Film

Citizen Jane

Battle for the City

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, directed by the gifted journalist and documentarian Matt Tyrnauer (Valentino: The Last Emperor), 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. It explores the scope and meaning of that overly familiar thing—the city—in ways that will box open your thinking. It’s a finely woven tapestry that feels as relevant and alive as the place you live.

It’s also got great sparks of conflict. The movie features two nearly mythological antagonists. In one corner is Robert Moses, the scabrous New York power broker and 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 (1961), 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—and influential—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 challengingly supple and vibrant analysis of why cities, which we mostly take for granted, are in fact rather magical places. Even if you live in one and think you know it inside out, you come away from Citizen Jane understanding, more than you did going in, the special chemistry of what makes a city tick.

It comes from the ground up—and that’s the tricky thing to see, since urban planning generally occurs from the top down. Moses started out in the ’30s as a progressive thinker, but his idea of what it would take to make cities better evolved into a Teutonic, machine-age vision of monolithic apartment buildings in massively organized rows and “clean” streetscapes erected in place of all the neighborhood hurly-burly. We see Moses in clips from the ’40s and ’50s, a blustery, dour-looking man whose eyes gleam with reptilian cunning, and each time he talks about making things better, he expresses such high-handed contempt for those who’ll be displaced that he sounds like he’s talking about roaches. His “philosophy” walks a thin line between improvement and incineration.

Jane Jacobs rejects all of this, but not just on basic common moral human grounds. At heart, she’s an anthropologist, and her subject is the mysterious spirituality of neighborhoods: the way they evolve, over generations, into thriving organic places that are nurturing and protective and are embedded with stories that rise out of the streets. Jacobs makes the point that true neighborhoods, with clusters of small businesses and people sitting on stoops, are far safer than the stark moonscapes proposed by Moses—there are more people around, so the streets are more naturally patrolled. (Sure enough, once housing projects started to get built, they turned out to be far more dangerous places.) More than just “blocks,” they’re human networks, enveloping hives.

Jacobs’ first fight with him is over his attempt to extend Fifth Avenue through the center of Washington Square Park. What Moses really wanted to do was take a gathering place and put a spike through it. Jacobs, who at this point was an unknown journalist thought of by her foes as a “housewife,” wrote letters, went to meetings, formed and led a coalition, and in the end shot the plan down.

Born in 1916, Jacobs is a bohemian scamp who starts off writing about the city for places like Vogue. By the time she reaches her 40s, she has evolved into an activist, but in the least self-righteous way possible—she wants to preserve her home. In the duel between herself 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 (The Feminine Mystique) and Rachel Carson (Silent Spring). Jacobs’ vision of the city was bravely and spectacularly feminine: She viewed it as a teeming enigmatic 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.

Since we’re talking about buildings, it’s no stretch to say that there’s something more than a little Trumpian about Moses. His drive to erect looming, impersonal housing was a form of control; his desire to sweep everything else away was even worse—a fascism of the spirit. What Jacobs fought and defeated, most dramatically by keeping a highway out of lower Manhattan, was the prototype for urban planning that would steamroll everyone it was supposed to be planning for. 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.

Btown Valentines
More Film...
Phantom Thread
A well-spun tale

The delectable peculiarities of Phantom Thread come from all over, from countless inspirations. Some are cinematic: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 Gothic standard Rebecca, for one, and David Lean’s little-known and fascinating 1949 romantic triangle The Passionate Friends, for another.

