The Citizen Saint: Jane Jacobs on the Screen, the Page, and the Streets

By Sam Hall Kaplan

Nearly 60 years after the publication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and a decade after the passing of its author, Jane Jacobs, her street-smart homilies echo louder than ever. The latest of these echoes is the recently released documentary film, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City.

First, the quick take, in keeping with our twittering, capsulated, commercialized present, and with deference to friend Jane, who loved a critical quip: the widely publicized and reviewed documentary by Matt Tyrnauer is unfortunately flawed and superficial.

But it is also recommended — and no doubt the Jane I knew would have appreciated it — for regardless of flaws, it does raise public consciousness about urban design and an appreciation for the potential of grass roots advocacy. And that is what she sought to do in her classic, written against all odds and the powers-that-were. The documentary celebrates her spirit and effort, and should be praised on that basis alone.

This public consciousness is becoming ever more urgent. The future of the world is urbanization, intensifying and voracious, frustrating and challenging. And so Jane’s thoughts are ever more relevant for those who must somehow survive it, there being little alternative.

Be she labeled Citizen Jane or Saint Jane, her pitched public battle against the prevailing planning and development dogma of a half-century ago represented a rare victory of the common citizenry over the unholy alliance of builders, bureaucrats, and politicians. It offers a faint ray of hope in similar battles to come, involving property rights, political power, and the promise of profit.

I remember when Jane first laid out her prescriptions for a more livable city in the late ’50s and early ’60s, over cheap beers in a haze of carcinogenic smoke at a local bar with friends and a few fawning journalists (at the time I was both). That was in the heyday of New York City’s then modest and affordable West Village, where “truth to power” was preached to whomever would listen, and buy a round for the gathered ensemble. The Scranton-born, middle class-bred Jane conveniently lived a few short blocks away from the bar, in a disordered apartment above a vacant store, with her staunchly supportive husband Bob and three children — early urban pioneers bucking the suburban tide of the times.

(For the real estate obsessed, the Jacobs bought the three-story building in the early ’50s for, as I recall, a measly $7,000, which, I noticed recently, is now a month’s rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the gentrified neighborhood. As for the bar, it is now an enlarged, teeming tavern catering to tourists and Wall Street types.)

So much for the documentary’s absent back story of a once garrulous social scene that included renowned political and urban theorists Michael Harrington and W.H. (Holly) Whyte, authors, respectively, of the seminal tract on poverty, The Other America, and The Organization Man, which exposed the insidious rise of the conformist corporate world.

These and a clamorous chorus of other opinionated ladies and gentleman informed the then aspiring, decidedly left-leaning journalist Jane, as well as me. And though we didn’t realize it then, the scene was a harbinger of the anti-war, feminist, counter-cultural movement that would explode into the national consciousness a few years later.

It was primarily Whyte, a respected senior editor at Fortune magazine, and Douglas Haskell, of Architectural Forum, who mentored the indefatigable Jacobs, feeding her heady assignment on the then struggling center cities. Much to their pleasure, expressed in retrospect to me, the work she brought back revealed a refreshingly contrarian take on the lock-step city planning theory of the period, raising eyebrows in the Times Inc. board room and among the catty academic and self-anointed design and urban planning authorities of the day.

And with Whyte’s assistance, despite her lack of architecture and planning schooling, or maybe because of it, she snared a prestigious Rockefeller Foundation grant. This validation came at a time of strained family finances, and was critical to her being able to write her heartfelt, perceptive, neighborly Greenwich Village-inspired tome.

Impressed by her enterprise and bottom-up urban perspective, Whyte and Haskell further helped her find an interested publisher, the august Random House, and an esteemed editor, Jason Epstein, one of the founders of the New York Review of Books. A devotee of his adopted city, Epstein took a particularly patient interest in the self-described “plain Jane,” whose thick glasses and rumpled house dresses belied her raw intellect, sharp wit, and deadline-driven writing.

To be sure, Jane was not an Ivy League grad with a degree in English lit, which made her a breath of fresh air in publishing circles. She had fire in her gut, for which those who knew her loved her.

Though Citizen Jane is devoid of what I feel is a most relevant and engaging political context and personal drama of Jane as a dedicated activist author, it has nevertheless been enjoying a relatively successful run in art houses, and will likely end up on civics lesson plans in classrooms. The documentary may even reverberate the sycophantic gaggle of community activists, city savants, planning professionals, and apparatchik academics who have held the torch for Jacobs book over the past 50 years. Maybe the book will now be read, as Jane had originally hoped, by neighborhood activists all across the country, who can use it as a guide in their confrontations with avaricious developers and toady local bureaucrats.

Doing what marketable biopics do, Citizen Jane simplifies Jacob’s thesis and presents a classic story of the battle between good and evil, with Jacobs as Saint Jane, and the all powerful, condescending, bombastic bureaucrat Robert Moses as the devil. The battle culminates in Moses’s defeat and demise, and an all victorious and acclaimed Jacobs riding off into the sunset, to Toronto. (And thus taking her two boys out of the draft and harm’s way in the Vietnam War, which she and Bob were vociferously protesting.)

The film gives only a cursory glimpse of how cities are shaped and misshaped, coached in clichés for which the filmmaker could be excused, having been born and bred in suburban Los Angles. But I have to take personal exception to his misreading of East Harlem, where I lived during the tumultuous ’60s and, not incidentally, was Vice Chairman of its Planning Board.

Yet the documentary does provide evocative visuals. Much credit should be given to editor Daniel Morfesis, the archival producers Susan Ricketts and Samantha Kerzner, and the archival researcher, Amilca Palmer. The latter have mined wonderful clips from the morgues of television news stations, which capture the mood of the times and the flavor of the swarming streets. I particularly loved the elderly woman who spoke from the guts against a proposed lower Manhattan expressway that would have devastated her neighborhood and impacted Jane’s beloved West Village; she embodied the salt needed for Jane’s chicken soup.

More of that saltiness and fewer self-conscious talking heads in studio settings would have helped reflect Jane’s passion and commitment. We need advocates rather than apologists. And in updating Jane’s theories, perhaps scenes from the Zuccotti Park protests in lower Manhattan of a few years ago would have been more on topic than stock clips of the high rises of China and the Mideast. We need people not projects.

Ironically, it was the focus on projects rather than people that, in the final analysis, led to Moses’s fall and Jane’s victory, which should be a lesson for neighborhood activists, as well as documentary filmmakers.

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