Review: Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

Documentarian Matt Tyrnauer’s latest work may be about events that took place over 50 years ago, but the results are very much around today to be enjoyed. The in-built drama of the subject make Citizen Jane: Battle for the City a crowd-pleaser, and will particularly appeal to the town-planning geek inside many of us.

The Jane of the title is Jane Jacobs, a New York resident who in the 1960s stood up to urban developer Robert Moses and prevented a number of neighbourhoods from being demolished and replaced by highways.

Moses was a boorish bully used to getting his own way, and it seemed impossible that Jacobs had any hope of stopping his plans of tearing down large parts of New York. Her first success was in stopping him from extending 5th Avenue straight through Washington Square. Then she scuppered his plans for a 10-lane elevated highway through Manhattan, which would have meant bulldozing the neighbourhoods of Little Italy, Chinatown, SoHo and the Lower East Side.

Jacobs wasn’t taken seriously to begin with, after all, she was a woman railing against what was essentially a suited men’s club. Moses, who had connections with the powerful car industry, had never lost a fight to protesters before.  But then again, he had never had an adversary like Jacobs.

Unfortunately Jacobs wasn’t able to put a stop to the Moses-designed Cross Bronx Expressway, which turned much of the South Bronx into nothing more than a congested mass of motorways.

In archival interviews and through her books, Jacobs puts forward her ideas on urbanism and community. Cities are not about buildings, she says, but about people. She talks about the importance of diversity in people and activities, to make an area work.

We see examples of areas where town planning definitely hasn’t worked, by displacing people from their homes and sticking them in council towers, where their only view is other council towers. In one amusing scene, we see a model of one such project featuring a series of towers, evenly spaced apart. The speaker tips all the towers on their side. The resulting long, low buildings look immediately more inviting and habitable than what was actually built.

Tyrnauer doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel visually or narratively, he’s content to let the two formidable figures at loggerheads with each other take centre stage. There’s little in the way of graphics or other devices, this is strictly an old-school talking heads and archivel footage documentary. Jane Antonia Cornish’s score has a pleasing Nyman-esque quality that contributes to the film’s forward momentum.

This is an uplifting, real-life case of what people power can do, and a fascinating study of how to make the most of densely populated urban spaces. As Jacobs says,  “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody”

Anyone who has ever enjoyed the pleasures of Lower Manhattan has her to thank in large part for saving them from the wrecking ball.   

✭✭✭1/2      

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City is currently screening exclusively at ACMI

Richard Leathem @dickiegee