Thursday, May 4, 2017

She insisted that cities are for people

In 1961, author/activist Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a landmark book that asserted the primacy of people over buildings when it comes to the vitality of cities. The new documentary Citizen Jane: Battle for the City provides valuable insights into Jacobs' career and sets up the conflict that gives the movie its juice. Jacobs spent much of her time opposing the efforts of New York City building czar Robert Moses. Moses viewed city blight as a cancer that had to be cut from the urban body; Jacobs understood that these neighborhoods -- with their street life and self-containment -- represented enclaves of safety and community. She was appalled to see them give way to faceless apartment buildings that quickly developed into fortresses of alienation. Jacobs ultimately moved to Toronto, but late in her New York City life, she battled to save her West Village neighborhood from Moses' reach. Jacobs' activism reached its heights when she helped organize efforts to prevent Moses from building a highway across lower Manhattan; she and others believed that Moses' earlier construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway had paved the way for the deterioration of the South Bronx. They hoped to save lower Manhattan from a similar fate. Director Matt Tyrnauer buoys the story with wonderful footage of New York in the 1930s, '50s, and '60s and with interviews from authorities such as architecture critic Paul Goldberger. Citizen Jane stands as a tribute to Jacobs and an encouragement to those who believe that lively, enriching serendipity -- which may look like chaos -- never should be planned out of existence.

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