Jane Jacobs' work is spotlighted in documentary now at Shattuck Cinemas

Charlene M. Woodcock
Thursday May 04, 2017 - 01:43:00 PM

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City:Shattuck Cinemas, from April 28 for two weeks (or longer based on demand.)

The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, Modern Library 50th Anniversary Edition, 2011

How invigorating to see the continuing relevance of Jane Jacobs’ observations on the life of the city. Her genius was to understand what makes cities vibrant and humane and to demonstrate how insensitive development can render them inhospitable to the people who live in them. Jane Jacobs analyzed city parks and sidewalks, those that are successful, used and enjoyed by all sorts of people at different times of the day, as opposed to those that attract few people and become desolate, unsafe places, no matter how grand the adjacent buildings may be.


The drama of the film lies in its juxtaposing her close observation of city life with the abstract theories of planners, and particularly the New York planner extraordinaire Robert Moses. The film shows the consequences of the battle of wills between Moses and Jacobs and the residents of the buildings and whole neighborhoods he ordered destroyed to achieve his vision. Moses, Le Corbusier, and other planners envisioned the “park city” with tall buildings and large open spaces, and great, sweeping highways to move automobiles rapidly through them, which of course required extensive destruction of people’s homes, businesses, and habits of daily life. 

What these masterminds built in our cities was not designed on the basis of people’s needs and wishes but, for the most part, on untested city planning theories and driven by the profit motive. Blocks of two- to four-story apartment buildings with diverse small businesses at the sidewalk level were demolished, the residents and businesses forced out, their human-scale apartments and dynamic sidewalk life replaced by big, sterile buildings facing inward on grand open spaces. And many of them failed, the demolition footage to be seen in this film. These “parks” found little use or became dangerous for lack of the “eyes on the street” that Jacobs showed made busy streets safe for all. Jacobs closely observed the elements that interest city residents, how sidewalks and parks are enlivened by the diversity of people who use them, idle in them, play or simply enjoy observing their fellow city dwellers. She showed that it is this diversity of people, small businesses, short blocks, busy sidewalks, architecture old and new—that gives the city interest, attracts people, and makes it culturally and economically viable. 

We’ve all seen the urban scenes Jane Jacobs describes but perhaps have not consciously observed the accuracy of her findings. But we ignore at our peril the destruction and “renewal” of cities when done without consultation with the residents of the targeted neighborhood and adjustments or reconsideration of plans based on local needs and values. 

The film will be screened at the Shattuck Cinemas for one week, longer if there is sufficient audience interest. As the film schedule demonstrates, the Shattuck Cinemas are a Berkeley/East Bay treasure. The quality and diversity of films offered here draws to Berkeley several hundred thousand East Bay residents each year, thousands of whom signed a petition opposing their demolition to make way for a tall building, unwanted by the majority of Berkeley residents who voted out the pro-development mayor and city council majority.