Jane Jacobs in a scene from Matt Tyrnauer’s “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City.” (IFC Films-Sundance Selects)

Talk to just about anyone involved in historic preservation, smart growth and neighborhood sustainability in Buffalo, and chances are they're a fan of Jane Jacobs.

Jacobs' seminal book, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," presented a counter-narrative to the prevailing views of urban planners of the 1950s and '60s. The urban renewal they propagated bulldozed and channeled highways through what were deemed blighted neighborhoods, and in their place erected sterile, high-rise housing projects.

Jacobs said the urban planners had it all wrong. The city's organic development and richness was what gave cities their vitality, and allowed them to function and flourish.

In what now seems like an epic battle for the soul of cities, Jacobs out-organized and outwitted New York City's imperial planner Robert Moses, whose road-building designs would have gravely impacted Washington Square Park, Little Italy, Chinatown and SoHo. Using archival film clips, interviews and comments from leading urban thinkers, documentary filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer chronicles that and more in "Citizen Jane: Battle for the City," now playing at the Dipson Amherst Theatre.

'Citizen Jane' is a hero for our time

Tyrnauer recently took time to discuss his film.

Question: What motivated you to make "Citizen Jane?"

Answer: I read "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," and was just so struck by Jane Jacobs' writing style. It made me see the city differently. I began to explore more of her writing, and writings about her, and found there had never been a theatrical film about her. So that's how it all got started.

Q: It's hard to overestimate the impact that book has had.

A: A lot of what she first wrote about and discovered about cities is now taken as common sense. Many  people who were headed for a career in architecture thought one thing, and then they read her book and it changed their thinking. The book still has the power it did when it was published in 1961.

Q: What surprised you as you learned more about her?

A: What a visionary she was, how avant-garde her thinking was and how brilliant and brave she was.

Q: The battles between Jacobs and Moses had ramifications far beyond New York City. Urban renewal had devastating consequences for numerous cities, including Cleveland, Detroit, Boston, Philadelphia and here in Buffalo.

A: What happened in New York City set the tone for what happened in the rest of the country. The influence of Jacobs and Moses are magnetized because they are both coming out of that New York firmament.

Q: Do you find it hard to understand how urban renewal took hold, given how long those ideas have been repudiated in the United States?

A: After World War II, there was a real command-and-control, white-man-knows-best ethos among the people in charge of the country. There was a huge amount of federal spending happening, with a lot for housing. Decisions were made very high up in the government that urban renewal was going to be the practice.

As Jacobs herself says in the film, there is nothing like a bureaucracy once it gets going in one direction. It became a a runaway train that was almost impossible to stop. And Moses was cut from the same cloth as men like Robert McNamara, who helped bring us the Vietnam war. You could apply that terrible Vietnam adage about "having to destroy the village to save it" to urban renewal.

Q: Robert Moses does not cut a sympathetic figure with many of his comments in the film, like when he equates a poor section of Harlem to "a cancerous growth" that needs to be removed.

A: He wasn't. Especially at that phase of his long career, he was anything but. Robert Moses had access to the media, and it surprised me  just how unvarnished all of his statements were. Having read "The Power Broker" twice, I didn't realize he said such outrageous things on camera. The arrogance is palpable.

Q: It's easy to see racial overtones in his comments, but Moses targeted non-black communities, too.

A: African-Americans in East Harlem and in many other cities were the most put upon of all. But Italian-Americans and other ethnic groups were also vulnerable minorities. We see the country now through a more pluralist lens, but in the bad old '50s, it was still the white WASP establishment, and a lot of ethnic minorities that hadn't yet fully assimilated. It's  hard to believe now, but Italian-Americans were vulnerable in much the way that Ethiopian-Americans or Mexican-Americans might be today.

Q: What do you hope people will take away from "Citizen Jane?"

A: Given the current political situation in this country, that you can protest effectively, and that individuals can organize and make their voices heard. I also wanted to reveal people on screen the way Jane Jacobs does in her greatest book. I wanted to show what a city really is, and how decisions are made. That's a mystery to a lot of people.

 

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