Other…

more »
The Post
The pen vs. the sword

As it is with The Post, so it is with many Steven Spielberg movies. We sit there, a little interested, a little bit detached, thinking, well, this is OK, nothing special, but perfectly fine. And then—who knows how he does it?—the camera moves in on a face, the soundtrack swells, and…

more »
Darkest Hour
Never surrender

Winston Churchill lived a life that was long and “not…entirely uneventful,” as he once put it, and so it’s only fitting that he should be the subject of movies. Hence, across the veil of years, we have seen tall Churchills, obese Churchills, sloppy Churchills, gross Churchills, and…

more »
Events
Today
Cascade Games Convention

9:00am|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

Wild Things

9:30am|Lake Padden Park

Garage Sale and Health Fair

12:00pm|Settlemyer Hall

Books and Bites

2:00pm|Blaine Library

Post-Holiday Detox

2:00pm|Cordata Community Food Co-op

Coffee Tasting

3:00pm|Camber Cafe

Food Not Bombs

4:00pm|Downtown Bellingham

Bellingham Folk Festival

4:30pm|Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship

Art Auction Gala

5:30pm|Whatcom Museum's Lightcatcher Building

Anacortes Women's March

6:00pm|Depot Arts Center

Family Story Night

6:00pm|Fairhaven Library

Sierra Club Winter Member Party

6:30pm|Boundary Bay Brewery

Xanadu

7:00pm|Bellingham Arts Academy for Youth

Opera Scenes

7:30pm|Performing Arts Center

The Flick

7:30pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Tropical Heat Wave Dance

8:00pm|Majestic

Space Trek, Backyard Brawl

8:00pm|Upfront Theatre

Five for Fighting

8:00pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1
Tomorrow
Cascade Games Convention

9:00am|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

Garage Sale and Health Fair

12:00pm|Settlemyer Hall

Bellingham Folk Festival

4:30pm|Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship

Xanadu

7:00pm|Bellingham Arts Academy for Youth

The Flick

7:30pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Space Trek, Backyard Brawl

8:00pm|Upfront Theatre

Pancake Breakfast

8:00am|Ferndale Senior Center

VFW Breakfast

8:00am|VFW Hall

Smoking Crow Opening

9:00am|Smoking Crow

Mason Bee Management

9:00am|Garden Spot Nursery

Nordic Ski Ambassadors

10:00am|SnoPark at Salmon Ridge

Plant Society Field Trip

10:00am|Birch Bay State Park

Skagit Eagle Festival

10:00am|Howard Miller Steelhead Park

March on Bellingham

10:00am|Bellingham City Hall

Winter Farmers Market

10:00am|Depot Market Square

Of marching and mending

12:00pm

Travel to Cuzco and Machu PIcchu

1:00pm|Blaine Library

Mysticism in Art

2:00pm|Skagit County Historical Museum

Mona Openings

2:00pm|Museum of Northwest Art

Cedar Weaving Workshop

2:00pm|Lynden Library

Teddy Bear Biographies

2:00pm|Ferndale Library

Exploring Port

2:00pm|Seifert & Jones Wine Merchants

Learn to Grow a Vegetable Garden

2:00pm|Sumas Library

The Fight Against Human Trafficking

3:00pm|Everson Library

Kindgom Quest

4:00pm|Village Books

Music and Memories

5:00pm|Swinomish Casino & Lodge

Robert Burns Supper

5:30pm|Littlefield Celtic Center

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

Ensemble Electra

7:30pm|Jansen Art Center

The Good Lovelies

7:30pm|Lincoln Theatre

Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1 Village Books
Sunday
Cascade Games Convention

9:00am|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

Bellingham Folk Festival

4:30pm|Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship

Xanadu

7:00pm|Bellingham Arts Academy for Youth

Skagit Eagle Festival

10:00am|Howard Miller Steelhead Park

Community Breakfast

8:00am|American Legion Post #43

Rabbit Ride

8:00am|Fairhaven Bicycle

Rabbit Ride

8:30am|Fairhaven Bicycle

Bellingham Chamber Music Society

3:00pm|First Congregational Church

Nonfiction and Memoir Writing Group

3:00pm|Village Books

Southside Community Meal

5:00pm|Our Saviour's Lutheran Church

Way North Comedy

7:00pm|Farmstrong Brewing Co.

see our complete calendar »

Village Books FiveFor Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1