History is full of people of power and influence acting out of arrogance and ignorance to push forward an agenda they are sure is the way of human progress but is not actually based in any factual or researched bases. This is the portrait that documentarian Matt Tyrnauer paints of urban planner Robert Moses, the forerunner of the urban renewal projects that plagued New York City in the 1960s. Enter Jane Jacobs, journalist, reluctant activist, and writer of the book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. This one woman was the biggest force pushing against establishment wisdom, and it’s her accomplishments that Citizen Jane: Battle for the City paints so positively.
Tyrnauer makes no illusions in how he wishes to present the conflict between Moses and Jacobs, if the title of his film weren’t enough of a giveaway. With a combination of archival footage and talking head expert interviews, Citizen Jane starts by introducing us to the concept of urban renewal as a utopian vision of how a clean and monumental city of the future would function through the idealized lens of a young Robert Moses, but that quickly becomes upended by some obvious truths as pointed out from Jane Jacobs’ own texts, prominently displayed on-screen. People are inherently messy and convoluted in how they organize, and the imposition of order serves only to strangle the diversity out of a city and exacerbate the problems inherent in poverty and class division.
Just as interesting as Jacobs’ crusade for cultural preservation, though, is her personal life and background. She was a woman of education and written prowess in a time when men were the sole gatekeepers to power and influence in government, but Jacobs was able to tap into a well-spring of grassroots dissent that preserved some of the most historically significant neighborhoods of New York City. She was a tactician with a keen eye for optics and a clever debater who valued observable community benefits over wishful corporate thinking that served to line powerful pockets.
What’s arguably the most gripping aspect of Tyrnauer’s documentary is that it isn’t merely a historical portrait, but a relevant lesson for the modern world. As cities grow and expand, we’re seeing a revival of Moses’ idealized buildings in new construction initiatives, with little regard for the impoverished who will be harmed now and the slums that will be created in the future. Citizen Jane: Battle for the City stops just short of drawing a political line in the sand against the privileged classes who stand to profit most from such initiative, instead letting implication and historical example act as dots for the audience to put together. This may come across as a bit dry or obtuse for some viewers, but for the engaged and interested, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City is a worthy documentary about one of the twentieth century’s least referenced activist struggles.