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'Citizen Jane' is a hero for our time

As head of the Committee on Slum Clearance, New York City's powerful city planner Robert Moses saw little use for the sidewalks, stoops, mix of building heights and block lengths, and the other components that give neighborhoods vitality.

His answer to what he considered blighted areas was to build a utopian, Modernist city of the future. In reality, he built sterile high-rises that took people off the streets, and pushed highways through neighborhoods out of subservience to the automobile.

Moses' career spanned the 1920s through the 1960s, and he was used to getting his way. He did, at least, until meeting his match in Jane Jacobs, a Greenwich Village journalist who wore a bob haircut and oversize glasses. Her observations about cities in Vogue and Architectural Forum showed she knew more than a thing or two about how cities work.

Their  battles over the future of New York City are at the center of the richly informative and well-crafted documentary, "Citizen Jane" Battle for the City."

Documentary filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer (Valentino: The Last Emperor") uses archival film clips, interviews and comments from a long list of prominent historians, planners and architects, including critic Paul Goldberger, to shed light on the two protagonists, their philosophical differences and the context in which their encounters took place.

Actors Marisa Tomei and Vincent D'Onofrio -- some might remember them co-starring in the 2000 comedy "Happy Accident" -- were enlisted to read from the writings of Jacobs and Moses.

Jacobs organized two successful campaigns to thwart Moses. The first started in 1954 when he tried unsuccessfully to redirect 5th Avenue through Washington Square Park, one of the great cultural and passive recreational spots in all of New York. Then, Moses tried again starting in 1961 -- the same year Jacobs' seminal work, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" was published -- to divide lower Manhattan with a road that would have wiped out Little Italy,  Soho and other neighborhoods.

Those areas escaped the devastation caused by the Cross Bronx Expressway, which drove a wedge through the borough that left the isolated south Bronx mired in poverty.

"This is not the rebuilding of cities," Jacobs said, calling the high rises Moses favored "marvels of dullness and regimentation." "This is the sacking of cities."

Where Moses saw in blighted areas of New York "a cancerous growth" that needed to be removed, Jacobs saw an organic jumble of activity from which a city functioned and flourished.

Her ideas  would inform and inspire people in other cities -- from Buffalo and Cleveland to Chicago and Philadelphia -- to fight back against the homogenized and sterile environments of high-rises and super highways that urban renewal brought.

"You can't as an individual do anything, but you can organize," Jacobs said.

While Moses' legacy of destroying communities to save them, and putting highways through neighborhoods has been repudiated in contemporary urban planning, his ideas live on in China, the film notes. There, hundreds of blocks of densely stacked high-rises abound, with no signs of street life below.

"China,"  an architect says, "is Moses on steroids."


"Citizen Jane: Battle for the City"

3.5 stars (out of 4)

Director: Matt Tyrnauer

Running time: 92 minutes

Rating: PG for thematic material.

The lowdown: An activist successfully stops New York City's powerful city planner from demolishing and putting roads through two neighborhoods in the 1950s and '60s.

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