October 1, 2017

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City at Cornell Cinema

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Citizen Jane: Battle for the City relayed a narrative of civil disobedience, the destructive uprooting and displacement of black communities, and a constant fight to bring the city back to its people. The 2016 documentary, directed by Matt Tyrnauer and featuring Prof. Thomas Campanella, premiered in Ithaca at Willard Straight Theater this past Wednesday.

The documentary delves into the life of Jane Jacobs’, recounting her fervent campaign to save New York City from attempts to pave over its existing social fabric. Author of the influential book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, grassroots activist Jacobs advocated for “eyes on the street” as a force for safety, providing for vital and prosperous city streets. In an hour and a half the film provided a critique of urban renewal and the ideals of modernism driving New York City’s planning commissioner Robert Moses to clear out the suffering cities through demolition and the complete remodeling of its infrastructure. The compilation of dramatic newspaper headlines, grainy footage and city plans aided in a pervasive retelling of the contest between these two public leaders.

Quotes from Jacobs’ books seemed to burn atop Moses’ documents and plans to restructure the city. The two opposing views questioned the function of the city, one image as an organized plan, the other living and breathing interconnected neighborhoods. For Washington Square Park or the lower Manhattan expressway, eyes on the street crusaded against towers in the park.

On a related tangent the film touched on the consequences of urban renewal which cast its shadows beyond New York City. Exposing St. Louis’ infamous public housing project Pruitt-Igoe, the documentary depicted despondent images of abandoned buildings and neglected communities, as well as stark instances of poverty.

In its final minutes the documentary analyzed current urban trends recontextualizing the Jacobs’ battle for the city. The message seemed to relay an ominous reminder of our urban environments, citing future slums and perpetuated inequality and social stratification. The film undoubtedly advocated for a continued commitment to cities, highlighting the polarity in which they are perceived in addition to questioning how these contrasting views will affect their future.


Lela Robinson is a sophomore in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning. She can be reached at [email protected].