Ottawa Citizen

No plain Jane here

Doc ex­plores how ci­ties re­ally work



★★★ ½ out of 5

Cast: Jane Ja­cobs, ur­ban ex­perts old and new

Direc­tor: Matt Tyr­nauer

Du­ra­tion: 1 h 33 min Jane Ja­cobs, who died in 2006 at the age of 89, is notable for the things she didn’t leave be­hind. In New York, she is known for the lack of a Lower Man­hat­tan Ex­press­way. In Toronto, the Spad­ina Ex­press­way owes its non-ex­is­tence in part to her efforts. And given how in­fre­quently we do any­thing about traf­fic ex­cept com­plain, this would seem to be a fab­u­lous ab­sence of a legacy.

Matt Tyr­nauer’s Cit­i­zen Jane: Bat­tle for the City isn’t en­tirely about the fa­mous jour­nal­ist and ac­tivist. She func­tions in this film much as she did in life, as a font of ideas about ur­ban liv­ing and a ral­ly­ing point for those no­tions.

It is equally about Robert Moses, long­time New York City plan­ner and build­ing czar — and, as that in­for­mal ti­tle sug­gests, a ful­crum of al­most ab­so­lute power when it came to bull­doz­ing slums and erect­ing new hous­ing projects and free­ways in their place.

Ja­cobs and Moses clashed re­peat­edly and pub­licly, most no­tably when the pub­lish­ers of her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great Amer­i­can Ci­ties, sent a copy to his of­fice. He re­turned it with a let­ter that de­scribed it as in­tem­per­ate, in­ac­cu­rate and li­bel­lous. And “junk.”

The doc­u­men­tary is a fairly stan­dard pa­rade of archival footage and talk­ing heads, in­clud­ing an ur­ban­ist/the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist (!) and civil rights ad­vo­cate James Bald­win, who re­cently fea­tured in his own doc, I Am Not Your Ne­gro. But it’s an im­por­tant story, and one in which there are tech­ni­cally no vil­lains. Even Moses thought he was do­ing a good thing for peo­ple, at least on some level. But what he por­trayed as re­newal, Ja­cobs saw as sack­ing the city, and called it such.

A jour­nal­ist and a cu­ri­ous city-dweller — she once de­voted an ar­ti­cle to man­hole cov­ers — Ja­cobs re­al­ized that mod­ern ci­ties thrive on an “or­ga­nized com­plex­ity” that can look like un­bri­dled chaos to plan­ners who pre­fer a san­i­tized, God’s -eye view. Says one of her acolytes: “If you can un­der­stand a city, that city is dead.”

The film takes us through not just Ja­cobs’ op­po­si­tion to un­tram­melled, car-cen­tric con­struc­tion — start­ing with a plan to push streets through Wash­ing­ton Square in Lower Man­hat­tan — but also the kind of think­ing that drove her ac­tivism.

It ends with the state­ment that these bat­tles are con­tin­u­ing in the new me­trop­o­lises of China, but they will be of no less in­ter­est to Cana­dian city-dwellers, for whom the war on cars (or bikes, or pedes­tri­ans, de­pend­ing on where and whether you stand) con­tin­ues to shape ur­ban de­vel­op­ment. Ja­cobs and Moses are no longer with us, but their ur­gent points of view live on.

 ??  ?? Jane Ja­cobs
Jane Ja­cobs

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada