DVD: Citizen Jane – Battle for the City (2016)

November 23, 2017 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: n/a

Label:  Ifc Independent Film

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  n/a

Genre:  Documentary / Urbanism

Synopsis: Provocative chronicle of Jane Jacobs’ battle against NYC’s ‘master builder’ Robert Moses and his planned Lower Manhattan Expressway.

Special Features:  (none)




To Torontonians, Jane Jacobs is perhaps best remembered as one of the key figures who managed to successfully kill the major section of the Spadina Expressway in 1971, a route that would’ve provided drivers in the west end with a needed alternate expressway to reach the city from mid-town suburbs, but the sacrifice would’ve been huge: hacking in two whole neigbourhoods, destroying one of Toronto’s most important business & cultural neighbourhoods, and giving power to the car instead of foot traffic.

It’s a battle that’s given a mere mention at the end of Matt Tyrnauer’s excellent documentary on the author, theorist, and activist who managed to halt an even worse version of the expressway: the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would’ve smashed through more densely packed boroughs.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City does provide plenty of backstory in Jacobs’ early years as a reporter and author, but the central focus is her battle with Robert Moses, NYC’s building czar who held multiple civic posts that gave him extraordinary power over entire neighbourhoods. The head-to-head battle over the LME was the epic showdown after years of Moses’ attempts to redo the city into something cleaner, more modern, and very car friendly, often with a particular disdain for lower income neighbourhoods, and being completely ignorant of their distinctive character.

The reason this battle and Jacobs’ arguments will continue to resonate goes beyond a war between car and feet in urban centres: in the doc, Jacobs is credited by peers and colleagues as having a remarkable insight in observing and noting the order that exists within the chaos of urban neighbourhoods. That order stems from people living in close proximity to streets, sidewalks, public transportation, and each other – the last allowing for safety, as more people equal more eyes on the street’s activities. There’s also the rich fabric of neighbouhoods that grew over generations, seeding cultural roots and traditions which are among key attractions for visitors and tourists.

As one interviewee states early into the doc, Moses didn’t start out as a villain – he mandated the creation of urban refuges like public beaches – but power and an emulation of modernism turned him into a monster. St. Louis, Missouri’s Pruitt-Igoe is cited as example of how neighbourhoods were redesigned into versions of the new urban worker’s paradise envisioned by Le Corbusier, and Moses wanted to get rid of the ‘messy neighbourhoods’ by designating them for ‘urban renewal,’ but as critics point out, Le Corbusier didn’t design massive tower neighbourhoods like Pruitt-Igoe for residential use; they were intended as office towers where workers would travel from their smaller-scaled urban ‘hoods.

The power of Tyrnauer’s doc lies in using Jacobs’ own words from print and archival film & audio interviews to chronicle her transition from author to activist, plus Jane Antonia Cornish’s lush, moving score and affecting main theme. Jacobs’ epic fights against Mosesian overlords aren’t restricted to the distant past; they continue to recur in cities around the world. Citizen Jane is also a tale of what happens when a few civic figures have far too much power to greenlight upscale projects with far-reaching destruction.

For Torontonians baffled by the cancellation of the Spadina Expressway, Citizen Jane offers a large scale, graphic illustration of the destruction that comes hand-in-hand with the construction of highways and upscale neighbourhoods. Her views may have poo-pooed a necessary co-existence between car and public transportation, but her insight into the cost of mega-projects and the pitfalls of ignoring public consultation still resonate since her iconic book Death and Life of Great American Cities was published in 1958.

Jacobs moved to Toronto in the early 1970s and remained an important activist as the city became more urbanized, and civic and provincial figures granted greater favour to ‘master builders’ of luxury-styled residential towers that continue to alter the character of once unique neighbourhoods.

Tyrnauer’s other documentaries include Valentino: The Last Emperor (2008) and Jean Nouvel: Reflections (2016).



© 2017 Mark R. Hasan



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