Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

Poster for Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, helped change the way we look at urban living. Her writing and activism had a direct impact on neighbourhoods in Manhattan and Toronto, and influenced city planners all over the world.

Now, in the centenary of her birth, Citizen Jane focuses on Jacobs’ most dramatic battles in the 1960s: when she went up against New York City’s most ruthless power broker, Robert Moses. At stake was whether the city’s historic neighbourhoods of Greenwich Village, Soho, and Little Italy would stay intact or be split apart by expressways.

Filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer takes us into the heyday of magazine journalism, a male-dominated world where Jacobs excelled while raising a family. Despite her lack of a college degree, she immersed herself into the world of urban planning and became an outspoken critic of its leading trends. While developers like Moses focused on automobiles and expressways, Jacobs championed sidewalks and foot traffic.

Moses amassed immense political power in the innocuous-sounding position of New York City Parks Commissioner. By personal fiat, he leveled neighbourhoods to build the Cross Bronx Expressway and other massive projects.

Tyrnauer chronicles how Jacobs marshaled a movement against Moses, when he sought to push through the Lower Manhattan Expressway that would demolish blocks and displace thousands. Afterwards, Jacobs moved to Toronto where she joined the effort to stop the Spadina Expressway and lived for almost four decades.

This inspirational documentary delivers a timely lesson in the power of the people to push back against bullying developers.

“As a history of this war of ideas and as an introduction to Jacobs, the film is essential. But it also pivots toward a great challenge: today’s global urbanization. [A] gorgeous, tightly written and entertaining film.” (Alex Bozilovic, The Globe and Mail)

“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.” (Bob Mondello, NPR)