant connections happened on front stoops and sidewalks, and that communities needed shared spaces like parks where people mingled. The city Robert Moses wanted to build was sterile and criss-crossed by major highways, and people were an afterthought to design. He’d already built dozens of highways dividing and negatively affecting thriving communities in other boroughs. Jacobs donned her activist cape when Moses proposed lengthening 5th Avenue, going straight through Washington Square Park, her neighborhood park, and one of lower Manhattan’s iconic gathering places. She organized, she wrote, she showed up at city government meetings. And she (along with her organized band of neighbors) prevailed. But she continued to tangle with Moses over his plans for the city. He threatened Greenwich Village, perhaps to punish her. And then there was his plan to put a highway through Soho, destroying all those beautiful and unique iron buildings. In the end, of course, she prevailed.

In 1961, Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which began with, “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.” It plainly laid out the ways elite planners saw the city and why they were wrong. And it was partly responsible for the downfall of Robert Moses. In hindsight it’s easy to see how right she was about the stupidity of Moses’s plans. Many of his projects have been demolished. And city planners no longer see “urban renewal” in the same light. Her legacy for city planners and community organizers is especially important now. Citizen Jane: Battle for the City is a cautionary tale in an age where the elite are even more powerful. It’s a primer for speaking truth to power, for putting people ahead of developers, for tenacity in opposition to the status quo. I recommend it for all ages, organizers, planners, New York lovers, designers, and women of all ages who love a good hero.

One thought on “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City”
  1. Mainstream Chick’s Take: Citizen Jane: Battle for the City is a traditional doc that does a good job of showing how one person – in this case, one woman – can make a huge difference in the world. It should inspire the forces behind such efforts as the Women’s March on Washington and hopefully keep its supporters on their toes! ‘Citizen Jane’ stood up to city planners who failed to understand that people make the city and that there are intangibles at play that you simply shouldn’t mess with. She was a strategist, and knew the importance of a good photo op. She showed her nemesis Moses that it’s never a good idea to underestimate the power of women/mothers. ‘Citizen Jane’ isn’t the type of documentary that needs to be seen in the theater. The small screen will do. It should probably be required viewing and most appreciated among those interested in urban planning, city planning, women’s studies, sustainability issues, etc. Overall, the film serves as a solid tribute to the late Jane Jacobs – and a bit of a love letter to the complex, vibrant spirit of New York.

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