A war broke out in the middle of the 20th century over what urban planning could and should accomplish, a struggle engagingly documented in “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City.” And it is a kind of war movie, centering on the wildly differing visions of writer and activist Jane Jacobs and New York City planning czar Robert Moses.
Jacobs, the film’s heroine and winner of the battle, wrote one of the seminal books about city planning, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” published in 1961 and still read and taught. She had a street-level vision of cities, based on the everyday lives of the inhabitants, congregating on stoops and watching the busy scene below from their apartment windows.
Emblematic of then-modern city planning, Moses and his like had an austere vision based on ideas of Le Corbusier and others to replace aging and disorderly slums with high-rise projects grouped in bunches with few of the amenities of the old neighborhoods. This was called urban renewal, and its many errors are now widely recognized.
This film documents the beginnings of that recognition, in which Greenwich Village resident Jacobs played a notable role, although she was but one of many in what became a large movement. She started out as a journalist and had a sharp eye for detail that would prove invaluable in the battle. Early in her career she wrote a story about city manhole covers, noticing they were embossed with interesting patterns. She used her writing skills to confound Moses and taught herself how to organize an effective protest.
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Moses, who had the ear of politicians and developers, amassed a lot of power and openly sneered at the growing opposition — why, some of them were mere housewives and mothers! Is it possible the film is a bit hard on him? We now see the destructive effects of his “take no prisoners” methods, but despite his prickly personality, he seems to have genuinely felt he was improving people’s lives.
In any case, he wasn’t, and this first long section of the movie, focused on the high-rise aspect of urban renewal, ends with a montage of projects — and not only in New York — being dynamited into dust, which puts a dramatic exclamation point to Jacobs’ victory.
Perhaps too abruptly, the movie now switches gears to focus on planners’ efforts to accommodate the American love affair with cars, which eventually prompted one of Moses’ most ambitious (and bone-chilling) proposals: building a highway connecting the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges to the Holland Tunnel, a road that would have been known as the Lower Manhattan Expressway.
Moses’ bulldozers would have gotten quite a workout. Jacobs, naturally, threw herself into the opposition. The roadway was never built.
Filmmaker journalist Matt Tyrnauer, who in 2008 directed “Valentino: The Last Emperor,” does a capable if not especially dazzling job of communicating the outlines of the struggle. There are lots of archival photos and footage and talking heads, perhaps the most enjoyable of whom is the late Mayor Ed Koch, who recalls his days as an urban activist and discusses the hated plan to extend Fifth Avenue through Washington Square Park.
The Jacobs vs. Moses story has been recounted many times (even inspiring an opera last year, “A Marvelous Order”). It’s a complicated tale, and at 92 minutes, the film is a very brief summary. But it’s a story that needs telling, as Tyrnauer proves with footage showing China’s massive program of erecting high-rise residences that bear more than a passing resemblance to the old American projects. Economist Saskia Sassen is heard offering this scary thought: “China today is like Moses on steroids.”
(At the Tivoli.)
Not rated. Time: 1:32.