Ahead of its UK release, commentator Chris McGill has been to see the new film about Jane Jacobs’s battle to save New York from its master developers and planners. Here he gives us an insight into this must-see documentary.
The current rate of urbanisation around the world is creating city space the size of Los Angeles each week. However in New York in the late 50s and early 60s it was the bulldozer and road roller that threatened the existing neighbourhoods that everyone loved. Citizen Jane: Battle for the City opened the seventh DOC NYC film festival and is released in the UK on 5 May. It has a relevance and freshness about it that celebrates the city, the neighbourhood and the people that live there.
‘It’s a finely woven tapestry that feels as relevant and alive as the place you live.’ – Variety
In one corner is ‘The Man’, played menacingly by wide-lapelled Robert Moses. He is New York’s super villain planner. Cue sinister soundtrack playing over images of once-good-Robert, in Vicuna overcoat, sweeping his arm over models of the not-to-be expressway of Greenwich Village. Cut to Moses sneeringly dismissing ‘housewife’ Jane Jacobs and her bunch of naysayers protesting against the urban ‘cancer’ that he is removing as he erects shoddy unloved housing. Incidentally this chuck ‘em up and box ‘em in housing is mirrored today in cities all around the world in global megacities.
In the other corner are the ‘Little People’ led by Jane Jacobs (she’s like your favourite aunt who combines a steely no surrender attitude with soft scarves and statement glasses). In contrast to dismissive-snobbish Robert, the archive footage of Jane is set to an uplifting lets-get-busy-soundtrack whilst she orchestrates her children performing a ceremonial tying of a ribbon – a deliberate reversing of the land-owners ceremony of cutting a ribbon – in Washington Square or interfering with a hearing’s typist’s stenography machine to bring legal proceedings to a halt.
Jane Jacobs published a shockwave-creating book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, went on to author seven more titles and continued protesting but this is more than her story. It’s the story of our times, of greed and how we need to embrace the neighbourhood, to sit on our stoops and steps, to look out for each other and to create cities that you can wander around in celebrating the age and diversity of the buildings whilst the community looks on and says hello.
All images included are credited to the Library of Congress
It’s one of those documentaries that is a genuine get out and discuss it over dinner film (it’s all about connecting) whilst you recall the beautiful wide-screen images of New York, Paris and the rest of the globe from the 50s to now.
Watch it and wonder on your way home if there is an alternative to the now endless building of city in the sky high-rise monuments that ape Ozymandias to fade empty and are covered in dust like his monument to himself or rejoice in the other people in the city and neighbourhood that you love and just make sure that you say good evening and good morning to everyone there. There might just be a bit of Jane Jacobs in all of us.