Citizen Jane: Battle for the City
2017, NR, 92 min. Directed by Matt Tyrnauer.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 30, 2017
Urban planning becomes not just a subject for policy wonks but instead a vital and urgent struggle for the soul of the city in this documentary about the historic battles between New York City’s “master builder” Robert Moses and the writer and activist Jane Jacobs. It’s a struggle that plays out in every developing city throughout the world, no matter its size, although this New York City saga, with its clearly delineated protagonists, is as illustrative as the subject can be. And as the international population growth escalates and the worldwide move from rural to urban population centers ever increases, the debate about how to grow our cities becomes ever more dire. Furthermore, the added anxiety of having a real-estate mogul installed in the U.S. White House renders the topic of urban reinvention more timely than ever.
Two big personalities, Moses and Jacobs, were pitted against each other in a mid-20th century battle over the direction of NYC’s urban growth. One of the architects of urban renewal, Moses was fond of grand projects organized by a tear-down approach that ended up gutting neighborhoods and visible blights in favor of towering urban renewal projects that blocked out sunlight and human connections. Jacobs, a journalist and author of the pioneering book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, advocated for the benefits of neighborhood street life and for cities that were organically created by the residents who use them. The dichotomies reflected imperial vs. democratic approaches to urban evolution, and have been written about and widely discussed in the decades since these two gladiators’ heyday. Citizen Jane: Battle for the City presents little to augment the knowledge of people already versed in this debate. However, it’s a fine introductory lesson for those who are not.
Like his previous film, Valentino: The Last Emperor, about the famous fashion designer, director Matt Tyrnauer takes on a fascinating subject yet mostly consolidates existing information without adding much to our knowledge base. When a commentator remarks on emerging cityscapes worldwide by saying that China is like Robert Moses on steroids, Tyrnauer might have developed a narrative that goes beyond Moses and Jacobs’ head-to-head confrontations to look more deeply at their long-term implications. The relevance of these debates about how to grow our cities will never go out of fashion – unless, of course, one day we all move back to the land.