Tuesday 2 May 2017

Urban warfare: "Citizen Jane: Battle for the City"

Matt Tyrnauer's doc Citizen Jane: Battle for the City tells of a David-and-Goliath clash that took place midway through the last century, and gave rise to certain aftereffects you may still feel and see today on your walk to the nearest rep cinema. At its centre are two individuals making a tremendous if not outright thunderous song-and-dance about architecture: Robert Moses, the politico who became New York's construction co-ordinator in the years directly following World War II, and Jane Jacobs, the writer and theorist whose 1961 tome The Death and Life of Great American Cities became an essential text for anyone with even the slightest interest in 20th century urbanisation. These two arrived at their shared passion from markedly different positions: Moses representing the top-down, word-of-God approach to civic planning, illustrated here by the copious blueprints and maquettes he left behind, several storeys removed from reality; Jacobs the Greenwich Villager with the thick Edna Mode specs, keeping a sharp eye out for what all this renewal meant to the little guy at street level. The pair intersected most furiously in that post-War moment of reconstruction, over Moses' plans for several expressways - soaring flyovers that necessitated the demolition of social housing that had grown overpopulated in the wake of the Depression to allow the city's more mobile residents to get from A to B in record time.

Tyrnauer, a sometime New York Times and Vanity Fair correspondent, digs into his subjects' backgrounds to present a more rounded picture of this moment. He can't help but betray a sneaking admiration for Jacobs, who devoted her career as a columnist to poking her nose into the city's less considered nooks and crannies, developing fascinations with such topics as the sewer system that kept New York regular and the manhole covers that kept a lid on (some of) the stink; but he also takes care to note that Moses was initially acclaimed for sprucing up the city's parks and beaches, before he began serving more moneyed masters, and the still-extant spectre of gentrification entered the picture. Where Moses increasingly saw New York as a slate that badly needed wiping clean (publicly describing Harlem as "a cancerous threat", a term perhaps only a rich white dude might use), the worldlier, more inquisitive Jacobs clearly regarded it as an ecosystem whose rot and ruin nevertheless sustained diverse lifeforms. Her studies of New York's cramped social housing, poured across the screen in loveless concrete, suggests she was doing for NYC what Ken Loach did for London in Cathy Come Home: questioning the ways in which power had been inscribed in brickwork. The skyscraping superstructures Moses proposed as a cure for the city's ills, meanwhile, clearly point the way towards today's damnably ubiquitous luxury-flat developments: property as status symbol, intended to be traded rather than lived in, to serve the few, not the many.

I suspect many viewers will leave Citizen Jane wanting more of Moses and Jacobs going head-to-head. The film's middle half-hour tours the city and its experts, restating many of its initial points ahead of the expressway face-off; this was, it seems, always more of an ideological clash than a physical one, sustained through tersely typed communiques, which precludes the visual and verbal fireworks of a doc such as 2015's Best of Enemies. (Throughout, Tyrnauer can be seen adhering to a format - archive plus talking heads - certain American documentarists could surely now assemble in their sleep, afforded the right amount of public funding.) The ideas contained within these missives, however, still resonate: as a late, grim pan over the skyline of modern, industrialised China (described by one observer as "Moses on steroids") makes all too clear, comparable planning decisions are still being pushed through, un- or under-opposed, across the globe - and where Moses could be said to have had a vision for New York, loftily insupportable as it might have been, far too many of today's planners seem content to take any money and run. It stands as a notable story, and a notable contest: the master builder, keen to refashion the world in his own landed patrician image, and the plucky, bolshy dame who simply wasn't having any of it.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City opens in selected cinemas from Friday, ahead of its DVD release on May 22.

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