Citizen Jane – the Battle for the City Matt Tyrnauer (USA 2017)

Citizen Jane – the Battle for the City Matt Tyrnauer (USA 2017)

Citizen Jane – the Battle for the City Matt Tyrnauer (USA 2017)

Viewed: ICA Cinema London
15 May 2017.

and what about today!

It is interesting to compare Matt Tyrenauer’s ‘Citizen Jane’ with Raoul Peck’s ‘I am not your negro’. Peck’s movie had the singular virtue of being written by its subject James Baldwin. James Baldwin’s words still have a pointed relevance to race relations in the USA today. Peck uses the urgency of Baldwin’s text to fashion a film documenting the situation of Black people, using images drawn both from the past and the present day, to show that little has changed. Peck’s film takes up Baldwin’s analysis and shows its contemporary relevance for an America psyche still marked by an imbued sense of white racial superiority. This is today; welcome to the USA, says Peck. Says Baldwin.

Like Peck’s film, Tyrnauer’s ‘Citizen Jane’ (CJ) has at its centre of gravity a voice that rings out as clear perceptive true and uncompromising. The voice of Jane Jacobs. The difference between the films lies in their truth content. ‘I am not your negro’ has as its truth content Peck’s proposition that Baldwin is relevant now because the fight against white supremacy continues. Baldwin is, in this respect, but one powerful fighter in a long line of warriors taking up the struggle for Black respect. The truth content is the continuity of the fight.

By way of contrast, Tyrnauer’s truth content centres not so much about a proposition, but rather about the person of Jane Jacobs, locating her and her battle exclusively in the 1960’s and 1970’s. ‘Citizen Jane’ is locked in a time bubble.

CJ is pitched as a battle between Jane and Robert Moses who was planning supremo of New York City for some 40 years. Moses was an insensitive arrogant power broker who out manoeuvred and crushed opposition to his gargantuan urban planning schemes. Moses’ planned improvements were often, but not always, justified in terms of facilitating greater ease of road transport. They ended up smashing the very fabric of the city. They threatened to destroy the city as a place for life itself, its natural capacity to mediate complex and rewarding human interaction. Often Moses’ policies also had the effect, never stated but which may have been intended, of decanting the poor out of high value locations, in particular Manhattan, making it a better safer place for the rich. For poor, read ‘Black’ or ‘Hispanic’.

‘Citizen Jane’ works as a movie because Jane Jacobs and her writing stand in the centre of the film. Jacobs was extraordinary because she saw what Moses and the planners were doing to New York. At a time when most people were blind to what was happening, she saw what was going on and used her extraordinary clear mind to write and explain what Moses and the NYC planners were up to, and just how much damage they were doing to city life. Jacobs saw that Moses was not a god but a deeply flawed man corrupted by hubris who had lost touch with reality. Moses had become a destructive force. Jacobs was able to take him on because of her ability to articulate a clear alternative vision of the city, that was simple powerful and persuasive. She was also a formidable streetwise political organiser.

Jane Jacobs won her battles with Robert Moses. But Citizen Jane’s truth content is no more than re-telling of the David and Goliath fairy tale. The little woman takes on the ogre and knocks him down. A good story. The kind of story the Disney Corporation likes to tell.

‘Citizen Jane’ presents as a film with a knock out thesis. Wham bang, Goliath felled, we can all go home and lie safe in our beds.

Tyrnauer extends his material horizontally across space as geography, showing contemporary images and film of other cities. These clips are usually interspersed with academics and some contemporaries of Jacobs talking about what has been learnt from her insights and analysis. The problem is that this film material is diffuse vague and unfocused. It is difficult to make sense of the footage of the various cities we see, because cities are particular places and we are not given any information to understand them.

We are given a considerable amount on information about New York. But Tyrnauer even as an epilogue does not let the film develop through time, to give us some idea of how we might connect Jane Jacobs thinking in the 60’s to what is happening now on her old battleground.

Peck looks at what Baldwin’s words say today about Blacks in the USA. Tyrnauer‘s film suggests that somehow the struggle for New Yorks physical and social fabric was won by Jane Jacobs in the 1960’s. He does not see that in relation to the forces that Jane Jacobs took on, battles come and go, battles are won and lost. But the war goes on.

Moses was an exceptional figure, even so he was ultimately just the representative of the vested economic interests that have always shaped the use of land of the USA. The same forces that created the suburbs, gated communities, inner city ghettos, industrial parks now vision the city as a high tech service economy, characterised by high rents and leisure driven life styles. Mobility and de-politicisation characterise the new vision which has slowly come into full focus over half a century of development. Robert Moses has come and gone, but he is replaced today by a plurality of hypercharged real estate developers, who are perusing very similar goals to Moses. They are not driven by civic ideological righteousness, but rather driven by greed for the huge returns and profits they make on blue chip residential projects. The consequences are the same: a city for the rich, the poor banished to the margins bereft of community and politically contained. the creation of a prototype Eloi culture based on leisure. The death of the life of the city.

Jane Jacobs’ struggles were only a episode of the war between people who live in cities – like new York – and those who would destroy them. This is the Tyrnauer’s limitation. The forces in play in issues of land use are historical forces for which individuals sometimes hold the banners and wield the sword. But they are players, they don’t control script development. Today as more and more of New York ( and other cities) is ripped down and apart to provide high rise apartments for the rich, where are the Jane Jacobs? . Where are the people prepared to take on the developers and their political sponsors who now stay well in the shadows aiding and abetting the dirty work of destruction.

I think Jane Jacobs would have been disappointed in Tyrnauer’s film. It is locked into a Disneyesque re-iteration of the past. She won her battles but she would have known that this war continues. Tyrnauer fails to understand this. adrin neatrour

Author: Adrin Neatrour

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