Citizen Jane: Battle For The City, a finely woven tapestry directed by Matt Tyrnauer, tells the story of a David-and-Goliath fight over urban planning that took place more than 50 years ago. Yet the movie just about pulses with contemporary resonance, exploring the scope and meaning of ‘the city’.
It’s also got great sparks of conflict, featuring two nearly mythological antagonists. In one corner is Robert Moses, the New York construction czar who, in the years after World War II, transformed the city by gutting its poorer sections and erecting miles of concrete-slab housing projects and snaking superhighways. In the other corner is Jane Jacobs, activist and author of The Death And Life Of Great American Cities, who led an uprising against Moses’ dehumanized dream of a paved-over utopia. She fought his plans to destroy Washington Square Park, to bulldoze the beautiful historic buildings of Greenwich Village, and to bisect lower Manhattan with an expressway that would likely have been the most ruinous disaster of urban ‘renewal’ in the history of the United States.
It’s no trick figuring out who to root for, but the fascination of Citizen Jane isn’t just in seeing how Jacobs took on the system and won. The movie invites you to sink into her vibrant analysis of why cities, which we mostly take for granted, are in fact rather magical places.
Jane Jacobs was at heart an anthropologist, and her subject the spirituality of neighbourhoods: the way they evolve, over generations, into thriving organic places that are nurturing and protective. Jacobs made the point that true neighbourhoods, with clusters of small businesses and people sitting on stoops, were far safer than the stark moonscapes proposed by Moses.
In the duel between Jacobs and Moses, gender is far from incidental, and not just because Jacobs emerged out of the same second-wave-feminist era defined by writers like Betty Friedan. Jacobs’ vision of the city was bravely and spectacularly feminine: She viewed it as a teeming cooperative, a garden of earthly delights, whereas Moses was all about abstract masculine dominion: tall hard buildings, no hint of mess, a city that was nothing but sharp edges.
Citizen Jane provides stunning evidence that as the population explodes, more and more cities around the world are being built in the spirit of Robert Moses: acres of skyscraper cages for the anonymous horde. Yet the spirit of Jane Jacobs is heard each time a neighbourhood is allowed to evolve. Jacobs insisted that the city is a place for the people. That’s why it can’t just ‘serve’ them; it has to express who they are.
– Owen Gleiberman, Variety
Presented in cooperation with Jane's Walk Ottawa-Gatineau
After our screening on Saturday, April 29, local architect and heritage consultant Barry Padolsky will join us for a discussion and Q&A.
And on Sunday, April 30, there will be a Jane's Walk in the Rideau Street neighbourhood. The walk will end at the ByTowne just before our 6:30pm show. For more info on the walk, visit Jane's Walk Ottawa-Gatineau's website.