Citizen Jane: Battle For The City


Reviewed by: Jane Fae

Citizen Jane: Battle For The City
"This documentary fails to join the dots or link a past that still resonates with a controversial present."

Far be it from me to mark down a production whose title celebrates my very own name, but I was less than impressed by documentary Citizen Jane: Battle For The City. I kept watching because it provided some useful insights into an issue – urban development – which is very dear to my heart.

It even, for those new to this debate, probably provided fresh perspectives and quite possibly changed a few minds. But this is old stuff: a message we have heard before and more succinctly.

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The starting point for Citizen Jane is the fact that we are on our way to a future in which three-quarters of the world's population will live in cities. The important question, therefore, is how we shall build those cities. What will they look like? And what processes will we follow to ensure that that future reflects the needs and wants of the people who live in them.

Citizen Jane addresses that debate by focusing in on an epic struggle for the heart of New York. On one side, overzealous “master builder” Robert Moses, whose regeneration plans in the Fifties and Sixties led to the replacement of one generation of slum swellings with a series of grandiose high-rise schemes that then became the problem housing for the next generation. On the other, Jane Jacobs, activist and author, whose The Death And Life Of Great American Cities, first published in 1960, sent shockwaves through the architecture and planning worlds.

The debate – light and dark, old and new, top down vs bottom up – is as Manichaean as it can be. In personal style, approach and ideology, Jacobs and Moses might as well be from different planets. Moses emerges from early outwardly successful regeneration efforts with unshakeable conviction that the solution lies in grand schemes, as well as the disruption of existing neighbourhoods, which he sees as breeding grounds for criminality, and empowerment for the automobile industry.

Jacobs, by contrast, sees cities as living, breathing entities, dependent on the people who live in them. For her, Moses wilful destruction of neighbourhoods was anathema and ultimately the cause of his later failure and dismissal.

There is much that is fascinating here, not least in the way that the documentary uses footage of the two protagonists giving their unguarded personal views on the battle. Jacobs retells with clear relish the council meeting where she planned to get up on the table and walk across it, to demonstrate how local residents might feel about having an urban freeway foisted on their district; Moses speaks forthrightly about how the wishes of a few hundred or even thousand people cannot be allowed to get in the way of progress.

These are all positives.

On the debit side, the personalisation of this battle is just a little heavy-handed. No doubt Moses and Jacobs were both instrumental in putting forward opposing cases but the idea that it was ALL on one or the other is to erase the undoubted hundreds of campaigners – on both sides - who backed them up. There is lack of clarity, too, as to whether this is about the battle of ideas, in which case focus on Jacobs' book and other campaigners seems appropriate – or personal battle. In the end, Citizen Jane alternates the two, becoming neither.

Then there is the musical score: bold, brash, driving; everything, in fact, that Moses might have approved of. The sense, while watching, is that director/producer Matt Tyrnauer is deliberately using music to rivet the various segments of his work together, but in the end, this brashness became distracting.

And then there is the significance of the documentary itself. These are old battles, important ones – yet they are, still, past battles mostly brought up to the Eighties and Nineties by the narrative and then abandoned. The fundamental issues of urban regeneration and big development remain with us. Indeed, with gentrification being the order of the day across London, they are with us now as never before. But this documentary fails to join the dots or link a past that still resonates with a controversial present.

Good try, but lacking focus and at 90 minutes, perhaps a little overlong.

Reviewed on: 27 Apr 2017
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In the 1960s, writer and activist Jane Jacobs fights against NYC’s most ruthless power broker, Robert Moses, and his draconian urban redevelopment plans.
Amazon link

Director: Matt Tyrnauer

Year: 2016

Runtime: 92 minutes

Country: US


DOC NYC 2016

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