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
More Film...
Loving Vincent
Art imitates art

Loving Vincent is billed as the “world’s first fully painted feature film,” and I have no reason to doubt the claim. The Vincent in the title of this very strange movie is the great Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh, and you would think he already had more than his share of biopics.

The…

more »
Murder On the Orient Express
Branagh’s magnificent mustache

When the biggest difference between the new version of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and its 43-year-old predecessor is arguably the size of the respective Hercule Poirot’s moustaches, one has to wonder as to the pressing need for a remake. All the same, director-star…

more »
78/52
Hitchcock’s Shower Scene

For a long time now, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho has been two movies, and the hypnotic film-geek documentary 78/52 is an ingenious and irreverent master class in both of them. There is, of course, the “Psycho” that shocked audiences to their souls when it was released in 1960: the one…

more »
Events
Today
Home for the Holidays

5:00pm|Ferndale Events Center

The 39 Steps

7:00pm|Sehome High School Little Theatre

Little Women

7:00pm|Ferndale High School

Peter and the Star Catcher

7:00pm|Squalicum High School

Romeo, You Idiot!

7:30pm|Heiner Theater

Fools

7:30pm|Mount Baker High School

Craft Bazaar

9:00am|American Legion Post #43

Holiday Festival of the Arts

10:00am|Meridian Street

Hot Cider & Cool Art

10:00am|Morgan Block Studios

Used Book Sale

10:00am|Everson Library

Red Barn Handpicked Holiday Market

12:00pm|Northwest Washington Fairgrounds

Holiday Gifts from the Kitchen

3:00pm|Lynden Library, Ferndale Library

It's Where the Sidewalk Ends

6:00pm|Bellingham Arts Academy for Youth

New Music, New Dance

7:30pm|Performing Arts Center Concert Hall

The Big Short One-Act Festival

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

Bellingham Repertory Dance's Emerge

7:30pm|Firehouse Performing Arts Center

Backyard Brawl

8:00pm|Upfront Theatre

VFW Breakfast

8:00am|VFW Hall

Pancake Breakfast

8:00am|Ferndale Senior Center

Pancake Feed

8:00am|VFW Post 1585

Holiday Bazaar

9:00am|Hillcrest Chapel

Christmas in the Woods

9:00am|Garden Spot Nursery

NSEA Work Party

9:00am|Acme Elementary School

Turkey Trot

9:00am|Squalicum Creek Park

Climate Reality

10:00am|Bellingham Public Library

South Fork Winterfest

10:00am|Van Zandt Community Hall

Fall Gardening

10:00am|Lynden Library

Cheese Fest

10:00am|Everybody's Store

Bellingham Farmers Market

10:00am|Depot Market Square

Rexville Grange Holiday Art Show

10:00am|Rexville Grange

Holiday Farmers Market

10:00am|Port of Anacortes Transit Shed Event Center

Lynden Book Club

10:30am|Everson Library

Salmon Sighting

12:00pm|Haynie Creek

Conquering Writer's Block

2:00pm|South Whatcom Library

Fishboy Holiday Show

2:00pm|FishBoy Gallery

NaNoWriMo and Indie Publishing

3:00pm|Everson Library

Skagit Wine & Beer Festival

3:00pm|Eaglemont

Homeless Summit and Cold Weather Giveaway

3:00pm|Maritime Heritage Park

i.e. artists talk

3:30pm|i.e. gallery

Small Works Opening

4:00pm|Matzke Fine Art Gallery and Sculpture Park

Smith & Vallee Artist Talk

4:00pm| Smith & Vallee Gallery

WA 129 Poetry Reading

6:00pm|Maple Hall

Giving from the Heart

7:00pm|Depot Art Center

A Light in the Darkness

7:00pm|Church of the Assumption

Welcome Home Celebration

7:00pm|Village Books

Ruach Consort

7:00pm|St. Paul's Episcopal Church

Contra Dance

7:00pm|Eagles Hall

Michael Kaeshammer

7:30pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Legends of the Blues V

7:30pm|Byrnes Performing Arts Center

Village Books
Tomorrow
Peter and the Star Catcher

7:00pm|Squalicum High School

Fools

7:30pm|Mount Baker High School

Holiday Festival of the Arts

10:00am|Meridian Street

Bellingham Repertory Dance's Emerge

7:30pm|Firehouse Performing Arts Center

Rexville Grange Holiday Art Show

10:00am|Rexville Grange

Cheese Fest

10:00am|Everybody's Store

Holiday Farmers Market

10:00am|Port of Anacortes Transit Shed Event Center

Rabbit Ride

8:00am|Fairhaven Bicycle

Community Breakfast

8:00am|American Legion Post #43

Rabbit Ride

8:30am|Fairhaven Bicycle

Getting in on the act

1:00pm

Sound of Music Singalong

1:00pm|Lincoln Theatre

A Musical Thanksgiving

2:00pm|McIntyre Hall

Harmony from Discord with Whatcom Symphony Orchestra

3:00pm|Mount Baker Theatre

The 25th Hour

4:00pm|Village Books

Southside Community Meal

5:00pm|Our Saviour's Lutheran Church

Way North Comedy Showcase

7:00pm|Farmstrong Brewing Co.

Rutie Dornfeld, John Miller

7:00pm|YWCA Ballroom

Bellingham Farmer’s Market Village Books
Monday
Holiday Festival of the Arts

10:00am|Meridian Street

Wander + Camber Beer Dinner

6:30pm|Camber Cafe

Rocks & Gems

7:00pm|Bloedel Donovan Community Building

Guffawingham

9:30pm|Green Frog

see our complete calendar »

Bellingham Farmer’s Market Trove Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1 Village Books