Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

Most good documentaries are powered by conflict, and you couldn’t ask for a struggle more elemental or relevant to our time than the one chronicled in Citizen Jane: Battle for the City. Director Matt Tyrnauer revisits the ongoing contest in the 1950s and ’60s between Jane Jacobs, the populist author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and Robert Moses, the imperious master builder of New York City, who championed massive tower blocks and expressways in his plans to modernize Manhattan. For ten years Jacobs was a thorn in Moses’s side, helping lead the charge against him when he wanted to demolish Washington Square Park for a highway extension, or raze parts of the West Village as part of an urban renewal project, or destroy much of historic SoHo to construct a lower Manhattan expressway. The last of these battles, in 1964, was so fiery it helped drive Jacobs out of New York and Moses out of public life.

This David-and-Goliath story keeps the movie rolling, but Citizen Jane is more valuable for its unpacking of the various ideas Jacobs introduced into the public debate over civic renewal. During a period when modernist- inspired city planners were green-lighting monolithic development complexes, she argued for a more organic approach springing from the needs and desires of people who actually used the city. Tyrnauer opens with dazzling aerial shots of the world’s great cities at night; meanwhile, his interview subjects sketch a 21st century of rapidly accelerating urbanization that only intensifies the need for wise planning and development. Time has proven Jacobs right in many instances, and Moses spectacularly wrong, but Citizen Jane, to its credit, leaves you wondering less about their era than about our own, and how history will judge the decisions we make about our cities today.

Jacobs got her start as a journalist, and she brought to the topic of urban planning an ability to observe and to question assumptions, skills she found lacking in many of the buttoned-down professionals she met. As a reporter for Architectural Forum she wrote positive stories about urban renewal projects but, as the projects were built and opened, began to realize they weren’t functioning as predicted. “Why did stores that looked very cheerful and were supposed to be doing a great, booming business in the plans actually go empty or languish?” she asks in one of the movie’s audio clips. “I would bring this question to the people who had been responsible for the planning of these places, and I got quite a lot of alibis, boiling down to ‘People are stupid. They don’t do what they’re supposed to do.'” When Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961, she was attacked as an unschooled amateur, but the book was grounded in observed fact and common sense, and it delivered a powerful counterpoint to the kind of social engineering practiced by Moses.

In Cities, Jacob traced many of her complaints about postwar urban planning to the French modernist architect Le Corbusier, whose Radiant City, a utopian vision of high-rise office blocks and ample green spaces, had helped inspire America’s postwar suburban sprawl. Corbusier’s innovation was to preserve green space by thrusting office space upward into the sky, but as Jacobs points out in the book, his Radiant City made no provision for automobiles, so in developments inspired by his work the parks invariably wound up as parking lots. As architect Robert A.M. Stern notes in Citizen Jane, Le Corbusier’s idea for high-rise office towers was bastardized by U.S. developers, who exploited its low-cost, high-profit model to erect countless high-rise apartment buildings and, even worse, public housing projects. The drawbacks of such projects—which isolated residents, stifled community life, and bred violent crime—wouldn’t become clear to the public until the 1970s.

Arrogant and paternalistic, Moses embraced the Corbusier model as a futuristic solution to the squalor of slum life, but Jacobs rejected this mind-set, seeing the city not as a collection of buildings but as a collection of people, a social ecosystem with an innate genius for correcting its own problems. With Cities she popularized the idea of “eyes on the street,” arguing that public safety comes less from the police than from neighbors who keep an eye on each other and incoming strangers; these eyes create a “public realm” where civic virtue is enforced by common consent. Moses and Le Corbusier preached a gospel of uniformity, but Jacobs argued that diversity was the key to a healthy city district: the area must have multiple primary uses and a variety of businesses that keep the streets busy past nightfall. Moses was disgusted by the “stoop culture” of the slums, but for Jacobs this was the social fabric that kept the community alive.

Tyrnauer calls on a variety of professionals—physicist Geoffrey West, architecture critic Paul Goldberger, historian Thomas J. Campanella, urban planner Alexander Garvin—to explain the theoretical landscape Jacobs encountered and the radical impact of her thinking. But the second half of Citizen Jane is nearly all action and tumult, as she and fellow activists battle Moses’s grand plans for Manhattan. In 1958 the city announced a southward extension of Fifth Avenue right through Washington Square Park, where Jacobs had taken her own children to play. Archival footage shows the park teeming with life—old men playing chess, kids romping on swings, young people linking arms for ethnic dancing, beatniks jamming on banjo and guitar. Jacobs was instrumental in the public campaign that defeated the measure, and three years later, after Moses, as commissioner of housing, designated 16 blocks of the West Village for slum clearance, she organized her neighbors in a torrent of protest, petition, and legal challenge that persuaded Mayor Robert F. Wagner to reverse the designation.

Citizen Jane climaxes with the battle over Moses’s plan for a lower Manhattan expressway, which would’ve cleared away entire sections of SoHo, with its historic collection of 19th-century cast-iron buildings. In footage from a 1964 promotional film for the expressway, a narrator decries the area’s traffic congestion and derides the neighborhood as stagnant and useless. But the public outcry was impossible to ignore. “I think it’s wicked, in a way, to be a victim,” Jacobs says in a TV interview. “It’s even wickeder to be a predator, but it’s wicked to be a victim and allow it.” By the end of the decade the project had been decisively laid to rest and Moses had fallen from grace politically (he died in 1981). But Jacobs had left the field of battle too: in 1968, weary of civic activism and eager to protect her grown son from the military draft, she moved to Toronto to concentrate on her writing and produced six more books (she died in 2006).

Fifty years ago, Moses was regarded as one of the titans of New York, and Jacobs was just some mouthy woman who’d written a book. Only the advent of climate change and the crisis of CO2 emissions from automobiles has elevated Jacobs to her stature in Citizen Jane as Moses’s equal antagonist. Moses devoted all his intellectual energies toward making New York work for cars; Jacobs wanted to make cities work for people on foot, who could be part of the cityscape instead of sealing themselves up in their autos and zipping through it. Her primary concern was social engagement, but she turned out to be on the right side of science as the intricate highway systems built by Moses and his followers became an instrument of our own destruction. Back in the 60s, these tangled ribbons of concrete had the power to erase the past; now they’re erasing the future as well.  v