“I really dug the film Citizen Jane.”
“Oh, what’s it about?”
“City planning. The planning of cities.”
“I think I’ll skip that one.”
And that would be a terrible mistake. Sure, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City is a film about city planning, but it’s primarily about the people who defined the movements in New York City and how their impact is still being felt all these years later.
In a time when gentrification is destroying cities all across the country, Citizen Jane seems relevant now more than ever. And, though gentrification could not be stopped in New York City, we definitely see how the make-up of the city owes a lot to Jane Jacobs, a reporter turned activist, who fought long and hard to ensure that her beloved New York City stayed a city of the people, for the people, and by the people. Jacobs was a true pioneer and the author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, a comprehensive and easy to understand examination of how redevelopment can destroy what makes a city thrive. Citizen Jane chronicles Jacobs’ career as a champion for the people, but makes her a member of an ensemble that tells a broader story about how people fundamentally misunderstand how cities work.
The best stories have great villains and Citizen Jane gives us one in developer Robert Moses, a wealthy urban planner who basically ran city planning in New York City for decades. His idea for the transformation of the city directly contrasted with Jacobs’ and the two would share more than a couple of battles. Moses is painted as a complicated villain – before WWII, he was evidently a virtuous man who wanted the best for New York; after WWII, he became obsessed with modernizing and eradicating any and all ‘slums’ from the map. He’s the man behind the Bronx Expressway and almost had his way in destroying Washington Square Park, if not for Jacobs and her activism. Though Moses died decades before the release of this film, his negative impact can still be felt throughout the five boroughs.
Going in to Citizen Jane, I was expecting something informative. I was not expecting something this exciting. Citizen Jane plays, sometimes, like a thriller. Watching Jacobs and Moses do battle for the soul of New York City is riveting stuff, even though both of our central characters are seen entirely through archival footage. And they never share a platform together. But we feel Jacobs in everything Moses says/does, and vice versa. I told a friend that Citizen Jane was the most suspenseful film of the year, and I stand by that. We know what happens. We know Greenwich Village doesn’t get torn down. But it’s still nerve-racking to think about how close that important piece of real estate was to getting demolished.
Documentaries live and die by the colorful characters therein. I can’t remember a single talking head in this film, but I remember everything that happened with Jacobs and Moses. Their story is the heart of this film. And it works so well because it’s a true David vs. Goliath tale, a story of how ‘the people’ can defeat ‘the system’ if they work hard and never surrender. Sure, we’ve seen some of this material covered in films like the terrific The Pruitt-Igoe Myth – and Citizen Jane covers that tragic story in brief – but we’ve never seen anything like the epic drama depicted in this film. And, just as I’d hoped on starting the picture, it’s informative as hell. I never imagined city planning could be so fun and so engaging to watch. Citizen Jane is, easily, the most important documentary of 2017, and a necessary realization that what was happening so long ago and being fought against is happening again and being allowed to proceed with barely a whisper.