Although no one knew it at the time, it was the beginning of the end for Robert Moses. In the late 1960s, his vision for a new highway—the Lower Manhattan Expressway—had run into fierce neighborhood opposition, much of it organized by Jane Jacobs, a then relatively unknown writer and Greenwich Village resident. Jacobs and her cadre of citizen activists eventually succeeded in thwarting the highway and helping end Moses’ long reign as New York’s planning czar. That epic showdown is the lens through which director Matt Tyrnauer frames his new documentary, Citizen Jane: The Battle for the City. (It’s also the subject of a very good 2010 book by Anthony Flint, who appears as one of film’s many urban experts.) Citizen Jane opens theatrically on April 21st, in New York, Los Angeles, the Bay Area, and selected theaters nationwide, as well as being available on demand. Last week I spoke to Tyrnauer about the film, the Jacobs-Moses battle, and its relevance for cities today.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
MT: Matt Tyrnauer
When did you starting thinking about making a documentary about Jane Jacobs?
I picked up a copy of Death and Life about nine years back, at the bookstore on Bleecker Street. Like so many other people, I read the book and was just blown away by it. She writes with such clarity and was clearly a visionary. I realized that there had never been a full dress documentary about Jacobs. So I started to develop it as a project. At one point I was talking with Robert Hammond, the co-founder of the High Line [and a producer for Citizen Jane], about how relatively unknown and under appreciated she is.
That might be true in the mainstream. But in the planning world, she’s the seminal figure of the 20th century.
Yes, but I’ve come at things from a general interest perspective, as a writer for Vanity Fair. So when I say “relatively unknown,” I’m not saying that as someone who is naive about her impact in the planning world. I’m saying it as someone who wanted to bring her to a broader public, which was the premise of the project.
In the film, Robert Moses is almost as big a character, in a documentary about Jane Jacobs, as Jacobs herself. Why?
I didn’t want to make a documentary for graduate students in urban studies. I wanted to make a film that would be released in movie theaters and seen by as many people as possible. In order to do that, the story needed to be character-driven. And the period of Jacobs’ life when she was a newly famous author, who was involved in a lot of key battles in New York—to save the city from the tyrannical grip of Moses—was a dramatic part of her life. So, if you’re going to make a character-driven film about Jane Jacobs, bringing Robert Moses in is not a bad way to go.
When you decided on this focus, did you then read Robert Caro’s The Power Broker?
Absolutely. I’d read and loved The Power Broker in college, so I re-read it, and enjoyed it all over again. One of the things that struck me is—in dealing with the archival material—it’s one thing to read the thousand-plus pages of that book and be floored by it. It’s another thing to be watching film of Moses in the period, talking about the things that he was doing. To see him really emphasizes who he was, and what kind of person he was. The tone he took was just remarkable. When he was building the Cross Bronx Expressway, he talks about the relocation of thousands of families as “a major problem” and denies that there was anything problematic about it. He says, “Well, many people have accused us of being sadistic, which is not the case.” The fact is, it was, partially, sadistic. I think that these over-the-top utterances of Moses resonate in a peculiar way, in the new political climate that we’re in. I can’t think of many political figures from that period who spoke with such raw abandon.
And haughtiness, and arrogance, and hubris, and everything else. Where did you find that archival stuff from Moses? I had not seen that much footage of him before.
We found the archival material everywhere. Many of his state agencies had PR divisions that meticulously recorded all of his great deeds. A lot of that film had been consigned to storage boxes in various units owned by the State of New York.
And those agencies were OK with you using it?
It has been so long, and many of the agencies that he created have morphed over the years into other agencies. I actually think this speaks well for our government. In the Moses era, he would have tightly controlled it. But the current agencies did make it accessible. Although I suspect a lot of people there might not have known who were were interested in or, frankly, cared.
How did you know that footage existed?
We were searching the MTA archive. A number of Moses’ agencies eventually morphed into the MTA. They had the material listed in their archives, but the footage had literally not been processed. It was sitting in a box in a warehouse in the Bronx.
That’s like striking gold for a filmmaker. Did you have that eureka moment when you found it?
Oh, yes. It wasn’t easy to get. A lot of it involved dealing with bureaucracies and filling out forms and waiting. And then people not responding. So when we did uncover something and finally saw the footage, it was almost shocking. It was color footage, and because it had never been processed, it was in pristine condition. It was indeed a eureka moment, and it felt like that.
There was also good Jacobs footage. For me that was a thrill, because at this point, she’s a mythic figure. For people in our world, she’s almost not real, like Abraham Lincoln. So to watch her as a young woman, impassioned, getting in everybody’s face, was great.
One of the filmmaking challenges was balancing the Jacobs and Moses material. Moses was a famous bureaucrat, who loved the press attention and courted it. So he was filmed and on TV quite a bit. There are great interviews of Moses, and we were able to find even more. Jacobs was another story altogether. Though she had a “hit” book, it was published in 1961, when there was far less media. TV was still in its relative infancy.
And the book wasn’t a giant best seller when it came out. It sort of continued to sell year after year, becoming increasingly influential over time.
Yes. Jacobs wasn’t filmed often and a lot of what we found evidence of has just disappeared. She did a lot of radio interviews, as many book authors do. Those interviews have mostly vanished. We were able to find one interview of Jacobs that had never been seen before. That’s the one of her in color, in the late 70s. She was filmed for another documentary, in her Toronto home, a very good film called Empire City. But they only used about one minute of the several hours they filmed with her. Everything she says from the footage that we used has never been seen before.
The urban situation has shifted dramatically since Jacobs wrote Death and Life. When she wrote that book our cities were literally dying. We have a different set of issues now. Why is her message still relevant?
There are a few reasons. Number one: We need to know the history of our urban past in order to understand where we are now, and where we should go in the future. Jacobs made a huge contribution to the way we think, see, and live in cities. That will always be relevant. A lot of the concepts that she introduced in the book— “eyes on the street,” the ways we should rebuild cities, mixed use neighborhoods, all of these bedrock ideas that she helped to introduce—remain relevant, even in a completely shifted context.
Another reason that we need to pay attention to Jacobs is that she was a skeptic. And the skepticism that she teaches us to have about the way that governments operate, is a perennial lesson. And finally: the idea of activism and the willingness to speak truth to power. Death and Life on its surface is about city building and rebuilding. But it’s also about politics and governments and people’s relationship to government. We’re in desperate need of examples of intellectuals who understand that relationship, who understand that people can speak truth to power and effect change through protests and activism.
At one point in the heart of your film, Jacobs disappears. You widen the lens and look at the state of contemporary urbanism on a global scale. Later you return to Jacobs. What was your idea behind that?
Urbanization and the city are one of the big questions that we face right now. And she’s the great thinker on the topic in the 20th century. In a world that’s urbanizing at an unprecedented pace, we need to have ideas that are informed and well considered. Most people in the world don’t know who Jane Jacobs is. But her ideas are essential to understanding the open question of how we deal with urbanization.
It’s not that Jacobs gives you a roadmap for solving all urban problems, far from it. But she does make you see cities in a different way. Most people don’t know the concept of cities as networks of people, mutually supporting each other. It’s a huge leap for them. But if you begin to understand that, you start to see and live in your city in a different way. This is, I think, a bridge to allowing people to become more involved in their cities and neighborhoods.
Featured image via Curbed.