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‘Citizen Jane: Battle for the City’ is an unlikely redefinition of the story of David versus Goliath.

Jane Jacobs


Documentarian Matt Tyrnauer (Valentino: The Last Emperor) presents, in Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, an unlikely redefinition of the story of David versus Goliath. As the stand-in for the little guy, you’ve got Jane Jacobs, a writer carving out a name for herself on the architecture beat, with a common-sense approach based on ground-level observation of people in communities around New York City. In the 1960s, she faced off against urban planner Robert Moses, a self-appointed savior of the grid. Known early on for his widespread support for neighborhood parks, Moses veered toward an extreme modernist perspective, positioning himself as the all-knowing eye gazing down on what he believed to be a festering problem.

Moses comes across as the ultimate capital-G godfather, the final arbiter with the power to serve as judge, jury and executioner. Tenements are bad, so he wipes them out. By focusing on high-rise projects in New York (championing a movement that swept across the nation), Moses bulldozed anything in his path with casual arrogance, watching from his insulated god’s-eye remove.

Jacobs, author of 1961’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, had her feet firmly planted on the ground, walking the streets, studying the organic intermingling of people, families and cultures. But Jacobs wasn’t merely an objective academic, surveying a scene; she and her family lived in the heart of New York during this pitched battle. She wanted to protect urban neighborhoods because she belonged to one. 

Moses saw the battle as one of philosophy and principle and he wholeheartedly engaged in the defense of his ideas. He, the irresistible force, met an immovable object in Jacobs, who tapped into salient swirling movements of the day — Civil Rights, anti-war and feminism — to galvanize a diverse collection of individuals into an informed, engaged army. And as the war to protect cities from demolitions and bad developments rages on everywhere, this is a perfect time to consider the story of Citizen Jane, one of the seminal compassionate warriors on the front lines. (Opens Friday at the Mariemont Theatre.) (Not Rated) Grade: A