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.

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Jane Jacobs

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