Thursday, August 10, 2017

Citizen Jane: Battle For the City

This is the first of many, 44 to be exact, movies I hope to see in the 2017 New Zealand International Film Festival. That's a lot of movies, but only about half what is on offer in Dunedin, and there are several I'd have liked to see that didn't make it down here. Tarkovsky's Stalker is possibly the film I most regret not being able to see on the big screen.
Anyway, Citizen Jane: Battle For the City (dir Matt Tyrnauer) is a clash - between ideologies and between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. The latter is a former New York State Parks Commissioner: in the movie, it isn't clear what his job title is. He is some sort of public, non-elected official  who had an enormous amount of power when it came to shaping New York in the post WWII period. For example, he was the power broker who put together the logistics and finance to build the Cross Bronx Freeway - heavily criticised in the movie for destroying the Bronx community. He was all about big projects - bridges, expressways, "slum" clearance, major apartment buildings.
Citizen Jane (Jacobs) was a journalist and community organiser opposed to his view of the world. She is shown as leading successful campaigns to stop him running an expressway through Washington Square, knocking down the West Village for apartments and running a trans-Manhattan expressway. Her organisation was very grassroots and seemed to be mainly women - people Moses unwisely dismissed as housewives.
There was lots of great footage of New York in this period and informed commentary from a variety of people - to be fair, they all seemed to be on the Jane Jacobs side of the ledger, people to whom urban renewal are dirty words. Mind you, it does seem that the motives of those pushing for it were not altruistic, as it provided great opportunities to line their pockets.

The movie took a few detours. For example, it looked at project housing across the USA - the great promises of those who were promoting them which turned out to be empty: so many turned out to be disasters, because people were taken out of their normal communities and housed in these 27 story boxes. Crime, poverty and despair were the order of the day - so that about 30 years later, lots were blown up. A major focus was the Pruitt Igoe project in St Louis, although this article suggests that all may not have been as portrayed in the movie.
The movie finished by pointing out the vast developments under way in China, huge numbers of high apartment blocks without proper streets, cafes, green spaces and the like.



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