Jane Jacobs, with her signature oval glasses, began a lifelong dedication to fighting urban renewal when plans emerged to continue Fifth Avenue through Washington Square Park. Critics labeled her a “housewife” who couldn’t possibly be more than a fly in the ointment of the project, but Jacobs had been writing and reporting about cities and architecture long before the park was threatened. Her story and the lessons of her groundbreaking book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” are the focus of a new documentary, “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City,” which premieres on April 21 at select theaters. Matt Tyrnauer, the film’s director, and producer Robert Hammond, who is also the executive director of Friends of the High Line, got the idea for the documentary several years ago when they realized there had never been a film about Jacobs before. “We thought we’d be introducing this film about a very brilliant woman who was sort of a seer, a visionary in a lot of ways, and politically active, in an atmosphere when we had the first woman president,” Tyrnauer said at a screening last Thursday. “Much to our surprise, it went the other way. There’s some resonances in the film that maybe were unintended but it’s interesting to see how the public has received them.”
Hammond described the film as “a playbook for resistance,” and hopes that viewers will be able to learn from Jacobs how best to fight their battles. “What’s interesting now is people getting out in the street — it’s not just about liking things on Facebook — and that’s what she did,” Hammond said at the screening. “She got people out there to hearings and with great slogans. That’s one of the things that I hope … as people use this, not just about the ideas, but how do you organize.”
The documentary features interviews with Jacobs’ friends and numerous experts in the fields of economics, urban planning and engineering, including Mindy Fullilove, a research psychiatrist at Columbia University, and Jason Epstein, who edited Jacobs’ book. It tells of the rivalry between Jacobs and infamous power broker Robert Moses, who is responsible for the Sheridan Expressway that current governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced a plan to tear down. Vintage television footage and energetic illustrations punctuate the roughly 90-minute film.
Sweeping aerial shots of foreign cities serve to remind the viewer that Jacobs’ theories, and her many warnings against “slum clearance” and super-highways, apply throughout the globe, not just in New York City. “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” cautiously advocates for urban areas that “have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody,” and it breaks down in great detail the reasons classical urban planners have overlooked the very residents they are planning for.
Trynauer prefaced the screening by saying that most people, especially outside New York City, have likely never heard of Jacobs. “We hope that this film has the kind of reach where people do learn about her,” he said, emphasizing that the documentary is for a general audience and not just “urban planning junkies.” “We really need to understand these characters from our past or we are doomed to repeat history.”
Madeleine Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org