By Nick Hornig
Citizen Jane’s plot may seem to some architects and planners as treading a well-worn path: 1960’s American urban history, class 101. It follows Jane Jacobs’s trajectory from a Greenwich Village-based journalist (who wrote about the iconography of Manhattan manhole covers for Vogue) and self-taught urban anthropologist, to her becoming an urban political force that has shaped the argument over city form and its governance ever since.
The film centers in on Jacobs’s battle against “Lomex,” the highway proposed through the West Village and across lower Manhattan: which would have levelled neighborhoods that are so highly prized today. Her fight is against Robert Moses: New York City’s infamous master builder of its roads and public infrastructure of the twentieth century.
In these politically tense times, the narrative reminds us of the power of the individual, and in particular- of a middle-aged woman (derided as a mere “housewife”) - to lead. It reminds us how to build an inclusive constituency around a “just” idea, and of the possibility to upend seemingly inevitable political, economic forces.
For us filmmaker- architects and planners, the movie also succeeds in demonstrating how an academic narrative can be infused with energy and urgency 50 years on.
Director Matt Tyrnauer dramatizes their conflict through archival interview footage of the two protagonists, as well as revealing the letters they wrote at the time.
The interview footage puts us right at the kitchen counter with Jane. Up close, Jacobs becomes much more engaging and sympathetic than her writing often allows readers. We sense her indignation, anger, and vulnerability. The footage of Robert Moses is also surprisingly intimate. He is framed in tightly at a desk. Like a rather dislikeable uncle, he dismisses the collateral damage of his construction projects with a deep-wrinkled scowl.
Actors Marisa Tomei and Vincent D’Onofrio provide the voice-overs for their typewriter correspondence to officials and colleagues; though never addressed directly to one another.
In one particularly crisp, venomous moment, Jacobs’s publisher mails Moses a copy of her now renowned work “The Life and Death in the American City.” Moses sends it back immediately, and the response is read:
Thanks to the Guardian for this quotation: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/apr/28/story-cities-32-new-york-jane-jacobs-robert-moses
This sparing of adversaries is glued together with voices from contemporary architectural, urban criticism as well as spectacular archival and current urban photography.
The interviewees include well-known New York voices: Paul Goldberger, Michael Sorkin, Alexander Garvin. Toni Griffin, who is leading extraordinary work at the vanguard of urban regeneration in cities such as Newark and Detroit, regrettably appears for only a few brief seconds. It might have been interesting to also hear from more residents who were actually (or continue to be) affected by Moses’s ideas across the nation or across the Harlem River in the South Bronx.
Visually, there are some stunning sidewalk B-roll scenes (credit to Chris Dapkins). His slow motion photography beautifully captures pedestrians in Manhattan’s midtown. As the camera pans, the footage isolates individuals’ movements in the crowd: elevating their actions to that of an intricate, coordinated ballet. The imagery suggests a visual metaphor for the forces at work in Jacobs’s idealized vision of the social relations that hold the city together. All this is set against the music by Jane Antonia Cornish, which is feverish in its intensity, and adds to the urgency of Jacobs’s fight.
One criticism amongst planner friends has been that Citizen Jane only briefly touches on the altruistic origins of Moses’s work, emerging as a public figure out the crises of Great Depression and Second World War. New York was at that time very much in need of new housing, public amenities and better infrastructure. Moses’s Modernism and its origins in providing for the Public Good, have much to offer public discourse today. Anthony Caro’s key work on Moses “The Power Broker” was recently reimagined by Christin and Balez’s compelling illustrated novel “The Master Builder of New York City.” It would be great to see a movie that now makes Moses’s story more three dimensional.
The movie is also provocative (or perhaps limited) in its world view: as the camera sails over a tower block-strewn, traffic choked landscape of an Asian city, sociologist Saskia Sassen states that what is happening in China today is “Moses on steroids.” It would be great if there are filmmakers who are taking up the challenge to dig beneath this type of generalization: to see how some communities in this vast nation are managing to or participating in urban transformation -if at all- in such a very different political and economic context.
Citizen Jane is an engaging journey that emerging and practicing designers should hold at the front of their minds as they start to draw streets and neighborhoods. At the same time, it provides an excellent introduction to lay audiences to the political, economic forces at work, and the opportunities they have in shaping the city around them.
For LAF/S blog readers: it’s a lesson in how to breathe life into an urban planning or architecture story. It shows us how to emotionally engage with an audience through careful character-building, street cinematography, a well written soundscape and animated mapping.
Citizen Jane should also inspire LAF/S readers that there are many more passionate stories to be told, of those working today to improve cities, perhaps hidden from view from the wider discourse, but working at a small scale, operating through incremental change; managing to navigate the often forbidding urban landscapes of the 21st Century.
Perhaps Jacobs herself would never have imagined the tools we urban filmmakers and storytellers have at our disposal today. Armed with a smartphone and the web, we can instantly share our ambitions and frustrations with a global constituency. If Jacobs were campaigning now, would she be writing a book or uploading a video?
Full film can be viewed online on-demand here