Urban Legend: Matt Tyrnauer’s Citizen Jane: Battle for the Cityby Erica Peplin
There was a housing project in East Harlem with a large rectangular lawn. The residents of the project despised it. “What good is it?” they asked. “Who wants it?” Jane Jacobs, one of the most important writers and activists of 20th century urbanism, describes this lawn and the negative reactions it provoked in her 1960 book, The Life and Death of Great American Cities. Quoting one resident, she writes, “Nobody cared what we wanted when they built this place […] But the big men come and look at that grass and say, ‘Isn’t it wonderful! Now the poor have everything!’”
By recalling this anecdote, Jacobs wasn’t just attacking the “dishonest mask of pretended order” that characterized modern, orthodox city planning. She was relocating power from the boardroom to the streets. Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, the opening night film of this year’s DOC NYC festival, is Matt Tyrnauer’s new documentary about Jacobs, and it presents her with all the polish and praise she deserves. While the film provides an enlightening overview of her life and legacy, it also transforms her into something of a caricature. She becomes The Woman Who Saved New York, and Robert Moses—the all-powerful New York Parks Commissioner whose domineering “you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs” philosophy drove one critic to compare him to Hitler—is The Bad Guy with a Bulldozer. As entertaining as this formula can be, it affords her story a neat, one-sided quality that Jacobs, a lifelong proponent of “organized complexity,” would have shunned.
Citizen Jane has an agenda and it’s not afraid to share it. The film begins with a montage of pedestrians going about their daily lives. It’s Tyrnauer’s quaint attempt at visualizing the “sidewalk ballet” Jacobs famously described in Death and Life. As if cutting short the dream of the dancers, the film cuts to sprawling slums in India and apartment towers in China. The clips are unidentified, meaning their use is polemical rather than evidentiary. Narration from architects and city planners informs us that cities are everywhere and they are growing. According to one statistic, nearly three-fourths of the world’s population will live in them by the end of the century. By introducing the ballet and the menacing globalization that threatens to destroy it, Tyrnauer has set the stage for the story he wishes to tell. It’s one in which Jacobs and her ideas are more necessary than ever.
The details of Jacobs’s childhood and education are passed over quickly. Born in a suburb of Pennsylvania, Jacobs moved to New York in 1935. Archival footage shows her saying how much she loved the city. It was “inexhaustible,” she says, and there was “so much going on.” It’s a bland soundbite but it draws attention to an important aspect of Jacobs’s life: unlike the planners, bankers, and government officials who plowed ahead with financial motives, Jacobs was different. She was a working mother, a resident of Manhattan’s West Village and she dedicated her Death and Life treatise “To New York City.” It is this genuine affection for cities and the cooperation and community they represent that lies at the heart of Jacobs’s gifts as an urban theorist.
Working as a freelance writer, Jacobs first gained attention by covering topics other writers might have overlooked, like manhole covers and Manhattan’s fur and leather districts. When Architectural Forum hired her in 1952, she wrote about urban renewal at a time when postwar America was buoyed by a sense of starting anew. Idealistic city planners were coming up with sweeping blueprints of modernist purity. They reworked every major city in America with dazzling clarity, simplicity, and harmony. As Jacobs wrote in Death and Life, their plans were “so orderly, so visible, so easy to understand. It said everything in a flash like a good advertisement.”
A major turning point came when Jacobs was assigned to cover a housing development in Philadelphia. The city planner wanted to replace old and slummy blocks with large-scale apartment towers. He bragged about the inclusion of balconies and courtyards. Jacobs soon realized that such a super tower would isolate the building’s inhabitants, cutting off the random-seeming “chaos” that was the very soul of community and neighborhood.
The development was a disaster and, within a decade, the towers were abandoned. It became clear that Jacobs, a seemingly ordinary woman with round glasses and an infectious smile, understood the significance of the streets in a way few city planners could. Whereas they sought to replace messy sidewalks with shiny towers and delineated playgrounds, Jacobs defended the improvisation and randomness that she saw as the lifeblood of a healthy neighborhood. She waged a lifelong defense against any sort of imperial cleanup, arguing in favor of wider sidewalks, a combination of retail and residential spaces and the preservation of public parks and local economies.
The film gives new life to the battles Jacobs fought but in its retelling of the famed antagonism between Jacobs and Moses, it defaults to urban mythology. In the mode of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, Tyrnauer selects only the most demonic photos of Robert Moses. The commissioner’s preference for highways over public transit and bulldozers over hands-on renewal may have been despicable, but the evisceration of his character is perhaps too harsh. After all, he was a figurehead of larger attitudes of the time with roots that go back to Le Corbusier and FDR’s New Deal politics.
Jacobs, on the other hand, is presented as an American hero. She calls Robert Moses’s housing projects “marvels of dullness and regimentation” and when he wanted to build a road through Washington Square Park, she banded together with the locals and fought back. When he wanted to build a super-highway over SoHo, she did the same and won again. These triumphs affirm not only the importance of community organizing, they remind viewers what New York City could have been if Moses had succeeded—and the common people who essentially saved its life.
If we forgive Citizen Jane for its reductive good vs. evil set-up, the film remains well researched and accessible, deftly combining archival footage, direct quotes from Jacobs’s writing and interviews with architects, personal friends and contemporary planners. It touches on many of the ideas Jacobs advocated in Death and Life, including sidewalk-level connectedness, short blocks, and a mixture of old and new buildings.
Citizen Jane chooses not to share the views of Jacobs’s critics. There is no mention of Nicolai Ouroussoff, who wrote of Jacobs in the New York Times that she provided “few answers for suburban sprawl or the nation’s dependence on cars, which remains critical to the development of American cities.” Nor is there mention of economist Edward Glaeser, who rejected Jacobs’s notion that old buildings kept neighborhoods affordable. “She was certainly right that Greenwich Village was a magical space,” Glaeser said in an interview with The Guardian, “but […] now those townhouses in Greenwich Village start at 8 million dollars.”
Open any page of The Death and Life of Great American Cities and it will reveal as much insight today as it did fifty years ago. “The way to get at what goes on in the seemingly mysterious and perverse behavior of cities,” Jacobs writes, “is, I think, to look closely.” Rather than rely on Tyrnauer’s abbreviated vision, the best way to see Jacobs is to look directly at her work itself; to read the smart, sensitive, and ever-observant writing for which she was famous. If Jacobs teaches us anything, it is to look and to persevere. It could start with anything, even a lawn.
Citizen Jane: The Battle for the City premiered at Doc NYC on November 10. It will be released in theaters in 2017.
ERICA PEPLIN is a writer and film critic. She lives in Bushwick, Brooklyn.