As a topic for a movie, “city planning” sounds almost comically dry and uninteresting. When faced with what it really means, though, especially at a time when humanity as a species is increasingly urbanized, almost nothing could be more vital. Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, Matt Tyrnauer’s crackling, vivacious new documentary, brings that vitality forward through most of twentieth century history, finally arriving at the doorstep of our present day.
Though the title implies a biographical portrait, Citizen Jane is more about the ideas its subjected represented than about the woman herself. Jane Jacobs, a journalist whose focus was on architecture and, eventually, city planning, resisted prescriptive attempts to impose order on public and private spaces. Instead, she argued that, essentially, form should follow function. We should allow our cities to take shape according to the way people use them instead of dictating how they are apportioned. Academic and esoteric as this argument may seem, it made her a number of very high-powered enemies.
Before we get to the story of Jacobs and her great triumphs, though, we start in the years before the Second World War, as utopian thinkers began to envision the world of the future as a sterile, technocratic society dominated by the automobile and towers that touched the sky. Before it was just a part of Disneyland, Tomorrowland was a shared dream for an advanced, thriving and progressive society.
As with all utopian thinking, though, this fell apart in practice because it relied on human beings not behaving the way human beings behave. The antiseptic towers they built instead became antisocial and the designated recreation areas went largely unused, turning into violent no-man’s-lands separating one public housing project from another. Jacobs, who had initially championed these ideas when that’s all they were, looked at her own surroundings (she lived in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village) and surmised that diversity of people, class and use is what keeps a city alive as a social organism.
Even after it became clear, though, that these housing projects were failing, they continued to be built. Why? Were these utopian planners true believers who thought they just needed enough time to get it right? Jacobs didn’t think so and, clearly, neither does Tyrnauer, both of whom fervently contend that the projects continued apace simply because the money was rolling in, largely in the form of massive federal grants to individual cities. The planners were getting rich and saw no reason not to continue doing so. Citizen Jane, as a narrative, lucks out in the mere existence of one such planner, Robert Moses. He held various titles throughout New York City’s government for decades, none of them elected positions, and was one of the most visible of his generation of city planners. More importantly, for the sake of this documentary, he made it pretty easy to paint him as a villain. He would openly and arrogantly dismiss the notion that the neighborhoods his highway constructions would decimate held any cultural importance. And, when it came to Jacobs, he was eager to brand her a mere housewife, which was both ignorant of her longtime work as a journalist and gravely underestimating of the power of America’s housewives. The latter is a lesson he would learn when the women of the neighborhood rallied to save Washington Park from his goal to build a traffic thoroughfare through the center of it.
With Citizen Jane, Tyrnauer gives us a stirring portrait of a woman who was both passionate and pragmatic. In our current times, when the need to protest wisely and effectively—not to mention a time when women have come under renewed attacks from those in power—and as the beating heart of America comes to reside less in the quaint small towns of the mid-twentieth century and more and more in its cities, this is a movie for our moment.