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Globe and Mail: Review of Citizen Jane: Battle for the City
Alex Bozikovic | April 28, 2017

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Why our Jane Jacobs world needs a little Robert Moses, too

From Issue No. 258 | May 1, 2017

Everybody likes an underdog. And looking back a half-century at the urban battles of the sixties, we find one in Jane Jacobs: the bespectacled activist standing astride the highway that threatened to wreck her kids’ park. She was the writer who saw the poetry of the polyglot city where everyone looked after each other’s kids, and who, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, captured “the ballet of the good city sidewalk.” For many progressives, she personifies the small and the bottom-up.

That was nearly 60 years ago, and today Jacobs is on top. Urban planning theory takes her insights to heart. Her name is sung by local activists across the land. But what does she have to teach us in 2017? Do her lessons translate to an era when people, money and power are heading into cities, rather than out of them?

These are some of the questions raised by Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, which is now playing at the TIFF Lightbox. Matt Tyrnauer’s film looks back at that most famous period of her life, before she moved to Toronto, and pits her against her famous nemesis: the “master builder” Robert Moses. It’s a David-and-Goliath story, the imperious civic official against the troublemaking writer from Scranton, Pa.

As a history lesson for the unititiated, the film is a winner. Moses looks and sounds like a B-movie villain, and in life he was an extraordinary figure: Never elected, he reshaped the continent’s most important city over a 50-year career. He held up to a dozen city and New York State positions at a time, coming to personify the blend of big government, business and Modernist planning that produced “urban renewal.” Cities everywhere followed his example. Montreal’s sixties expressways and office towers, and the razing of Halifax’s Africville, bear the mark of Moses.

Jacobs, of course, opposed it all. The absolute commitment to the car; the contempt for urban dwellers, particularly people of colour, who dared to complain about their “slums” being reshaped; and the blind faith in credentialed planners and their grand schemes.

In that context, she was right about almost everything. She emphasized a mix of uses – stores and homes and schools and offices cheek-by-jowl; the value of old walkable city blocks; a diverse population; and lots of people. She argued for bottom-up planning and listening to the wisdom of those who knew a city best: its people.

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