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Citizen Jane: Battle for the City – 2017 – Film Review

7.5

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City was an interesting viewing experience. That’s not intended as a back-handed compliment. It’s not the film critic equivalent of “But, she has a good personality.” It was an “interesting” viewing experience because I knew absolutely nothing about the subject (the history of urban planning in New York City) going into the film, and I was completely unfamiliar with the central figures depicted in the documentary (Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses). Consequently, the film held my interest because it was new intellectual territory for me, personally.

The film opens with a study in urban sociology and the two contrasting theories of dealing with growing populations. One school of thought that swept the country in the 20th century espoused destroying sub-standard residential areas and building high-rise housing projects for the economically disadvantaged. Everyone would have a clean apartment or unit to live in, helping to eradicate disease and the other ills of poverty. The contrary opinion held that wiping out existing neighborhoods negatively impacts local culture and civic pride by replacing a (frequently) ethnic community with a sterile neighborhood of concrete pens to house the less fortunate.

The showdown between these ideals took place in New York City in the 1950’s and 60’s.  Robert Moses was the powerful civic planner and administrator who advocated the relocation of the less fortunate to housing projects provided by the city.  It was big business that lined the pockets of contractors and politicians as well as Moses, himself. Jane Jacobs believed in taking a street-level view of urban planning. Preserving local culture was her primary focus.  Her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, became a modern treatise on the subject that is still studied to this day.  (A 50th anniversary edition of the book was released just a few years ago.)

If a battle of sociological theories sounds like a snore, then Citizen Jane: Battle for the City is not the film for you. Although it appears to be a David versus Goliath underdog story, the focus is not on the personal drama of the conflict between Moses and Jacobs, but rather on the underlying arguments and their respective validity as theories for dealing with the challenges of urban population growth.

The film takes the standard journalistic approach of “talking head” interviews, combined with historical footage and audio recordings as well as vintage newspaper clippings and photos. The film avoids looking into the personal lives and possible motivations behind Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. What causes a woman to crusade to preserve the culture of the under-privileged? The audience is left wondering. The focus of the film is the deeds performed by Jane Jacobs and not her rationale for doing so. Citizen Jane depicts the issues and the arguments while largely ignoring Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses, the people. And that’s the film, I would have preferred to see.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City is currently playing at Landmark Theatre locations across the country.




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