The first thing I did upon leaving the Ritz Bourse the night I saw Citizen Jane: Battle for the City was to get in my car and ascend a ramp onto I-95 and then the Vine Street Expressway, two interstates that, from above, look like a massive scar running across downtown Philadelphia. Most of the time when I am using these highways (likely sitting in traffic), I don’t even think about the impact they’ve had, especially since their opening predates my worldly awareness. But when I am headed to the Spruce Street Harbor Park, the Electric Factory, or Fishtown, it is always on my mind how aesthetically unpleasing these highways are for people on the ground.
And what Jane Jacobs wants us to consider always are the people on the ground. Her 1960 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities was a landmark work in pushing back against the city planners who redrew the maps from on high. She also moved from journalist to activist in order to protect her hometown of New York from intrusion by the plans for highways and thoroughfares. On another personal note, I am, by coincidence, making my way through Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker, an expansive biography of the famed builder Robert Moses. Moses was Jacobs’ primary target, and through both that book and this film, I feel as though I am discovering the hidden history of the US cities, especially New York.
As mentioned above, the completion of the Vine Street Expressway in 1991 is something that has always existed for me. Both it and I-95 through Philadelphia were decades-long projects, and I know only of the controversy by way of my parents complaints. The documentary does touch on the redevelopment of Society Hill in the 1950s, including I. M. Pei’s towers.
All of this recent history is important in shaping our cities as they are today, but isn’t covered in history classes. Not just the course of highways, but also architecture and the rise and fall of housing projects all play an important role in this story. And that’s my favorite aspect of Citizen Jane: Battle for the City. While the film spends adequate time going through its subject’s major accomplishments, it is always pausing to ask the audience to reflect on what our cities look like today.
There is far more to these stories than could be covered in a feature-length documentary, but as an overview of the design of American cities, this does an excellent job pulling at these interwoven threads to find patterns. This is definitely essential viewing for fans of the 99% Invisible podcast. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the ideas presented in this film since I saw it, and while it may dovetail with some of my particular interests, this documentary should be seen by everyone.
Citizen Jane: Battle for the City opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights
as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.