Writer/Journalist/Urban Activist: Jane Jacobs is the main subject of this documentary as it focuses on her battles against rapid redevelopment headed by urban planner Robert Moses in her home city of New York during the 1950s and 1960s.
This film ably conveys Jacobs' intelligence in various ways: her unusual yet fascinating observations on how cities truly work (there is order within the 'chaos'); and her abilities to organize activist responses to proposals that negate city living. Her views and philosophies are expressed in various ways. They include audio and televised footage as well as the narration (by Marisa Tomei) from Jacobs' book "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" (1961).
The viewer could end up feeling a mixture of optimism as well as pessimism from the history exposed in this film. On the one hand, Jacobs' victories (with much help) give hope. But there is despair after viewing the chronicling of "slum" neighbourhoods with vibrant communities being destroyed and replaced with housing projects that caused more problems than they solved. One feels grief not only for the loss of vibrant communities but also for the historical buildings that were destroyed - and replaced with bland ones.
Jacobs moved to Toronto (where I've lived for over twenty years) in 1968 and was involved in a successful campaign to stop an expressway being built in the downtown area in the early 1970s. One can only wonder (and shudder) what she would think of the current state of this city since her passing in 2006 at the age of eighty-nine.
She believed in progress as long as it mixed the old with the new and kept street life active. Downtown Toronto is losing many small shops, restaurants, and bars as they are being torn down for more and more massive glass condos. (It's strange to think that such blandness will be considered 'historical architecture' in the future.) During this process, sidewalks adjacent to the future condo sites have been reduced. So much for encouraging the street life so well lauded in this documentary. Also, in regard to condo buildings that have shops at ground level, they seem to have very little activity within them. (A similar point is made in "Citizen Jane" about parks near housing projects that were frequently empty.)
Director Matt Tyrnauer has used the right mix of interviews, old footage, and music to make a fine film even for those of us who have minimal knowledge of urban issues. The footage of street life goes back to earlier decades - even as far back as the 1930s. The music by Jane Antonia Cornish has an edge that is usually used in thrillers. Perhaps, this is to imply that the monstrous mindset of the 50s and 60s has an equally evil grandchild (condo-ization aka vulgarization) in our current times that is taking over our lives today.....and we're all in that scary movie!
In any case, this movie is encouraging me to read "The Death and Life of Great American Cities". From the quotes in this movie, the book still sounds relevant today - more than half a century since it was published.
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