Citizen Jane: Battle for the City reveals how an icon of urbanism took on a titan

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      A documentary by Matt Tyrnauer. Rated G

      A documentary that should be seen by anyone interested in the future of cities—especially those as fraught with housing problems as Vancouver—Citizen Jane is a fascinating call to arms for urban dwellers who don’t mind fighting city hall.

      Matt Tyrnauer’s movie is somewhat light on personal background—unexpectedly, since his previous flick was the bio-heavy Valentino: The Last Emperor, about the ancient fashion designer. Instead, it crams in as much as it can about Jane Jacobs’s battles, not her bio. Born in Pennsylvania and trained as a journalist, she worked for the State Department in World War II but became best known for urban activism in New York City and, later, Toronto.

      Politics was always personal to Jacobs, and she smelled trouble even before her own Greenwich Village neighbourhood was threatened by the brutalizing redevelopment projects of Robert Moses, the czar of New York City planning in the postwar period. While writing for Architectural Forum, she balked at the received notion that cities could be instantly improved by bulldozing entire “slums”, with their organically accumulated patterns of vibrant street activity, and replacing them with faceless towers that actively degraded the lives of poor people.

      Jacobs’s study of the before-and-after effects of these grandiose—and coincidentally lucrative—projects, and her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, created a sensation. This was just before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, about creeping environmental degradation, and although the movie doesn’t dwell on it, there was an unspoken sense at the time that these little ladies shouldn’t be poking their noses into the business of big, strong, science-minded men.

      Moses certainly reacted that way; once defeated by the action group she led, he lost his aura of invincibility and soon folded like a cheap tent. Jacobs then moved to Toronto and did the same kind of work there, where she died just short of 90, in 2006. I mention all this because Jane moves so quickly, with neat graphics and archival snippets, it’s worth getting some feel for this particular citizen before going in.

      Watch the trailer for Citizen Jane: Battle for the City.