Monday, May 22, 2017


Activist resists callous city planners in Citizen Jane

Guess what? You can fight City Hall. With engagement, activism, and a keen sense of moral outrage, we, the people, can foil the best-laid plans of mice and politicians, however mighty they may think they are. Matt Tyrnauer's excellent documentary, Citizen Jane: Battle For the City, shows how it's done, a call to arms that could not be more timely in this chaotic political moment.

The city referred to in the movie's subtitle is New York City. The story begins in the late1950s, where the battle lines are drawn between Utopian post-war urban planning and the communities and concerns of real-life people.

Leading the charge is Robert Moses, an imperious, celebrated urban planning czar who callously decrees, "You have to move a lot of people out of the way," (mostly low-income residents) to make room for the so-called "Urban Renewal" he envisions. (Or, as James Baldwin calls it, in a vintage TV clip, "Negro Removal.")

In the opposing corner is journalist Jane Jacobs, who develops her "theory of opposition" to Moses' plans. A city resident since 1934, whose freelance stories on urban life earned her a position as Associate Editor at Architectural Forum magazine, Jacobs believes a city should be "a place with scope for all kinds of people."

Jane Jacobs: resistance in action
She believes that life lived out on the streets, on the stoops of old buildings and the sidewalks in front of them, creates community; even residents without a lot of money can create rich neighborhoods. Whereas Moses' solution is to tear down all the old buildings, eliminate sidewalk culture, and remove people to soulless highrise towers: i.e.: housing projects.

The welfare of the people involved, uprooted from their community life, is a matter of complete indifference to him. "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs," he chuckles, in a TV clip.

Filmmaker Tyrnauer sets up Jacobs vs. Moses as a "battle for the soul of the city." He posits that Jacobs' influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, is as defining a moment in 20th Century radical politics as Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1962), and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1963).

Jacobs consistently fought for the lives and concerns of real people over insular, elitist goals and corporate greed. It's a fight we're still engaged in right now. (Read more in this week's Good Times)

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