While Matt Tyrnauer’s Citizen Jane: Battle for the City obviously has a lot to do with noted writer and activist Jane Jacobs, it has just as much to do with Jacobs’ ideas and her battles against the powers that be. Strangely enough, the film works best when it’s discussing Jacobs’ thoughts on the purpose of urban areas and the ways of keeping them vital, healthy and diverse. Of course, a lot of this has to do with my only general, passing knowledge of Jacobs and her work, and in some ways, Citizen Jane works best as a primer on Jacobs’ vision as opposed to an in-depth look at her life. In most ways, I think this is the correct approach since it is Jacobs’ worldview that remains unfortunately pertinent to this day.
Much of the film is framed within the battles between Jacobs and New York City urban planner Robert Moses. There’s Moses, who looked down on the city from above, sketched in as a sort of omniscient, benevolent mastermind who wanted to fill Manhattan with expressways and uninspired housing projects, pushing out families (and usually minority families at that) in the name of “urban renewal.” And then there’s Jacobs, defending cities and neighborhoods as organic and wonderfully spontaneous, fighting City Hall from tearing down the place she — and many others — called home.
The film is obviously slanted toward Jacobs’ point of view, but Citizen Jane also shows the proof of how Moses’ plans — and similar designs used by other cities — have ultimately failed, while at the same time warning that we’re once again repeating ourselves (the film seems exasperated at Chinese cities that are simply copying Moses’ outmoded ideals). But by going beyond a mere biography, Citizen Jane is able to have actual real-world utility. By showing how people can have the power to change the minds of a city’s leadership through protest and direct action, or even foster their own communities, the film becomes more important than any overview of the woman’s life could ever be.
Citizen Jane is as much a blueprint as it is a warning call. Asheville itself is a city that’s growing and changing, and here’s a movie that made me sit and assess what I want to see the place I call home turn into. It also made me reconsider the things that I find special and that I perhaps take for granted. From a purely formal viewpoint, Citizen Jane does nothing new cinematically. But it can — if you’re open to it — give you new ways of viewing the place in which you live, which is nothing to scoff at. Not Rated. Now playing at Grail Moviehouse.