A life and career as influential as Jane Jacobs’ is tough to capture in a 92-minute documentary, at least with any meaningful detail. Her 1962 book, “Death and Life of Great American Cities,” in which she describes cities as organic systems that must be planned from street level, is considered canon by many urban theorists.
In “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City,” screening Thursday at Speed Cinema, director Matt Tyrnauer creates a slick, dramatic narrative of Jacobs’ activism, particularly her battles with Robert Moses, the post-war New York power broker and urban renewal zealot who tried to level SoHo and Little Italy to build a freeway across Lower Manhattan.
The result is a rarity — a documentary with not only a hero, but a downright surly villain. And a damn entertaining villain at that.
Jacobs appears sparingly in “Citizen Jane” via archive interview footage; her story is told primarily through rapt testimonials from urban theorists and past allies (including New York Mayor Ed Koch) and readings of her absolutely elegant, biting criticisms of top-down city planning.
“There’s a prudishness, a fear of life. A wish to direct things from some uncontaminated refuge that is part and parcel to their bad plan.”
How are you going to argue with that?
Opposite, you have Moses, a dominant public figure for decades, grousing his way through news interviews with a bellicose anti-charm that makes you want to give Mr. Potter a hug. Here’s a gem:
“I realize in the process of rebuilding south of Washington Square there would be cries of anguish from those who are honesty convinced the Sistine Madonna was painted in the basement in one of the old buildings there, not presently occupied by a cabaret or speakeasy.”
Dean Otto, curator of film at the Speed Museum, tells Insider he fell in love with “Citizen Jane” when he saw it at the Toronto Film Festival. Otto was later approached by both Jeffrey Johnson, director of the School of Architecture at University of Kentucky, and local developer and film producer Gill Holland about screening the film.
Johnson and Holland, along Gretchen Milliken, director of advanced planning for the City of Louisville, will participate in a panel discussion following Thursday’s screening.
Holland, who often quotes Jacobs’ famous line “New ideas need old buildings,” says he hopes the discussion touches on key issues including traffic planning and gentrification in Louisville’s older neighborhoods.
“We need to grow better, not just bigger,” he says.
Jacobs’ influence on the dialogue about Louisville’s growth goes well beyond Thursday. A class at UofL routinely takes a Jane Jacobs Walk to observe the character of neighborhoods, including Portland, where Holland is active in redevelopment efforts.
“Citizen Jane” tracks Jacobs’ early career, from her time as a freelance writer in New York — she wrote a series of articles about manhole covers for Vogue — to earning a staff position at Architectural Forum.
Her views on organic city planning were sparked, she recounts in the film, by observing the failure of a large-scale urban renewal project in Philadelphia and a tour of East Harlem, where Moses’ plans for redevelopment undermined the character of the neighborhood.
Jacobs and Moses’ first showdown — and one of the first major political setbacks for the power broker — came when she helped lead resistance to running a major traffic artery through Washington Square in Lower Manhattan.
Shortly thereafter, she published “Death and Life of Great American Cities,” which received a mixed reception in the era of large-scale housing projects and razing an entire neighborhood to build the Lincoln Center. The New Yorker called the book “Ms. Jacobs’ Home Remedies” to urban planning, reflecting not only incredulity toward her theories but dismissiveness toward women in public life.
“They tried to discredit her through her gender,” Otto says.
Jacobs and Moses continued to bang heads, first over a plan to “renew” several blocks of the West Village (see awesome quote, above) and ultimately over the Lower Manhattan freeway project, whose defeat began the decline of Moses’ reign as the most powerful infrastructure official in the country.
Some sources in “Citizen Jane” do note that prior to World War II, Moses was responsible for several successful initiatives, most notably state parks on Long Island.
However, after the war, he is depicted as advocating a sense of “homogenizing clarity” in urban planning, as well as being co-opted by the booming auto industry. By the end of the movie, he is just delightfully awful.
“Citizen Jane” could use a little more insight into Jacobs’ own personality. She was by all reports a crusty fighter herself and was arrested for disrupting a hearing on the failed Lower Manhattan freeway.
And there’s little critical analysis of how her theories have been adapted to current city planning — to depict the vibrant street life Jacobs embraced, Tyrnauer uses archival footage of folks you aren’t likely to find in the ultra-sheik SoHo or West Village these days.
But you get to see Moses get what is coming to him, and it’s great.
“Citizen Jane: Battle for the City” screens Thursday, Sept. 21, at 7 p.m., with the panel discussion to follow. Tickets are $9 for the general public and are available at the Speed Cinema website.