Review: the documentary ‘Citizen Jane: Battle for the City’

Many Torontonians with a vested or even passing interest in city planning issues are already familiar with the work of writer, activist, and speaker Jane Jacobs, particularly her pivotal role in the cancellation of the Spadina Expressway upon her moving here. Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary Citizen Jane: Battle for the City brings her time in Canada up a bit at the end, but focuses predominantly on her early years as a journalist and activist in New York City during the 1960s, painting a well researched look back at her dogged battles with influential city planner and developer Robert Moses.

Jacobs and Moses were diametric opposites in terms of how they thought cities should be constructed, inhabited, and designed. Moses, who comes across in Tyrnauer’s film at every turn like a supervillain straight out of a comic book and whose personality almost singlehandedly became the archetype for every evil land developer in film history, believed in the power of concrete and the automobile. Well connected to city, state, and federal officials, Moses ruthlessly used his connection to forward his belief that enormous housing projects and tenements should replace neighbourhoods, streets, and houses for maximum efficiency and profit, and that superhighways could be huge boons to a city provided that he could get people to move away in order to make room for them.

Jacobs, who started her career as a freelance journalist, was the most eloquent scourge Moses ever faced. Instead of believing that all things modern were somehow sublime and a deterrent to the grittiness that Moses thought plagued New York City, Jacobs realized that the true value of a neighbourhood rests in its people, not in its buildings. When Moses’ plans came to her own Greenwich Village backyard, Jacobs’ opposition to the developer’s homogenization of daily life intensified. Her refutations of myths about “urban renewal” were solidified during this battle and are still cited today by many scholars as a reason to think twice about building upward rather than outward, something the City of Toronto and its sky high housing costs and constant condo construction could learn a thing or two from.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City is a polished primer on one of the greatest civic battles in American history, played out by two people who understood rhetoric and politics despite never expressly being involved in the latter. They were eloquent, masterful opposing forces, and Tyrnauer outlines their successes and missteps in great, but never longwinded detail. Ultimately, Jacobs would be proved right, but Moses’ victories would put a stain on a once great city that would have arguably been better off without him. Moses became an unfortunate footnote in American history, while Jacobs tome The Death and Life of Great American Cities would become one of the greatest and most cited works of urban affairs journalism ever written.

It’s also scarily apt to say that Moses, as depicted in Tyrnauer’s documentary (which made its world premiere at TIFF last fall prior to the presidential election in the U.S.), became the prototype for a developer like Donald Trump to rise to the heights that he has. Like Trump, Moses was able to reinterpret well meaning ideas on urban planning and skew them so he could make the greatest amounts of money possible. Whenever Moses was called out for his greed and avarice, he would snarkily battle back in anger and insist that he did the right thing, no matter how factually incorrect he might have been. If that doesn’t sound like Donald Trump, I don’t know what does, but I do know that we could use another Jane Jacobs right about now.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, Vancity Theatre in Vancouver, The Loft in Coburg, ON, Carbon Arc in Halifax, and The Vic in Victoria, BC on Friday, April 21, 2017. It opens at Bytowne in Ottawa on April 28, Screening Room in Kingston, ON and Cinema du Parc in Montreal on May 12, Gorge Cinema in Elora, ON and the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on May 27, and Winnipeg Cinematheque on June 24.

Prior to the opening night screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday, April 21st, former Toronto mayor Barbara Hall and urban designer Ken Greenberg will conduct a special Jane’s Walk starting at Jane’s Chairs at Memorial Square Park (10 Niagara Street) and ending at 7pm at TIFF Bell Lightbox for the film’s premiere. The walk will take a look at the history of the area between Spadina and Portland. Following the screening of the film, there will be a Town Hall styled panel discussion with special guests Amanda Lewis from Charlie’s FreeWheels, Hibaq Gelle from The Premier’s Council on Youth Opportunities, and a speaker from the Parkdale Neighbouhood Land Trust. Regular TIFF Bell Lightbox ticket prices apply to the screening, and FilmsWeLike will be donating all proceeds from the evening screening to Jane’s Walk.

Jane’s Walk is an international movement founded in Toronto offering free, citizen-led walking tours inspired by Jane Jacobs. The walks get people to tell stories about their communities, explore their cities, and connect with neighbours.  Anyone can lead a walk — because everyone is an expert on the place where they live! The Jane’s Walk annual global festival runs from May 5th to the 7th this year.

Check out the trailer for Citizen Jane: Battle for the City:

Andrew Parker
Andrew Parker fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.