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Toppling a God: Citizen Jane|Battle for the City

Citizen 01

By Elias Savada.

Making sense out of urban chaos was more than a dream for Jane Jacobs. It was a battle cry. Jacobs, a writer-journalist turned activist who passed away in 2006, took aim at New York City planning czar Robert Moses, who ruled the Big Apple skyline and parkway system with a concrete fist. His tear down/build up vision, modeled after modernist architect Le Corbusier, focused on an impossible mission – turning his town into a public housing utopia – and trying to build a huge road through it.

With Citizen Jane|Battle for the City, journalist-filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer, Oscar-nominated for his 2008 Valentino: The Last Emperor, has crafted a solid, tense, and very informative piece showcasing the street fight waged more than a half-century ago by Jacobs against Moses and his Gracie Mansion cronies. Chockful of archival footage (oh, those lovely street and tenement shots), photographs, drawings, maps, promotional films, and numerous talking heads (including Jacobs herself), the film is a rousing story that excites and informs.

Citizen 02Power broker Moses saw the slums of a city as a cancer that needed to be exorcised and replaced with something tall and sterile. Jacobs felt those plans were unsuitable for most city-dwellers, particularly if you’re going to knock down vibrant neighborhoods.

In watching the news footage of Moses, it is impossible not to see the documentary’s David and Goliath bias, showcasing an arrogant bully behind his pulpit. It’s the same false bravado that enabled another New York-based mover and shaker to convince enough non-city dwellers to elect him as the current American president. “Make American Cities Great Again” could just as easily be the epitaph on Moses’ gravestone.

There were, actually, many good things built by Moses. Major highways, the 1964 World’s Fair, the original Shea Stadium, Jones Beach, and many of the bridges connecting the boroughs of New York. Alas, all good things did come to an end for him, and that end is what Tyrnauer examines with relish.

Among the several episodes that saw Jacob and Moses face off against one another was the latter’s crusade to refashion Washington Square Park. In the early 1950s he wanted to extend Fifth Avenue through the arch (modeled after the Arc de Triomphe). An incensed Jacobs became part of the grassroots protests that would scuttled those plans.

There’s also the New York City controversy over the building of the Cross Bronx Expressway, which connected the George Washington Bridge to parkways leading to the posher communities in Long Island and Westchester. It also tore a hole through the heart of the Big Apple. It’s still a mess.

And let’s give some screen time to the failed attempt trying to classify NYC’s West Village as a 16-block slum, and other misguided efforts at “modernizing” the city through public housing projects in many major metropolitan areas around the country. Their failures are reflected in a series of demolitions that reflect on the bad political decisions which brought (more) riches to developers, builders, and politicians at the expense of many displaced residents. This series of explosions could go head-to-head with the darkly comic atomic bomb detonations at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. Except that very few occupants were laughing.

Pipedreams for Moses were nightmares for the likes of Jacobs, especially with a proposal for “Cross Manhattan Arterials and Related Improvements,” that would have segregated parts of New York with multiple lane expressways. Stuff from a horror film, which would have torn down great historic neighborhoods along Canal Street.

Citizen 03Hidden inside Citizen Jane is the notion that the builders and movers were in it for the glory and the dough. And Jane Jacobs did not want to be a victim of the money grab. She fought back against the establishment and Moses, organizing to save the Little Italy Neighborhood as Moses pushed his plan in the early 1960s. Governor Nelson Rockefeller eventually put an end to Moses’ shenanigans.

The film ends with discussion of how to move ahead without reverted to old development models, which is sadly happening throughout China with the kind of massive growth process that failed in the United States. Saskia Sassen, a political economist (and one of the many well-informed people appearing in this well researched film) calls China’s current expansion “Moses on steroids.” The slums of a dystopian future.

In a spritely edited feature, Tyrnauer pushes his audience to make the connection between the turbulent growth spurts of the 1950s and 1960s with today’s political aspirations – particularly about building a certain expensive wall. Among the many quotes from Jacob’s 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, from which much of the film gets its powerful focus, one stood out. “It is so easy to blame the decay of cities on traffic, or immigrants, or the whimsies of the middle class. The decay of cities goes deeper and is more complicated. It goes right down to what we think we want, and to our ignorance about how cities work.”

Tyrnauer begs us to learn from our past mistakes. It may already be too late.

Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).

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