City Planning As A Contact Sport In 'Citizen Jane: Battle For The City'

Apr 21, 2017

Imagine city planning as a contact sport and you have the gist of Matt Tyrnauer's documentary, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City. The film chronicles the struggle between two mid-20th century worldviews: that of Robert Moses, who preached a cure for what ailed American cities that amounted to "bulldoze and replace," and the less destructive prescriptions of writer/activist Jane Jacobs, who challenged the whole notion of urban renewal in her game-changing book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

She was the David to his Goliath. As New York's unelected but powerful parks commissioner, transit czar and head of public works, Moses was intent on creating the city of tomorrow — a place of glistening, angular high-rises, soaring bridges, and superhighways. And in the 1950s and '60s, he had the muscle to make them happen. As he talks of cutting out the "cancer" of slums, the images on-screen are of whole blocks being demolished by wrecking ball and explosives.

But it's a feature of such top-down approaches to city planning that when you take a view from the clouds, the city's inhabitants become mere specks on your architectural models.

"Today our greatest single problem is tenant removal," Moses intones matter-of-factly. "You have to move people out of the way of a slum clearance project, and a lot of them are not gonna like it." Grant the man a gift for understatement.

While he designed crisp city blocks from on high, Jane Jacobs was looking at New York from street level. To her a city wasn't about buildings — it was about people. Planners like Moses may have seen newsstands and folks sitting on front stoops as clutter, but Jacobs saw a vibrant streetscape.

They were natural antagonists, these two. And with archival footage and talking heads, the filmmakers lay out the differences in their outlooks, and then revisit their biggest battles. Over, say, the Moses plan to declare much of Greenwich Village a slum, so he could run traffic — think of his neighborhood-killing Cross Bronx Expressway — through the center of Washington Square.

Jacobs had just published her book Death and Life at that point, and she lived in Greenwich Village. Moses, foolishly, termed her just a mother with a baby carriage. He would soon learn not to underestimate mothers.

"There is nothing more inert than a planning office," Jacobs says in a voiceover. "It gets going in one direction and it is never going to change of its own accord." So she made it her business to "frustrate planners."

The film documents how she mobilized the neighborhood, and then the politicians, and proved that the people of Greenwich Village could fight city hall.

But the Moses doctrine of bulldoze-and-replace was making a lot of money for developers, and it was spreading. Cities everywhere followed his lead, ripping out run-down neighborhoods to construct soulless, low-income high-rises that no one wanted.

The film shows the result — Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, Cabrini-Green in Chicago — huge, sterile towers surrounded by ribbons of concrete and what sketches depicted as parkland but what were, in reality, the equivalent of empty lots. Jacobs predicted correctly that these walled-in green spaces would prove more dangerous than the busy streets they replaced because no one would ever be in them.

"This is not the re-building of cities" she wrote. "This is the sacking of cities."

It would be hard to watch Citizen Jane: Battle for the City without making connections to battles raging today: politicians who want to build things — walls, infrastructure — to clean up clutter and make people conform.

Jacobs argued that what looks to officialdom like disorder is actually what makes a crowded human landscape function — it's just a more complex order. This compelling documentary lets you see the beauty she found in that complexity.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

City planning is portrayed as a contact sport in the new documentary "Citizen Jane: Battle For The City." The film is about activist Jane Jacobs, who fought New York's master builder, Robert Moses, when he was at the height of his power. Critic Bob Mondello says it was never a fair fight but that didn't slow her down.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: She was the David to his Goliath. Designing the city of tomorrow, he saw high-rises, bridges, superhighways. And in the 1950s and '60s, he had the muscle to make them happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CITIZEN JANE: BATTLE FOR THE CITY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The legendary power broker Robert Moses represented the authority of the great man who was going to come into the city with his carving knife and clear away the cancerous tissue...

MONDELLO: The images on screen are of whole blocks being demolished by wrecking ball and explosives.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CITIZEN JANE: BATTLE FOR THE CITY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...And replace it with the shiny implements of modernist planning.

MONDELLO: Robert Moses with models and sketches.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CITIZEN JANE: BATTLE FOR THE CITY")

ROBERT MOSES: You have to move a lot of people out of the way - a big housing project or some clearance project. A lot of them aren't going to like it.

MONDELLO: Grant the man a gift for understatement. While he designed crisp city blocks from on-high, Jane Jacobs was looking at New York from street level. To her, a city wasn't about buildings, it was about people. Planners like Moses may have seen newsstands and folks sitting on front stoops as clutter.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CITIZEN JANE: BATTLE FOR THE CITY")

MOSES: Today, our greatest single problem is tenant removal.

MONDELLO: Jacobs saw a vibrant streetscape.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CITIZEN JANE: BATTLE FOR THE CITY")

JANE JACOBS: I have very little faith in even the kind of person who prefers to take a large overall view of things.

MONDELLO: They were natural antagonists, these two. And with archival footage, director Matt Tyrnauer our revisits their biggest battles - over, say, the Moses plan to declare much of Greenwich Village a slum so he could run traffic, think his neighborhood-killing Cross Bronx Expressway through the center of Washington Square.

Jacobs had just published her book, "The Death And Life Of Great American Cities," and she lived in Greenwich Village. Moses foolishly termed her just a mother with a baby carriage. He would soon learn not to underestimate mothers.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CITIZEN JANE: BATTLE FOR THE CITY")

JACOBS: You know that thing about an inert object? Well, there's nothing more inert in a planning office. It gets going in one direction and it is never going to change of its own accord. If anything was going to happen to reverse the way things were being done, the citizens had to frustrate the planners. I thereupon began to devote myself to frustrating planners.

MONDELLO: Oh, did she. She proved that the people of Greenwich Village could fight City Hall. But the Moses doctrine of bulldoze and replace was making a lot of money for developers and it was spreading.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CITIZEN JANE: BATTLE FOR THE CITY")

MOSES: Well, you have to bull it through. You've got to do it. It's like all these things of having opposition.

MONDELLO: The cities everywhere followed his lead, bulldozing run-down neighborhoods to construct soulless, low-income high-rises that no one wanted. The film shows the result - Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, Cabrini-Green in Chicago - huge sterile towers surrounded by ribbons of concrete and what sketches depicted as parklands but what were in reality the equivalent of empty lots.

Jacobs predicted correctly that these walled-in green spaces would prove more dangerous than the busy streets they replaced because no one would ever be in them. This is not the rebuilding of cities, she wrote, this is the sacking of cities.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CITIZEN JANE: BATTLE FOR THE CITY")

JACOBS: Any city that's tearing down its buildings just to make money for a development or just to have novelty is doing something criminal.

MONDELLO: It would be hard to watch "Citizen Jane: Battle For The City" without making connections to battles raging today, politicians who want to build things - walls, infrastructure - to clean up clutter and make people conform.

Jacobs argued that what looks to them like disorder is actually what makes a crowded human landscape function. It's just a more complex order. And in this fascinating documentary, you can see the beauty she found in that complexity. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE JORDAN TRIO'S "TWO LOVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.