Jacobs and Goliath

The latest documentary from Vanity Fair special correspondent Matt Tyrnauer chronicles one of urban planning’s most contentious disputes, a battle between the sexes: Two great American figures who became opposing forces in the struggle for New York City.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City (video) follows mid-century urban renewal in the US, led by Robert Moses, a public official whose infrastructure projects earned him the name, “master builder.” Jane Jacobs, an irreverent and charismatic journalist and community activist, opposed him. Where Moses catered to cars, Jacobs catered to people.

Image: Pages from ‘Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City,’ Hyperallergic

Moses, misguided by modernist utopian notions of how cities should work, led a radical transformation of city grids that prioritized automobiles, blinded by ill-conceived plans of urban life in the sky. Poor neighborhoods were razed first. The disastrous wave of public housing that followed became the bane of urban renewal. Author James Baldwin called it “negro removal,” the mode of urban purification which sought to address “poverty on the street” by eliminating the street itself (tweet).

In contrast, Jacobs argued that well-used streets were safe because they held the constant gaze of those who gathered on stoops or looked down from windows. Interaction was an equalizer. “There must be eyes upon the street,” she writes. “Eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street.”

But the vibrant sidewalk culture Jacobs fought to preserve was precisely what Moses hoped to eliminate by keeping people from clustering in spaces the way they always had. His obsession with massive expressways and designs that separated commerce from everyday life discounted the social elements that made the city great. His plan for Washington Square Park would have extended Fifth Avenue southward, destroying one of the city’s most vibrant public spaces. Likewise, his Lower Manhattan Expressway would have eviscerated the city, ripping through SoHo and other quintessential New York neighborhoods, much like the Cross Bronx Expressway did to neighborhoods in the north. Jacobs eventually defeated Moses, going on to inspire similar victories in cities across the nation.

Image: Pages from ‘Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City,’ Hyperallergic

Stylistically, the doc reads like an elegant piece of long-form journalism—not surprising, given Tyrnauer’s background. The story is well-paced, broaching several important issues of the time, including the emergence of feminism and other counterculture movements, the crippling effects of racism and class warfare, and the influence of postwar Europe on America’s urban renewal. A diverse panel of experts contextualizes mid-century urban development, filtered through the adversaries’ eyes. Jane Antonia Cornish’s immersive score nicely brands the film, invoking a sort of homesickness for some unmarked future destination.

But where the film excels in aesthetics, it lacks in narrative scope. The “David and Goliath” battle between Jacobs and Moses marks a sea change in urban planning. Yet, in the end, the adversaries amount to little more than caricatures. By presenting them as opposites from beginning to end—and not as fallible, dynamic agents subject to forces beyond their control—the doc obscures a valuable lesson: Regardless of intention, absolute power corrupts.

Moses experienced a profound character shift, a pre-postwar transformation from idealism to demagoguery. He grew out of the progressive movement that worked to improve the city, beginning his career in opposition to the horrific conditions in which many people lived. But then came power. As one expert says, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and Robert Moses was absolutely powerful.” The fall of Moses, considered a hero at the start of his career, might instill empathy. Instead, we’re handed a prescriptive view of the villain he became, missing entirely the tragic decline of a man who, at his height, embodied the ideal of American innovation.

Tyrnauer’s snapshot of mid-century New York is a cautionary tale for planners who might follow Moses in remaking cities in their own image, offering a timely lesson on how people and cities work: having a plan for a city isn’t enough, especially when it fails the people who live there. The question now is, what kind of cities do we want our cities to be?

Published by EDGE as “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City” Sep 15, 2017

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