Film Review – Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, Who Knew Urban Planning Could Be So Captivating?

Photograph courtesy of Sundance Selects

Nothing says the early days of early-summer moviegoing like a documentary about architecture. In fact, the latest from director Matt Tyrnauer (Valentino: The Last Emperor) is more than just that; it details the long-running battle between two schools of thought on city planning—one that emphasizes clearing out slums and packing as many people into an area as possible versus another that believed that cities were there to serve the people and make life easier for them and not the cars that were simply passing through on their way to somewhere else.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City centers on the ideas and activism of Jane Jacobs, author of the definitive work on the subject “The Death and Life of the Great American Cities,” published in 1961, and consummate outsider in the male-dominated world of urban planning, whose king was New York building czar Robert Moses, who never missed an opportunity to designate a lower- or middle-class neighborhood a slum and often designated them for leveling to be replaced by impersonal high rises that often resulted in higher numbers of poor people forced to live on top of each other.

But Jacobs saw the value in old-fashioned low-rise apartments where people could actually gather on the sidewalks or streets and keep an eye on what was happening in the neighborhoods. She celebrated the personal touch and the belief that knowing one’s neighbor meant caring about one’s neighborhood. And yet, she was called a crackpot and put down for being a housewife activist, despite the psychological logic to her ideas on human interaction trumping big, open, impersonal spaces between monolithic dwellings.

Citizen Jane is told in a straightforward manner, using all manner of rare archival footage as well as interviews with modern architects, all of whom see the error in the old way of thinking and view Jacobs’ views as gospel that changed the world of city planning. The film gets even more interesting as Jacobs shifts from author to activist for individual New York neighborhood about to meet the wrecking ball, and as she saved one after the other, she became a community leader and savior of the common people against a corrupt system that took money from land developers and ignored tax-paying residents.

As you listen to Jacobs’ idea on city living, you’ll likely see examples of her philosophy in action all around you. A film like Citizen Jane feels quite timely as an illustration of common sense and the truth winning out of unbridled abuse of power. And without spoiling anything, it’s nice to see the side with the best ideas win definitively.

The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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