Thursday, 4 May 2017

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

Its fascinating to watch the historic battle play out between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses in Matt Tyrnauer's documentary, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City. Voicing Jacobs is Marissa Tomei while Moses is voice by Vincent D'onofrio. Archival documents and communication about city planning as well as footage of cities like New York and Chicago illustrate some of the damage created by architects and top down planners of the past. We are able to see what works and what doesn't, how the same issues are being repeated today (block towers again in China and India) and how citizens must mobilize in order to have a say in how cities are developed. The question of who gets to decide is still one that is being debated all over the world, especially as cites are growing at a never-before seen rate.

Using the term "housewife", a reductive term in the pre-feminist era, the powers that be thought they could reduce the impact that Jane Jacobs and her organized groups of like-minded citizens had on preventing the lower Manhattan expressway from being developed in the early 1960s. Boy, were the ever wrong! Yes, she was a housewife, and she used that power to do what housewives have always done, connect with each other and their community. The difference was that Jane was also a journalist who had investigated how her city and others worked. She saw things from the ground up, so she knew how important people were to the sustainability and growth of a city. She had written numerous articles about different aspects of New York from flower to fur district and had written the still-relevant, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities". She knew that cities were living things that required diversity of people,  neighbourhoods, streets, and business.  As one woman says in the documentary, she felt safe walking down to the store at night because the old men in the cafes were out socializing and kept an eye on her. Their presence, meant that she was seen, and in their seeing, would know if any one was bothering her. These are the stories that Jane knew and the people with whom she was familiar, if not individually, than as a collective that made the city function. What her adversary, Robert Moses did not know, was the power and needs of such people.

While in the  pre-war years, Moses was an urban planner who developed public meeting and recreational  spaces, post-depression, post-World War II era Moses and his ilk thought that demolishing tenements and replacing them with high density apartment blocks was the answer to accommodate people and the growing car consumerist culture. What urban planners of the day didn't take into consideration was that in separating work from recreation and home, they developed blocks of isolation where people were no longer able to interact with the vibrancy of the streets. Expressways were seen as the "arteries of progress" where in fact, they were preventing stoop culture and community-building.

Jane Jacobs was instrumental in defeating Toronto's own Spadina Expressway plans when she and her family moved Toronto. Citizen Jane is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and in select theatres across the country, just in time for the global initiative Jane's Walk scheduled May 5, 6, and 7th. The festival consists of free citizen-lead walking tours where the emphasis is on people connecting within their communities and exchanging thoughts about their neighbourhood.  Details about a walk in your city can be found at www.janeswalk.org