The Subterranean: ‘Citizen Jane’ raises debate, intrigue

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

Celebration! Cinema Grand Rapids Woodland and VOD

**** (out of five)

by Walter G. Tarrow

One mark of a good documentary is, while delivering fascinating and provocative insights, it raises debate and intrigues you to want to learn more. “Citizen Jane” did that for me.

From the perspective of the global explosion of urban centers in this early 21st century, the film is a look back to the seminal time of America in the 1960s when small voices with big ideas challenged the powers that be.

Jane Jacobs, author and urban activist, went head to head, in New York City, with Robert Moses, planner/developer of housing projects and highways. She led the protest to protect Greenwich Village from the slum clearance and expansion policies of Moses’ political machine and stopped the incursion of the Lower Manhattan Expressway into the community.

The film demonstrates the promise of protest and the power of, in the words of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, “social capital.” By organizing from the grassroots of community, from the life’s blood of cities, the juggernaut of corporate greed can be stopped.

Loaded with copious clips of archival reports and interviews along with observations of urban thinkers of today, Citizen Jane spins a tale as old as time. There are compelling visuals of cities from within and above, reminiscent of the film Koyaanisqatsi, and an ambient hypnotic soundtrack much like the documentaries of Errol Morris.

Are cities best, in Jacobs’ vision, as organically grown multiverse communities, or, as those of Moses’ ilk would assert, designed magnanimously to run magnificent and efficient in spite of those bothersome humans?

In the first minutes of the film, there is a clip of a man placing the Twin Towers on a scale model of Manhattan. It gave me goosebumps. Those towers were built to stand forever as masts in Walt Whitman’s “City of Ships.” Yet these majestic monuments to the invincibility of the urban machine were brought down by the horrifically uncontrollable intentions of men.

Maybe men are messy creatures, but is the city of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” with its gleaming spires reaching to the heavens casting a Stygian darkness over the hearts of its inhabitants, really the way to grow?

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