The prospect of watching a documentary on town planning probably won’t have people tripping over themselves to watch it. But when you realise that the subject of the film, Citizen Jane: Battle For The City helped preserve some significant parts of New York, it’s a different story. This film is a brief but intriguing look at the David and Goliath struggle that ensued thanks to one woman’s battle to save New York City.
The film is the second one to be directed by Matt Tyrnauer who previously chronicled fashion designer, Valentino Garavani in Valentino: The Last Emperor. In Citizen Jane the subject matter is worlds or rather towns apart. It shows how some grass-roots campaigns and protests organised by author, journalist and activist Jane Jacobs helped prevent the decimation of parts of New York and Canada.
During the 1960s there was a ruthless powerbroker and construction kingpin named Robert Moses and his philosophies reigned supreme. His idea of eradicating the issues associated with slums and poverty was to go and remove these places just as one would cut out a cancerous growth. Moses’ idea was to bulldoze these slums and replace them with cheap, high-rise housing. But this plan didn’t always work. Often what replaced the slums became a pocket for even greater scenes of crime, violence and poverty. Yet for some time Moses’ ideas and ways of thinking seemed to be supported by the authorities and unchallenged by the people.
Enter Jane Jacobs and her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which is read in this documentary by Marisa Tomei. Jacobs argued that what appeared to the authorities to be disorder in these communities was actually a complex, living and breathing network that had developed organically. She had a sharp eye for detail and a witty and articulate way of expressing herself and her ideas. Through her stellar efforts she took on Moses (even when he tried to denounce her as little more than an insignificant player and an irrelevant woman) and helped thwart projects that would have ripped apart places like Washington Square Park and New York’s Soho and Little Italy districts.
Citizen Jane tries to fit a lot into its 92 minute runtime with varying degrees of success. It describes Jane’s efforts in an overwhelmingly positive light while Moses is presented as the villain in all of this. The film also includes archive footage (including interviews with the late Jacobs) and photographs as well as talking head interviews with experts including urban planners and theorists. The film could have done with being a bit longer because it does have a tendency to gloss over things that required further explanation (the biographies of Jacobs and Moses for instance are incredibly swift while the notion that China is currently adopting Moses’ practices with gusto is only briefly eluded to).
Citizen Jane is ultimately an inspiring tale about a topic that remains important. It shows how one woman helped preserve some rich places while the establishment were on the verge of opting for sterile fixes to complex, human problems. Citizen Jane is an informative story and a tale that should be seen as a cautionary one that we can all learn from, especially as the world continues to face challenges with housing, lifestyle and communities.
Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)