'Citizen Jane: Battle for the City': Film Review

A compelling account of successful community organizing.

Matt Tyrnauer's documentary recounts journalist/activist Jane Jacobs' battles against New York City urban planner Robert Moses.

His name is not mentioned in the title, but Robert Moses figures just as prominently as Jane Jacobs, the principal subject of Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary. Citizen Jane: Battle for the City gives long overdue cinematic appreciation to the journalist/social activist who successfully led the fight against Moses’ grandiose plans to remake New York City neighborhoods. Viewers will almost certainly be persuaded to read or reread Jacobs’ classic book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

The filmmaker, whose previous effort was Valentino: The Last Emperor, employs a standard mixture of talking heads and archival footage to relate the story of how Jacobs took on Moses, the all-powerful city planner described in the film as New York City’s “urban renewal czar.” Influenced by, but by many accounts distorting, the ideas of famed modernist architect Le Corbusier, Moses was intent on tearing down what he considered to be rundown neighborhoods. He dreamed of a city dominated by large housing projects and superhighways. Jacobs, who lived in Greenwich Village, one of Moses’ primary targets, vehemently disagreed. “This is not the rebuilding of cities,” she wrote. “This is the sacking of cities.”

The film details some of Moses’ most controversial schemes. His plan to push 5th Avenue directly through Washington Square Park, for example, was roundly condemned by such figures as Eleanor Roosevelt. Among those working with Jacobs in opposition to the proposal was future New York City Mayor Ed Koch, seen in vintage interview clips describing the efforts which led to Moses’ first major defeat.

Not long after, Moses attempted to designate the entire West Village as a “slum,” which would have meant essentially razing the neighborhood. Jacobs and her colleagues prevailed, and also managed to prevent Moses from building a highway in lower Manhattan that would have virtually destroyed Soho. But they were less successful in their opposition to the Moses-designed Cross Bronx Expressway, which decimated large areas of the South Bronx.

Marisa Tomei and Vincent D’Onofrio provide the voices of Jacobs and Moses in readings from their writings and pronouncements. But it’s the actual footage of the two principals, including lengthy snippets from an interview with Jacobs, which proves the most fascinating. The film includes many juicy details about their mutual antipathy — when Jacobs’ publisher sent Moses a copy of her book, the “power broker,” as he was dubbed in Robert Caro’s classic biography, promptly returned the offending tome, accompanied by a note that read, “Sell this junk to someone else.” Moses’ ideas have sadly not disappeared in modern times, despite Jacobs’ efforts. As one of the film’s many commentators points out, “China today is like Moses on steroids.”

Production company: Altimeter Films
Distributor: Sundance Selects
Director: Matt Tyrnauer
Producers: Matt Tyrnauer, Robert Hammond, Corey Reeser, Jessica Van Garsse, Jennifer Carchman
Executive producers: Pierre LaGrange, Bernard LaGrange, Juliet Page
Director of photography: Chris Dapkins
Editor: Daniel Morfesis
Composer: Jane Antonia Cornish

92 minutes