Citizen Jane review: A timely warning against big-block buildings with ground-floor shop units

Documentarian Matt Tyrnauer recounts how Jane Jacobs fought architectural giant Robert Moses and won

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City
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Director: Matt Tyrnauer
Cert: Club
Genre: Documentary
Running Time: 1 hr 32 mins

In 1961, the legendary city planner Robert Moses returned a manuscript to the publisher Random House with a short, sharp note: “I am returning the book you sent me. Aside from the fact that it is intemperate and inaccurate, it is also libelous. Sell this junk to someone else.”

The book was The Life and Death of American Cities by Jane Jacobs, the architectural critic and writer who would come to play David to Moses' Goliath.

Their mid-century disputes over urban planning have already been the subject of books by Roberta Brandes-Gratz and Anthony Flint, the opera A Marvelous Order and now this serviceable documentary.

Like so many awful things, Robert Moses’ story starts with good intentions. Taking cues from utopian designs of Le Corbusier – or rather, as one contributor notes, a misunderstanding of Le Corbusier – the postwar master builder, he razed New York slums to make way for high-rise apartments, playgrounds, and super-highways. By doing so he displaced hundreds of low-income families and ripped out the heart and brownstones out of dozens of neighbourhoods.


In 1958, his plan to drive a four-lane highway through New York’s Washington Square Park was met by a protest group led by Jacobs. He dismissed the dissenters as: “Nobody, nobody, nobody but a bunch of, a bunch of mothers,” but they had their way.

By the early 1970s, the demolition of the Pruitt–Igoe project in Missouri and dozens of other high rises heralded the end for Moses’ “top-down” modernism. Jacobs’s organic, anthropological “bottom-up” approach to street life had, temporarily, at least, won out.

Documentarian Matt Tyrnauer (Valentino, The Last Emperor) gathers together dozens of talking heads in neat offices to recount Jacobs's and Moses' stand-off for this handy urban planning primer. The two combatants appear in archive footage, although not nearly often enough.

Tyrnauer and others attempt, not entirely successfully, to contextualise Jacobs’s efforts within the second-wave feminism of Betty Friedan and Rachel Carson, and to contemporise her arguments with footage of new Chinese modernist buildings and Indian slums.

Ironically, the historical figure of Jane Jacobs gets lost in the repetitive lines, clean edits and homogenised storytelling of Citizen Jane. Too often, alas, we're hearing the same ideas from samey participants.

A timely warning against big-block buildings with empty ground-floor shop units, nonetheless.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic