The title Citizen Jane: Battle for the City might sound a bit breathless for a documentary about urban planning, but certainly, skirmishes are still being fought.
Self-styled anarchists conducted an anti-gentrification raid on new townhouse construction in North Philadelphia just this week, though they were quickly cornered by unsympathetic residents and turned over to police, who found on one man a “mission statement on how to disrupt capitalism,” which is especially shocking considering the fellow was from Doylestown.
Writer and activist Jane Jacobs probably would have approved of this lively sample of organic, improvised urban street life, judging by what we learn in Citizen Jane.
Jacobs (born in Scranton) was a New Yorker who in the 1950s and 1960s developed ideas that ran radically against received, in-vogue, top-down notions of urban planning: Policy-makers believed "slums” should be razed to make way for high-rise urban housing projects, cross-town expressways, and centrally planned communities that valued highways and cars at the expense of pedestrians, sidewalks, and street-facing activity.
The apparent chaos of neighborhood streets so distressing to urban planners of the day was to Jacobs' independent eye something else – actually, a complex system of diverse enterprises and individuals organically arranged to reach a mutual benefit. Successful urban neighborhoods, she believed, were crowd-sourced, to use today’s terminology.
Jacobs' unconventional ideas, laid out in her influential book The Death and Life of Great American Cites, put her at odds with powerful men — and one man in particular, New York urban planner Robert Moses, who sat at the crossroads of real estate interests, public money, and compliant politicians.
He had power on his side, but not charm. The footage of Moses seen here shows a scowling, peevish man cartoonishly inept at persuasion – transparently arrogant, with an undisguised contempt for opponents or residents in the way of his projects. The compact, bespectacled Jacobs, by contrast, was happy to play a nimble, witty David to Moses’s flat-footed Goliath.
She first stopped his attempt at putting a highway through Manhattan’s Washington Square Park, then his move to declare her West Village neighborhood a slum, and finally his scheme to build a lower Manhattan expressway over what is today SoHo.
He did succeed in building the Cross Bronx Expressway, described by one architect as “the single most destructive decision ever made” in urban planning.
Jacobs, quoted in the film, says she arrived at some of her ideas after writing about Philadelphia’s efforts to revive Society Hill in the 1950s. Here, unless my eyes deceived me, the movie mistakenly uses the Municipal Services Building to stand in for Society Hill Towers, but that’s a small mistake in an otherwise entertaining movie, which uses archival footage (fairly or not) of Jacobs and Moses to achieve a stark, almost Marvel-like cinematic contrast between protagonist and antagonist.
And in the context of today’s stymied political trench wars, there is inspiration to be found in Jacobs' example of local activism, original thinking, and rational argument blossoming into useful change.