Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

As our screening of Citizen Jane: Battle for the City was about to begin last Friday, I remarked “It’s funny; the theatre is full, but the parking lot isn’t like it usually is.” A few of my fellow volunteers replied, “Of course, because it’s people coming to see a film about Jane Jacobs.” I confess that Jacobs was not a figure I was familiar with prior to this film, a fact which I now realize should be a source of embarrassment.

In the film, Jacobs' influential work studying cities and critiquing urban planning is placed alongside such towering figures of American cultural criticism as Betty Friedan, Susan Sontag, and James Baldwin, who recently received the documentary treatment in the riveting I Am Not Your NegroCitizen Jane is structured somewhat differently from that film, which consists almost entirely of Baldwin’s own words. Here Jacobs' own words and voice, are placed alongside those of her friends and foes from the period, through archival footage and voice-over excerpts of her and Moses' writing, as well as contemporary interviewees who provide historical context and elaboration of her influence. All of this is cut together with slow-motion images of city life, past protests, and illustrations. Director Matt Tyrnauer is not interested in reinventing documentary form here, so much as using its conventions to tell Jacobs’ story with mostly unobtrusive filmmaking.

So, what is Jacobs’ story? Well, it is a bit of a David and Goliath story. Goliath, in this instance, is Moses; more specifically, urban planning titan Robert Moses. Moses borrowed the ideas of Le Corbusier, envisioning great American cities coordinated around express highways, sky-scraping high-rises, and impoverished communities concentrated into projects. Future success of these cities, in his hierarchical view, depended on neatly organized architecture, automobiles, and law enforcement. With money and power to back him up, Moses began putting these ideas into action. Then, along came Jane Jacobs, a young woman with an insatiable intellect and a completely different comprehension of how cities work. In her seminal 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs posited that cities are messy because this is how they should be. Amid the perceived chaos, she argued, were underlying structures derived from the needs and habits of the citizens who actually lived there. When men in suits, like Moses, decide to rearrange these complex systems around their own, economically driven agendas everybody loses; but most pointedly, the marginalized poor and racialized citizens are hurt most. I will not parse out the details of Jacobs’ ideas here, though; I am not and expert, and for that, you should seek out this film or read her writing.

During her introduction to the film Carbon Arc programmer Kendra Barnes claimed Jacobs as one of the original “social justice warriors.” The cultural context in which the battle between Jacobs and Moses occurred is strikingly resonant today. Noted throughout the film is the way in which the public debate was gendered, not only because of these two figures, but also the bases backing them up and the writing surrounding them. Many of the marches against Moses plans were arranged and led by mothers; one memorable photo op of Jacobs’ design featured her young daughter in a “ribbon-tying” ceremony, an parody of politicians’ ribbon-cutting addiction. The footage does not feel too far from the recent Women’s Marches against a certain 45th President of the United States of America, another man who made his name with controversial property practices and a history of discrimination. It is also worth mentioning that Jacobs’ early work found a publishing home in magazines like Vogue, demonstrating that Teen Vogue’s political content is not simply a new trend, but a moment in a long history of female-centric journalism’s intellectual bent being overlooked. Despite Jacobs’ wisdom, critics persisted; one scathing review in The New Yorker was titled “Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies”; such subtle, poignant misogyny.

The theories Jacobs gave voice to are likely familiar to cinephiles. One can go back as far as 1927, before Jacobs even began writing, to the classic of German Expressionism and science fiction Metropolis for depictions of urban modernism’s failed ambitions and the class struggle which results. Perhaps more directly related is Ben Wheatley’s 2015 film High-Rise, adapted from the J.G. Ballard novel, depicting the chaotic violence erupting in a single high-rise complex in which the rich architects stay rich, while the lower classes’ needs go unmet. In this season of Carbon Arc’s screenings alone inklings of Jacobs’ insight are useful, from the personal impact of gentrification in Ira Sachs’ family drama Little Men, to urbanization’s impact on Turkey’s free-roaming feline population in Ceyda Torun’s documentary Kedi. I smell a thesis brewing; “The Death and Life of Great Turkish Kitties”, anyone? While these are all wonderful films, this film encourages its audience more explicitly to think about one's own city and the implications of the political maneuvering behind its design. Equally as important is that it is a movie which directly points to Jacobs’ as an originator of many of these ideas, a welcome and necessary addition. Viewers like myself would not be aware of her immense cultural contributions otherwise.

-Nick Malbeuf


Friday, April 28 marks the end of another season of screenings at Carbon Arc. At 7pm, we have the Finnish black-and-white boxing biopic The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki, which garnered rave reviews at the last edition of Cannes. Then, at 9pm, we will end the season with beloved cat documentary KediMake sure to get your tickets early, and visit our homepage to subscribe to our newsletter and receive updates on our upcoming seasons!