Citizen Jane: Does the new film get it right?

cover poster
© Citizen Jane Poster

In Robert Caro’s masterwork biography of Robert Moses, the Power Broker, there is not a mention of Jane Jacobs; evidently the book was too big and the chapter on her was deleted, not deemed to be important enough. When Lewis Mumford reviewed Death and Life of American Cities in 1962, he titles it “Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies” and at one point calls it “a mingling of sense and sentimentality, of mature judgements and schoolgirl howlers.”

55 years later, we have the public premiere of Citizen Jane| Battle for the City, produced in association with the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation, in which she is a plucky heroine. In a review of the film in Salon, Tom Roston writes of her struggles with Robert Moses:

Jacobs’ ability to organize communities and defeat two of Moses’ major plans in lower Manhattan is a quintessential David and Goliath tale. “This woman who had little power and who wasn’t considered an expert changed the way we think about city planning,” Tyrnauer says. “She was able to defeat Moses.”

And that is the Jane Jacobs portrayed in this film, filled with wonderful film clips of Robert Moses being a tyrant and Jane Jacobs saving lower Manhattan. Marisa Tomei is great as the voice of Jane, and Vincent D'Onofrio is perfectly cast as Robert Moses, especially as Wilson Fisk of Daredevil is this century’s version of a brilliant villain.

rudolph © Paul Rudolph buries the Lower Manhattan Expressway

The film follows Jane through her fights over Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village and the Lower Manhattan Expressway. (As a fan of the work of Paul Rudolph, I think this might have been interesting). It spends perhaps too much time showing housing projects of the sixties that were built on the “tower in the park” model and their subsequent deterioration and the demo-porn of them being blown up; there were many forces at work here that had nothing to do with urban design.

penn© Penn/Rockefeller Foundation conference 1958

So who is Jane Jacobs? Why is she ignored by Caro and derided by Mumford, and then portrayed as someone who popped out of nowhere? She was not a “woman who had little power” or “just a housewife.” She was, since the mid-fifties, a force to be reckoned with, an important writer at what was then the most influential architectural magazine. At a Penn/ Rockefeller Foundation gathering in 1958 she hung out with Mumford, I.M. Pei, Louis Kahn and Kevin Lynch. She wrote Death and Life while on a Rockefeller Foundation grant. I attended their gathering at Penn on the 50th anniversary and it was clear that she was a serious player back then.

Peter Laurence, author of Becoming Jane Jacobs (who makes a very brief appearance in the film) explains the anomaly, how “just a housewife” ends up in a photo like that before her book is published. In a lecture published on his blog he writes:

I discovered not only that the Rockefeller Foundation regarded Jacobs as "the next Lewis Mumford," I came to understand why. I discovered that Jacobs had not had a minor role at Architectural Forum. Although I did not yet understand how someone could be hired in a senior editorial position based on what she had said of her prior career, I discovered that she had done a lot of writing for the magazine and had covered urban redevelopment and renewal in many cities. Not only was her intellectual geography much broader than Greenwich Village, or even New York, the depth of her experience with the subject was much greater.

wall with Jane SloganLloyd Alter/ In Toronto, they paint the walls with Jacobsian grafitti/CC BY 2.0

There are so many versions of Jane Jacobs, so many interpretations. The film portrays the traditional history, the plucky David vs Goliath, the woman who had little power, when by this time she was already profoundly influential. Today, her name and ideas are often misinterpreted or misused; as Paul Goldberger wrote shortly after she died:

…looking at Jacobs’s legacy, I am less concerned with the things she missed or failed to understand than about the things she saw and the way the ideas she cared passionately about seem to have been misunderstood or deliberately misused for purposes that would have appalled her.

Barbara Hall Ken GreenbergLloyd Alter/ Mayor Barbara Hall and Planner Ken Greenberg/CC BY 2.0

Ed Glaeser has written that "An absolute victory for Jacobs means a city frozen in concrete with prices that are too high and buildings that are too low." In fact, exactly the opposite is true. Just prior to the opening of Citizen Jane, I participated in a Janes Walk led by former Mayor Barbara Hall and Planner Ken Greenberg, talking about how Jane influenced them to remove zoning and use restrictions from a large swath of downtown Toronto in 1996. They are standing in front of the first condominium built under those new guidelines, which I built during my short career as a real estate developer. Jane Jacobs apparently liked it.

Today the area is unrecognizable as new buildings, often with live/work spaces on the ground floor, have brought tens of thousands of people into the area. More people now work here than did when it had the restrictive industrial zoning. It’s a huge success.

The film ends with many photos of China and endless tall towers in parks, described as “Robert Moses on steroids.” One gets the sense that her message has been forgotten. Others believe that as our cities get bigger and more crowded with cars, her ideas will have resonance again. Planner Ken Greenberg has written that a city design around Jacobsean principles would be a greener, more diverse and more beautiful place. It's not about master builders, but about people working together- "a strong, deep culture of the city with a widely shared web of relationships, a deep bench of committed city champions and a long collective memory."

deskJane Jacobs' desk/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I do wish the film had ended on a more positive note about the future, and about the role that Jane Jacobs is continuing to play in it. But it is a great introduction to Jane Jacobs, a dramatic retelling of important battles, and thoroughly entertaining. Perhaps it needs a sequel, or maybe a dramatization of the life of Robert Moses, starring Wilson Fisk/ Vincent D'Onofrio.

Citizen Jane: Does the new film get it right?
A great introduction to a writer who changed the planning world

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