‘Citizen Jane’

When the famed observer of cities took on the planning establishment, it was a street fight for the ages — one captured in a timely documentary.

By Dorothy Woodend 14 Apr 2017 |

Dorothy Woodend writes about film every other week for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

Jane Jacobs didn’t look exactly like a superhero. With her silver pageboy haircut and cats-eye glasses, she mostly resembled your kooky aunty, or a journalist with a sharpish nose for a good story.

But make no mistake — the Lady Jacobs was a heroine of epic proportions, possessed of common sense, tenacious grit, and a deep and abiding affection for human complexity and idiosyncrasy, best embodied in these things we call cities.

Director Matt Tyrnauer’s new film Citizen Jane: Battle for the City opens at the Vancity Theatre next week and its timeliness in relation to Vancouver’s current situation is curious.

Vancouver may not be exactly where New York City was some 50 years ago, when Robert Moses ruled the city with near God-like power, but there are some parallels to be drawn. Namely, who gets to make the decisions about how cities evolve? What roles do money, power and profit play? The ongoing, and occasionally near-hysterical level of debate around such questions in this little old city of ours is almost deafening at the moment. Sometimes it feels like we talk about little else.

But in light of this discussion, it is useful to look back at the conflict, or street fight you might quite correctly say, that arose between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses over the fate of New York’s Greenwich Village, and in particular Washington Square Park. Moses’ plan was to bisect the park with a major four-lane roadway. Jacob’s plan was to stop him in his tracks.

The film briskly establishes its two central characters in almost archetypal form: Moses — male, planner, linear and autocratic to an insane degree, obsessed with ideas of order and cleanliness.

Jacobs — female, mother, journalist, irascible and curious, with a quicksilver mind and a steadfast determination to fight for the rights of the little guy.

Where Moses saw festering rot and urban chaos described as a cancer that needed be surgically removed, Jacobs saw diversity and density, life thronged with messy and competing voices, alive, pulsing, and complex.

At the time of their coming together in battle Moses was near absolute in his control and influence, holding some 12 different public offices including New York City’s Parks Commissioner during his career. The two were fundamentally oppositional in not only how they understood cities, but also in their tactics and approach to getting things done.

While Moses wielded money and power, Jacobs was creative and wily, staging protests with students, mothers and kids, beatniks and folkies, the ordinary people who thronged Washington Square Park and used it as a playground, social centre, and impromptu performance venue. The story has already inspired articles, essays, and even an opera, but Tyrnauer’s film has the expanse to allow for additional context.

The film perambulates from the modernist vision of Le Corbusier, supposedly inspired by an aerial view of the streets and boulevards of Paris, redesigned by Georges-Eugène, Haussmann to the contemporary explosion in urban development in China. (Described by one interviewee in the film as “Moses on steroids.”) The majority of the narrative is taken up in the period of the 1950s and ’60s, when American urban planners and architects enthusiastically embraced Le Corbusier’s modernist vision. Super highways, arterials roadways, and massive apartment blocks, arranged with machine order, were erected in quick succession.

The film pays particular attention to housing projects that were designed for poor, largely black populations, singling out the Pruitt-Igoe Project in St. Louis. Pruitt-Igoe was certainly one of the most well-known and highly visible failures of modernism, but it was not alone. In New York City, the tenement housing that the Modernist towers were supposed to replace quickly disintegrated in chaos, violence and crime.

If Moses was all top down, Jacobs was decidedly bottom up. (One of her early articles about New York was about manhole covers and the city sewer system.) Largely self-taught and with a deep suspicion about so-called experts, Jacobs derived a great many of her ideas about cities by simply observing them in action. Walking around her neighbourhood in Greenwich Village, she looked and really saw what was happening. Far from the modernist model of spare clean lines, mechanical and hard-edged, she found that successful neighbourhoods resembled more organic systems, akin to something like a beehive, a constantly evolving web of contact that looked, at first glance, like a chaotic and random collection of busy little beings all flying about. What Jacobs saw and wrote about was this more human-centric understanding of community in the raw.

In calm, clear language, she laid it out: “Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance — not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any once place is always replete with new improvisations.”

So much has been written about urban design that it is hard to see the hive for the bees now, but when Jacob’s book The Death and Life of Great American Cities was published, criticism about urban life and design was relatively new. As the film points out, Jacobs had the curious timing of writing in a period when a number of other equally strong and intelligent women were also publishing their seminal books.

New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger, interviewed in the film, has written about Jacob’s legacy, and he described this convergence in an article for the American Scholar.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, was not the only book to challenge orthodox city planning in the postwar era, but it is the one that struck the deepest chord, and the one that is still cited as a kind of touchstone, a source of so much that has come since. In this sense it has less in common with other books about cities and urban planning than it does with two other books from the same time about other things entirely: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. All three of these books were written by women of roughly similar age who were relatively unknown and who had something new to say that went entirely, and courageously, against the common wisdom. At the beginning all three women were dismissed as crackpots by the establishment they challenged. And all three eventually came not only to garner grudging respect, but to be elevated virtually to the status of prophets.”

Goldberger goes on to examine how Jacob’s ideas about urban design were co-opted and perverted by planners and developers who embraced the notion of “mixed use” but actually served the great God of Mammon.

Which brings me back to Vancouver. It is difficult to walk around the city and not see this in action, as even the most radical ideas are flattened and absorbed by good old Capitalism. Really, it can eat anything and spit out marketing inanities.

While Citizen Jane is prescribed by a very specific time and place, it does offer up some tactics for the continuing struggle to preserve the idea that cities should be for everyone and not simply those who can afford to live there. At the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, the question was posed to the filmmaker about what he hoped people would take away from the story.

His answer: “Jacobs was fearless in speaking truth to power, the model of a citizen soldier. Her story resonates today, as we are faced with a president — an international developer, no less, of luxury towers — who throws around the terms ‘urban renewal’ and ‘American carnage.’ The film can be seen as a playbook for people who want to defend vulnerable minority communities everywhere. Certainly in this country, but also in the developing world, entrepreneurs and governments collude routinely to uproot low-income sections of cities in favor of towers for the rich. That is in large part what Jacobs was writing about, and it’s happening all over again, on a much bigger scale.”

Sound familiar?

An even more useful tactic for becoming a citizen soldier is to read Jacob’s final book Dark Age Ahead.  [Tyee]

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