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Why the Jane Jacobs vs. Robert Moses Battle Still Matters

A Q&A with Matt Tyrnauer, director of Citizen Jane: Battle For The City.

Jane Jacobs moved to Toronto in 1968 after being arrested during her ultimately successful battle against Robert Moses and his plans for a Lower Manhattan Expressway. In her new city, where she stayed until her death in 2006, Jacobs fought off yet another planned expressway, consulted on occasional development projects, spoke out against amalgamation, and continued to write books.

But in 2017, the story of how she helped defeat the world’s most infamous urban planning villain still generates inspiration from old and new audiences in New York and afar. A new film by Matt Tyrnauer, Citizen Jane: Battle For The City, packages that story around the damage felt across so many American cities in the 20th century through urban renewal. But it also reminds viewers that today’s urbanizing world has no lack of bad ideas worth fighting against right now.

Citizen Jane doesn’t necessarily shed new light on the main characters or the plot, but it does serve as a concise and approachable lens into what Jacobs stood for. It also shows just how she was able to hand Moses a rare loss in a career that allowed him to easily bulldoze—literally and figuratively—through the five boroughs.

Tyrnauer’s documentary is popping up in select theaters across the country this spring. CityLab caught up with him recently to discuss Citizen Jane and what made him want to tell the Jacobs vs. Moses story today:

What makes architecture and urbanism interesting to you as a filmmaker?

The city as a subject for a documentary is fascinating to me. Cities are the most photogenic places, and the archival footage and photography of New York City can be so mesmerizing. I was excited to be able to work with that material—everything from Helen Levitt to Fred McDarrah, back further to Jacob Riis. Amazing stuff. And I was very happy going around shooting cities—buildings and city life on the sidewalks, which is what Jacobs explained is the city. She would say, “It’s the people who make it.” In other words, the buildings are not the city, which is what I used to think before reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Jacobs, in a way, set everyone straight. A city is a diverse network of people, mutually supporting each other. It’s a social capital organism. This is a radically different vision of the city. Jacobs was a visionary, a great writer, and a public intellectual. We need more public intellectuals in this country—especially right now—so the idea of making a film “starring” one was appealing. To bring her ideas to a broad audience seemed like a fine challenge.

Why do you think the Jane Jacobs vs. Robert Moses story matters today?

Speaking truth to power. That’s what Jacobs did in the ‘50s and ‘60s. And she won a lot of her public fights. What better story to tell today, when we need citizen soldiers to fight back against the numerous injustices being inflicted on vulnerable populations.

Jacobs was defending vulnerable minority communities in her day. We can learn from her strategies and be inspired by her and all of the people who fought along side her.   

How did your views on both of them change as you worked on this project?

I read Death and Life a few times as well as all of her other books. I just became more and more impressed with her brilliance. She seems more and more prescient.

When I read her final book, Dark Age Ahead for the first time a few years back, it seemed a bit alarmist. Not at all now. She predicted a lot of the erosion of civil society that we see happening today. As for Moses: Well, that Nixonian over-the-top “you can’t make an omelet with out breaking a few eggs” type of American political monster is a favorite type of dark character. Moses really delivers on film. He’s a special kind of monster, which you see in The Power Broker, but to hear and see him on film! Wow! He’s a great antagonist.

From the people you interviewed for this, was there an insight or a quote that stuck with you or changed the way you understand urban renewal?

Dr. Mindy Fullilove, referring to James Baldwin’s famous line, “Urban renewal is Negro removal,” points out that Baldwin was saying, “This is an assault, meaning ‘go away, over there somewhere inhospitable where you can just die.’” She’s right, and it’s an utterly shameful chapter in our history. I loved being able to use that archival film of Baldwin making his famous observation.

What do you hope a North American audience gets out of viewing your film as opposed to someone in China or India, both of which—as the film indicates—are experiencing a 'Moses on steroids' type of growth today?

I think everyone can take away different things from the film, depending on their circumstances, but I think more important is the universal takeaway. Jacobs tells us that we must be skeptical. We must look and listen for ourselves and then act to make the changes that will help our communities improve and thrive. You can’t leave it to the “experts.” There are no experts. The expert has to be you.

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