What makes cities thrive? For author and activist Jane Jacobs, the answer could be found in crowded neighborhoods filled with shops and pedestrians. In the Sundance Selects documentary Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, opening in theatres on April 21, director Matt Tyrnauer sets out to show how Jacobs' theories helped shape urban planning in the latter half of the 20th century.
Tyrnauer originally wanted to examine urban planning in China and India. "The developing world is the place where city rebuilding is really happening," he says during an interview. Poor urban planning is contributing to catastrophic living conditions, including dangerous levels of air pollution.
"In Beijing, our hotel lobby was on the 103rd floor, and you could not see out the hotel window," the director says. "It was like a dense, poisonous fog. We had to wear oxygen masks. And India was worse than China."
But as Robert Hammond, one of the documentary's producers, points out, "When we showed early drafts of the movie with that focus, people were more interested in Jane Jacobs. They wanted to learn more about her. I was worried. Would people find her interesting enough?"
A journalist for Vogue and other magazines in the 1950s, Jacobs reached a broader audience with the publication of her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. According to Tyrnauer, that work uprooted the conventions of city planning.
Citizen Jane sets Jacobs against Robert Moses, "the most powerful unelected official in American history," according to Tyrnauer. But the real villain in the movie is Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known by his pseudonym Le Corbusier.
Corbusier doesn't appear until halfway into Citizen Jane, in part because his ideas filtered slowly and, as Tyrnauer notes, incorrectly into American culture. But another reason is because Moses, the subject of Robert A. Caro's magisterial biography The Power Broker, is such a tempting target.
"Moses comes out of the Progressive movement, the tradition of Jacob Riis and How the Other Half Lives," Tyrnauer explains. "He was very interested in helping the poor, in improving conditions in inner cities. After World War II, in an era when there was a lot of money around for urban renewal, Moses became a very powerful czar in 'clean-slate city rebuilding.'"
Moses was hardly the only proponent of tearing down tenements and replacing them with housing projects based on design principles that have since fallen out of favor. But he may have been the most bombastic.
Hammond believes Citizen Jane eventually received funding because it offers a possible alternative to the current political climate. "What's really scary is when people lose hope," he says. "When you lose hope, you make very bad decisions. That's the Trump election—it wasn't that voters thought he was an outstanding person, they felt like they had no other hope.
"For this movie, I can say this until I am blue in the face, I don't think anyone was particularly receptive to our idea," Tyrnauer argues. "The fields of urban planning and architecture are kind of siloed professions that have their own language, and it seems like you're always preaching to the converted. I felt it was very important to make a movie for as broad an audience as possible, that reached beyond that constituency."
Tyrnauer describes independent filmmaking as a constant struggle in which directors defend their theses against waves of pessimism. But Hammond reminds him of a different kind of response they received after screening their documentary for a Los Angeles community board.
"At the Q&A afterwards, I couldn't get a word in edgewise," Tyrnauer agrees. "People were debating, arguments were breaking out. I was like: Whoa, okay. Obviously this was an interested constituency. But we've been saying all along we want this movie to start arguments. We don't want to convince everyone that they should worship this woman Jane Jacobs."
"Or demonize Robert Moses," Hammond adds.