An entirely unbiased review of ‘Citizen Jane: Battle for the City’

Yesterday I had the pleasure of watching ‘Citizen Jane: Battle for the City’ at the International Documentary Film festival of Amsterdam (IDFA). One recommendation I would like to make right away is that you should definitely go to IDFA if you can. I’ve been going every year for about four years now, and there are always inspiring, thought-provoking, well-made films. Citizen Jane is such a film.

Jane Jacobs
Jane Jacobs, photographed by Phil Stanziola—picture via wikipedia

This documentary is centered on the life and work of Jane Jacobs, although it starts by discussing an entirely different person: Robert Moses. The film does a good job of adding some drama by concentrating on Jacobs’s fight against Moses’ urban renewal projects in and around New York City. The film even puts Moses’ work into perspective by showing his much-lauded work in creating public parks. It also talks about modernist ideals of architecture and urban design coming from Europe and finding roots in the United States. The film shows how Moses applied these ideals in his work, creating many highways and other infrastructure projects, and replacing existing city blocks, then referred to as slums, with Corbusian towers in a park.

The documentary highlights how Jacobs, who was a journalist, not an urban planner, had been writing about urban renewal projects and how she came to realize faults inherent in these projects. Even though she was not a community organizer, she was able to organize a grassroots resistance against the demolishing of her own neighborhood—defying and ultimately prevailing against Robert Moses. The film shows how she was invaluable in organizing several other community protests against proposed urban plans, such as the building of a highway straight through Washington Square Park. It thus pits the two central characters of the film—Moses and Jacobs—against each other as ‘top down’ versus ‘bottom up’ approaches.

The only thing that I wish had received more attention is Jacobs’ thoughts on urban design—what makes cities pleasant, according to her seminal 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities? The film does talk a little bit about sidewalks, eyes on the street, density, and mixed-use buildings, but I wish I had seen more. The film also includes a lot of random archival footage of city life, where I think in certain places drawings and diagrams may have been more appropriate.

Nevertheless, it’s a great documentary, especially because of its beginning and end, where it places the story of Jane Jacobs in a global context. The lessons we learned from her are still valid today, and have perhaps never been more important, in this rapidly urbanizing world.

So if you can, go see Citizen Jane: Battle for the City!