Resembling a kind of David and Goliath tale in the pushing back against the kind of homogeny that seemingly comes hand in hand with urbanisation, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City is a fascinating history lesson which never feels preachy nor heavy-handed. Director Matt Tyrnauer (armed with a generous quantity of gorgeous archive footage) brings an accessibility and light touch to the story, managing to engage and entertain without it ever turning into a dry polemic.
It helps immensely that the film’s subject matter – author, journalist and activist Jane Jacobs – is such an appealing and admirable figure. Focused primarily on urban studies in the US during the 1960’s, Jacobs’ bookish exterior betrays the vociferous dissident nature within, which favoured brain over brawn. It was this approach which saw her prevail many times, particularly during the fight which forms the basis of this film, when she went up against conceited New York town planner Robert Moses.
Jacobs (who passed away in 2006) is presented via a smattering of interview footage and then it’s left to a voice-over narration of her work, plus a series of historians and academics – all of whom do a fine job – to fill in the rest of her story and bold accomplishments. Jacobs embraced the complexities of the city and was adamant that all ethnic groups, social demographics and walks of life should be allowed to thrive and interact together in an accessible space, be it rich or poor. Tyrnauer really captures the love his subject had for her life work and the filmmaker manages to cast a warm nostalgic vibe over that era in New York, which is threaded throughout the flickering stock footage.
What is ostensibly a niche subject matter is rendered very watchable due, in part, to how much of what Jacobs passionately advocated half a century ago is still very much at the forefront of many concerned urbanites. Given the excessive nature of gentrification which currently threatens to strip the identity of our own capital, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City is a timely and somewhat painful reminder of the societal damages mass redevelopment can inflict, if unchallenged.
Citizen Jane: Battle for the City is released on May 5th.