Thursday 8 June 2017

Sydney Film Festival (2) - CITIZEN JANE: BATTLE FOR THE CITY (Matthew Tyrnauer, USA) Reviewed by Max Berghouse

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, USA (2016). Matthew Tyrnauer (Director), Altimeter Films (Producer). Marisa Tomei (voice of Jane Jacobs), Vincent D’Onofrio (voice of Robert Moses). All other historical figures as themselves.

I was recently in New York where this film has been much praised and led to a popular revival of the numerous books by Ms Jacobs. It so happens that I drank in the same bar where she was wont to go for a quick evening martini. It is a very old bar – George Washington drank there, although certainly not martinis. Her house was only four doors down and it is now a real estate agency and I think that reflects something about the nature of the subject matter of this film.

The documentary film itself is exemplary. It gives a person with no background knowledge of the issue or issues all one would need to know about the issue (s) while leaving open the possibility of finding more information if one were so disposed.

Now to the facts. Jane Jacobs came from relatively modest circumstances, ethnically Jewish, largely self-educated and certainly not a university graduate. She became in turn an highly respected journalist, and activist and commentator in terms of trying to salvage the "living centre of one city, New York and subsequently another, Toronto, where she moved with her children to ensure they were free of the Vietnam draft. She spent the last decades of her life there engaging in much the same anti-development activities. As the film discloses, she was a masterly organiser. What it does not disclose is that her books which came from close observation of the way cities actually work, remain very highly regarded by both town planners and economists.

Robert Moses, also Jewish, from a significantly higher demographic background and extremely well educated, was for many years the dominant force in building and planning in New York and surrounds. Roads, dams, park lands and buildings were under his effective complete and absolute control. He was a force of nature, extraordinarily energetic with a particular vision of the city and a ruthless determination to see it carried out. Despite the opportunities for corruption that must have presented themselves to him over and over again, he was, so far as I can judge, scrupulously honest,.

Although the film’s concerns are essentially of the 1960s, Moses' activities date back to prior to the Second World War. The inner core of New York was an extraordinary slum because it was not until relatively late that town planners were able to subject developers to some sort of control as to building type and occupancy. No doubt public corruption played a part. His vision was to "encourage" people to move outside the city centre and into the suburbs. This would be facilitated by the rail network which was consciously kept very cheap, so that suburbanites could move cheaply to work in the city, and also by the construction of vast freeways. If the last of these planned had been built, it would have obliterated a very significant part of Manhattan. This was the focal point of the dispute between Ms Jacobs and Mr Moses, the subject of the film.

Moses was much concerned with creating open/play areas and parkland. His personality may best be observed by the development of Jones Beach (and others) as places of weekend recreation. This involved building a significant number of bridges. Because at that time Negroes largely travelled by bus, all of the bridges designed and constructed by Mr Moses, were designed so low as to deny access to buses. So yes, his vision of city excluded African-Americans. His was the sort of despotic power in relation to building and planning that J Edgar Hoover wielded in relation to federal law enforcement.

It is now such a commonplace that a vibrant and mixed inner city is both economically and socially desirable. The huge "projects" (multi-storey, multi-building, relatively plain residential high-rises) which were the inevitable result of the planning expectations of Mr Moses have now significantly been destroyed because of their encouragement of abjectly antisocial behavior. The aspirations of Mr Moses, really don't get a fair shake. Ms Jacobs is clearly the protagonist/heroine and Mr Moses, generally photographed as both reptilian and arrogant, is the antagonist. There is no particular subtlety in the portrayal of either the main characters, nor of their arguments. That's consistent with modern documentary lore that dramatic imperatives are more important than mere arguments, particularly subtle ones. Ms Jacobs who lived and worked in a really quite small physical environment, as I noted above, just four doors from home to bar, was substantially ignorant of the potential of the rigid grid system of roadway construction in Manhattan and also the superb capacity of the subway. Mr Moses was largely indifferent to people – that is most people – who lacked his drive and energy and capacity for change. He didn't have to worry about driving anyway. He was always chauffeured in a Cadillac limousine which allowed him space for work, including with a secretary to take his constant dictation.

The above may seem to show a relatively negative impression on my part about the film. That would not be correct. I repeat my laudatory comments above. This is really as good as a documentary gets.

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