Citizen Jane: Battle for the City is a warm, liberal sweater of a movie, a comfy, affirming documentary about a plucky David—in this case, journalist and neighborhood activist Jane Jacobs—triumphing over a nasty Goliath. That Goliath is Robert Moses, the urban planner whose Cross Bronx Expressway decimated an entire New York borough in the name of progress, and whose ideas about “slums” forced thousands of city dwellers into dismal, dangerous housing projects.
As a history lesson, Citizen Jane works beautifully. Jacobs is fascinating, and her influential 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, should be required reading for anyone sticking even a pinkie toe into urban development. Moses might be even more interesting; he’s depicted here as a smoke monster whose progressive ideals—informed by Le Corbusier and the rise of the American automobile—were subsumed by greed, resulting in total insensitivity toward the citizens he was displacing. When Moses proposes a multi-lane highway to cut through lower Manhattan, Jacobs sounds the rallying cry. Director Matt Tyrnauer uses terrific footage of midcentury New York City and after-the-fact interview clips of Jacobs, while Marisa Tomei reads from Jacobs’ writings in robotic voiceover, sounding weirdly like Siri.
And yet the takeaway from the otherwise skillful Citizen Jane is a bit hollow. Yes, we re-learn that public housing projects were really, really bad and neighborhoods are organisms that must develop naturally. But several nuances of both Jacobs’ and Moses’ arguments are left unexamined. Urban planning has never been more relevant—cities around the globe are exploding at unprecedented rates, and issues like housing, transit, diversity, and affordability are becoming scorching-hot buttons. With so much uncertainty, it’s probably not a bad idea to look back at historical precedent. But while there are plenty of things to be learned from Citizen Jane, our next step forward doesn’t seem to be one of them.