Arts Review

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, Film Review by Marc Glassman

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, Film Review by Marc Glassman featured image

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City
Director: Matt Tyrnauer

Documentary featuring: Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses

Cities have become political and social battlegrounds in Canada, with real estate values reaching stratospheric heights and gentrification pushing even middle class families into the suburbs. What has happened to the concept of the livable city? A new documentary, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City by Matt Tyrnauer brings back the 1950s and  ‘60s when controversy around  the modern metropolis was first taking shape.

Jane Jacobs was a local journalist living in Greenwich Village in the early 1950s when Robert Moses, the extremely influential New York City planner, tried to extend Fifth Avenue right through Washington Square Park. The battle was on! Jacobs organised the neighbourhood against Moses’ proposal, which would have destroyed one of the great urban parks in the United States. Over the course of the next decade, Jacobs became an increasingly larger and larger thorn in Moses’ side, successfully opposing the destruction of the historic Village buildings in order to build large soulless apartments; and, in her biggest coup, leading an outraged local citizenry in preventing the creation of an expressway in lower Manhattan, which would have ruined the entire area.

This story—a true David (or Davida) and Goliath one—is the subject of Tyrnauer’s film. As the Jacobs vs Moses clashes took place, the journalist had evolved into an urbanologist-a thinker on the subject of cities. She wrote her first book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and it became an instant classic. Jacobs opposed Moses’ notion that older neighbourhoods with short highly individual buildings should be destroyed so that “progressive” modern apartment blocks could replace them.

Jacobs argued that life in cities is predicated on neighbourhoods where people know each other: children play, adolescents flirt or fight and adults talk about their lives. None of that happened in Moses’ highrise “utopias,” where neighbours barely knew each other and the children rarely used their designated playgrounds. Moses and the European architect and writer le Corbursier created environments where people became so alienated that they often chose anger and violence in response to their lived-in culture.  The areas that Jacobs and her acolytes fought to save have become beloved areas of the same cities. (If anything, they’ve become too beloved—and pricey— but that’s a story for another day).

Moses was all for expressways, too. Although some proved to be useful, the Cross-Bronx and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressways helped to destroy two highly livable parts of New York City for decades. In the late 1960s, Jane Jacobs and her family moved to Toronto, where she quickly became enmeshed in a successful fight to stop the building of the Spadina Expressway. She spent the rest of her life here, helping to foster a Toronto that survived the urban despair that enveloped many North American cities in the ‘70s and ‘80s. She remains an inspiration to Torontonians to this day.

Matt Tyrnauer’s film doesn’t really deal with the Toronto part of Jane Jacobs’ story. That is surely the job for a Canadian documentarian—and let’s hope it happens soon. But that doesn’t distract one from admiring what this documentary does well. Through carefully edited archival material, Tyrnauer’s Citizen Jane evokes a tale of how one woman, working with a community, could stop a very powerful man from wreaking havoc on a beloved neighbourhood.  But it’s more than that. This is a film about ideas and it works wonderfully well. I urge you to see Citizen Jane: Battle for the City.

Click here for more film reviews from Marc Glassman.

Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus

Tune in to hear Marc Glassman’s Art Reviews
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