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Jane Jacobs documentary filmmaker Matt Tyrnaeur talks cities and activism

‘Citzen Jane: Battle for the City’ opens on April 21

Black and white archival photo of a woman in glasses holding up documents.
Photo of Jane Jacobs from Matt Tyrnauer’s Citizen Jane: Battle for the City.
Photo by Phil Stanziola. Courtesy of IFC Films. A Sundance Selects release.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, the new documentary from award-winning journalist and filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer and co-producer (and co-founder of the Friends of the High Line) Robert Hammond, is as much about Jane Jacobs, the urban activist, as it is a blueprint for taking action in the current age. Published in 1961, Jacobs’s influential book The Death and Life of Great American Cities changed the way we think and talk about cities, putting people at the center of what makes a community vibrant. Jacobs also believed—and practiced—that real power comes from the bottom up.

We spoke to Tyrnauer about Jacobs’s pioneering work, her role as an activist and public intellectual, and why her ideas are still so relevant today. Citizen Jane opens theatrically and on demand on April 21.

What led you to make this documentary? You have a very diverse career, so what drew you to Jane Jacobs?

Matt Tyrnauer: I've always been interested in architecture and cities, and part of what I wrote about, mostly for Vanity Fair and other places, too, was design and architecture. So I've had an interest in the broader subject, and in New York history, and public intellectuals. The Jane Jacobs story—and the Robert Moses aspect—touches on all of those things.

Also, Jacobs is a subject who really hasn't been given, until now, the full-dress documentary treatment. She's been a part of other stories. So I saw a major figure, great thinker, public intellectual, and activist who I wanted to bring to a wider audience.

Was there a specific aspect of her work that compelled you to take this route?

MT: [Jane Jacobs] was a great thinker but she was also a warrior, and she absolutely saw the city in a way that people weren't seeing at the time in the country. You could call her a visionary.

She figured things out about the city that were very much against the conventional wisdom of her day and made a very compelling argument for cities as places where social capital was [seen], and that the real power in cities comes from the bottom up not the top down, a really contrarian argument in the 1950s. I think she deserves enormous credit for that, one of the great paradigm shifts of the 20th century.

It's a great story of someone who had these ideas that—I’m trying to think of the cliche—she really practiced what she preached, I guess, is what I'm looking for. When she became an activist, she began to deploy all of these ideas [from her book] when New York City was being torn apart in a brutal way by Robert Moses, who was the paradigm of the urban renewal generation. Jacobs went to the barricades against him and won. The movement she organized helped bring down the man they called the power broker, master builder, the most talented, diabolically brilliant bureaucrat of maybe ever. So it's a good story.

Photo by Phil Stanziola. Courtesy of IFC Films. A Sundance Selects release.

Why do you think it was important to bring together these two opposing forces in a portrait of Jacobs?

MT: The film is about ideas, but it’s also about action. The concepts that Jane introduces about the city are not the easiest to explain, so we had a filmmaking challenge to get her ideas across, and we wanted to bring people up to speed on her vision of what a city is.

The next part of the film is action because she sees Robert Moses as a threat and helps organize several movements that ended up defeating really treacherous plans for New York, such as the plan to pretty much obliterate Washington Square Park and replace it with a highway, the plan to tear down much of the West Village and replace it with housing projects, and to run a highway through what's now Soho. Jacobs was instrumental in all of those fights and those were all Robert Moses projects, and Robert Moses, really for the first time, tasted defeat. Jacobs is one of those people who helped hand it to him.

What you have is a playbook for how to be an effective activist, a story that is really relevant for our present time.

Why did you want to make the film now?

MT: I think the movie is about activism and intellectuals. [Jacobs] was an under-appreciated, under-known figure, and frankly Robert Moses is, too, at this point. That was my original motivation.

It so happened we thought we were going to be releasing the movie to a world where we had the first female president of the United States. We ended up releasing it into a world where an egotistical New York builder and developer actually ends up taking over the country. That wasn't intended when we began to make the film, but surely people are seeing very clearly now.

What are some of your hopes for the film’s distribution?

MT: I hope it inspires people to resist, and to fight destructive forces, speak truth to power, organize. As Jacobs memorably says in the film, Stop being victims. “It's wicked, in a way, to be a victim. It's more wicked to be a predator, but it's wicked to be a victim. You have to organize.” I'm paraphrasing.

But we all need role models, and we all need strategies to become activists. [Jacobs] was a brilliant strategist. There's something now called the Indivisible movement. These congressional staffers have written a handbook about how to effect change by bringing your cause to government officials. Jacobs was the original purveyor of that, and I think she's a fitting role model for [this] time even more so than we knew when we began making the film.

What’s the takeaway for viewers who have never heard of Jane Jacobs?

MT: Jane Jacobs was really about independent, critical thinking. She wanted people to open their eyes and look at the world around them and try to have a deeper understanding of their physical environment. She thought if they did, then we would be on solid ground because people will then self-regulate and ensure that they had a say in creating their neighborhoods. Cities are collections of neighborhoods, so start with the individual. We all have to be responsible for doing our part. I think in a time of real political danger and the shocking political change in the country—that you have an example of how to resist, how to be an activist, and someone to inspire us to speak truth to power is a really important thing.

Amazing how relevant it is today.

MT: I agree. I think Jacobs is utterly relevant even though her book was written more than 50 years ago.

This interview has been condensed and edited.