If you’ve ever admired lower Manhattan’s picturesque brownstones (and who hasn’t), you might want to send a grateful thought to activist Jane Jacobs that they are still here. Matt Tyrnauer’s new documentary Citizen Jane: Battle for the City tells the story of how journalist Jane Jacobs established herself as the protector of the traditional urban landscape in her adopted home of New York City.
On the other end of the battle was city planner Robert Moses, on a quest to knock down whole neighborhoods and replace them with highways and high-rise structures. In all fairness, neighborhoods like the Lower East Side were very poor, where immigrants lived in unsanitary, flea-infested, overcrowded apartments. Moses had a vision of a clean and modern city consisting of high-rises and efficient highways. This was the trend at the time, as a way to clear the slum and provide decent housing for people in need, with similar plans having been implemented in many European cities as well.
Moses was greatly influenced by the Swiss-French modernist architect Le Corbusier and his famous high-rise housing developments presented as “Plan Voisin” at the 1925 Paris International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts. However, the documentary reveals that the way “Plan Voisin” ended up influencing the housing projects in Parisian suburbs and beyond in the 1960’s, was not the intent. Instead, the highest rise buildings in the center were supposed to host offices, while the lower rise buildings surrounding them were meant for housing.
Jacobs fell in love with the bohemian Greenwich Village when she moved there in 1935. She understood that the seemingly chaotic neighborhood, was in fact held together by an invisible order created and organically formed by its inhabitants. Such neighborhoods provided safety, thanks to all the “eyes on the street.” This became abundantly clear as whole neighborhoods were bulldozed down and replaced by square blocks of public housing in cities all over the U.S. in the 1950’s and 60’s. They quickly became crime-ridden empty zones, void of people who cared for their communities.
The documentary is a well-made compilation of old photos and film, mixed with contemporary interviews of present day historians and city planners. It examines how we prefer our neighborhoods – grown organically through generations of inhabitants, or created on paper and then filled with people. In hindsight the answer is clear, but the film carries another very important message; don’t underestimate the power of a grassroots movement!
Citizen Jane: Battle for the City screened at the DOC NYC film festival during the Opening Night Gala on November 10th, 2016, with director Matt Tyrnauer present for a Q&A. He explained how the film came about, and why he felt the need to make it:
"A Los Angeles native doesn’t speak well to side-walks and eyes on the street, but I’ve lived here forever and ever, and I lived in SoHo. I was an architecture nerd, and found the book [The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, 1961] at a bookstore which I think is now a Marc Jacobs boutique on Bleeker Street. But it used to be a bookstore, and bought it and read it, about 10 years ago, and I thought ‘this is an incredible book!’ It makes you see the city in an entirely different way, I think that, at the very least, I began to see New York in a different way. After the Valentino movie [Valentino: The Last Emperor] was out, I was looking for another project, and Robert [Robert Hammond, co-producer] and I were talking about our mutual admiration for Jane Jacobs and realized there hadn’t been a documentary about her. One thing we need more of right now, it seems to me, is more public intellectuals, and she was certainly that. I think it’s time more people knew about her legacy and her thinking."
Luckily, the opportunity to learn about her legacy and thinking is not far away! Citizen Jane: Battle for the City opens in movie theaters today—enjoy!
Cover: screenshot from ‘Citizen Jane: Battle for the City’
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