Friday, 12 May 2017

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

One woman’s successful fight to stop ‘progress’ in its tyre tracks

Written by Jason Solomons


Urban planning meetings don’t sound like the most exciting of cinematic settings, but whenever Jane Jacobs showed up things got pretty lively. So much so that this Sixties architectural journalist and community activist is now the subject of a fascinating and surprisingly exciting documentary, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City.

I wouldn’t be surprised if it one day became a Hollywood movie, you know, like an Erin Brockovich – I can see Scarlett Johansson or Jennifer Lawrence already fighting for the role and trying out the round specs and bowl haircut. They could both carry it off and probably spark a new craze. We’ll all be sporting a Jacobs cut soon. Film-Jul17-JasonSolomons-176

Jane Jacobs (who is actually voiced by actress Marisa Tomei whenever her words are read out in the doc) was the author of seminal Sixties book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It put her at odds with the sweeping town planning of one Robert Moses, very much billed here as the villain of the piece (he would be played by Robert de Niro in my putative movie).

The doc shows how his vision was to drive highways through old neighbourhoods to accommodate what the voice-overs on those old newsreels quaintly call ‘the motorcar’, while relocating people to high-rise housing projects.

Jacobs, on the other hand, believed in streets and stoops, and in the people who lived, worked, shopped and played on the streets, arguing it was they who contributed to making a great neighbourhood, the coexistence of diverse people doing diverse activities all in the same community.

This is one of those beautiful, smoothly constructed archival docs full of wonderful old footage of New York, from the Thirties, through the Great Depression and into the powerhouse changes of the Fifties and Sixties.

Subtly it is also about sexism, racism and class, as Jacobs’s eccentric-looking activism brings neighbourhoods together rather than dividing them, such as in the well-documented battle to save Washington Square from one of Moses’s proposed great highways.

Some of this is very much part of a left vs right, or of a protest culture against the big-money cronyism of politicians and developers, a classic David and Goliath contest. The movement did not work on the infamous Cross-Bronx Expressway, which gave rise to some of the most dangerous streets on earth (the film fails to mention that it can at least be credited with also giving rise to the birth of hip-hop, but that’s for another documentary, I guess)…

However, it was very much in action against the proposed lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have ruined what we now know as SoHo and Greenwich Village, where Jacobs herself lived. Ok, some classic urban architecture was preserved but I do wonder now what was it all for? Another branch of J Crew and some great coffee shops?

Nevertheless Jacobs’s healthy Sixties ideals are hauled into relevance for the present. One contributor likens the urbanisation of modern China to ‘Moses on steroids’ and there are fears that continued urban planning in homogeneous buildings is merely creating the slums of tomorrow.

This is a cry for people, not cars, for public realms, not isolated communities where business, recreation and habitation are separated. City life itself is an art form, argues Jane Jacobs, one in the public realm. This film might overdo the ‘odd little lady’ nature of Jacobs and her fellow mums with prams but it does provide an insightful and inspiring guide as to how protest can work, how action can be taken and how we can all shape the way we’ll live in our own future.


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