Citizen Jane: Battle for the City (2016)

April 25th, 2017
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Matt Tyrnauer; Documentary; USA 2016, 92 min.

Director/producer Matt Tyrnauer (Valentino: The Last Emperor) has created the model documentary: his portrait of city planning and environmental activist, author and journalist Janet Jacobs (1917-2006) and her fight against the might of New York City’s political bureaucracy, spearheaded by ‘Planning Czar’ Robert Moses (1888-1981), unfurls like a thriller. It examines the consequences of failed urban planning and how it  impacts on lives all over the World.

Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford led the New Urban Movement in the 1960, pioneering the fight against modern planners and architects, not only in the built environment, but also as a theorist: her ground breaking book, The Death and the Life of Great American Cities (Random House,1961), was a battle cry to repudiate the destruction of urban centres, where under the slogan of “Slum clearance” whole neighbourhoods were destroyed. Jacobs, journalist and researcher, had first hand experience of this fight, before writing her book – which was belittled by the male-dominated architectural world, with critics describing it as “housewife’s remedies”.

In the mid-fifties Robert Moses proposed the demolition of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, to build the Lower Manhattan Express Way (LOMEX). Moses, who at one time held twelve titles simultaneously, among them NYC Parks Commissioner and Chairman of Long Island Park Commission, was never elected but appointed as a result of political patronage, mostly by successive NYC mayors. Jacobs had lived with her family in Greenwich Village and had seen the disastrous results of the super-highways of the Cross Bronx Expressway and Brooklyn Queens Express Way; the former destroyed large parts of ‘Little Italy’. The original ‘battle’ against the building of LOMEX was won in 1958 – due to the support of Eleanor Roosevelt and other politicians and celebrities – but Moses did not give up. During the 1960 he attempted thrice to resurrect his plan. At a public hearing in 1968, when it looked like the State Authorities would give in to the “Master Builder”, Jacobs collected the records of the hearing, which had fallen out of the stenographer’s machine. “No record, no LOMEX “ she exclaimed. Jacobs was arrested by a plain-clothes policeman, and charged with three felonies. She moved to Toronto the same year and continued her planning battles and campaigned until the charges were reduced to misdemeanours.

LOMEX was never built, and Moses’ influence waned, although the automobile was always considered more important than the inhabitants of the city. Public transport was neglected: the huge, costly Express Way schemes were built, but public subway and EL travel was neglected. Moses’ final disgrace was his (abandoned) plan, to demolish a playground in Central Park, to make space for a parking lot for an expensive restaurant.

We witness the demolition of so many high rise blocks in urban centres of the USA in the late 90s, which had become much more un-inhabitable than the ‘slums’ they replaced, we watch the same type of high rise blocks being built in India and China: “Moses on steroids, building the slums of tomorrow today”.
CITIZEN JANE is a near perfect piece of history, the struggle for control over the way we live, and the story of an intelligent and brave woman, who took on the male establishment at time when few dared. AS


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