Friday, April 28, 2017

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City
seen @ Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, New York NY

I noticed the change in New York very quickly, days after I returned from living in Columbus. I took the subway to Williamsburg. I had worked in that neighborhood for over two years, and I was aware of its growing status as the new cool place to live. When I stepped outside, I noticed something right away: an increased presence of bicyclists. Not just for sport, either, but regular people too, mostly young, their bikes chained to racks in large clusters.

That wasn't all. I had heard talk about how Times Square had been drastically reconfigured. Suddenly there was all this room for people to walk around. I couldn't believe my ears. Times Square was notorious for its traffic gridlock and the way people were overstuffed onto the sidewalks. I went there, though, and I saw it for myself. Broadway and Seventh Avenues had been streamlined - several blocks of Broadway were closed to traffic - and there was all this space in the streets for people to loiter. There were actually beach chairs scattered about the area! I had to laugh.

Like many New Yorkers, I had always believed traffic - whether it meant bumper-to-bumper cars clogging the roads, making travel difficult at best, or the other extreme, cars going too fast, injuring or even killing pedestrians - was an intractable fact of city life to be struggled against, without any real solution. Living in Columbus, a much smaller town without 24/7 public transit, forced me to get around on a bike. I viewed traffic from a much different perspective, to say the least.

It also made me aware, for the first time, of the value of streets. I associated with other bicyclists. Through them, I understood cars have had a monopoly on streets for decades, here in America and around the world. I learned it doesn't have to stay that way. It wasn't until I returned to New York, though, that I saw that potential for changing the status quo begin to be fulfilled. In many ways, we have Jane Jacobs to thank for that.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City documents not only the life and work of the journalist, author and activist, it diagrams the history of the changes the automobile wrought upon city streets and neighborhoods everywhere, as well as how and why they need to be opposed.

The film quotes liberally from Jacobs' game-changing 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Through simple observation, Jacobs argued that neighborhoods viewed as "slums" by some have the elements - variety of businesses, day and night; density of housing; people constantly on the street, aware of each other's presence - necessary for growth, an idea that flew in the face of the wave of "urban renewal," i.e., the tearing down of neighborhoods, sweeping the city at the time, led by Jacobs' nemesis, city planner Robert Moses.

Robert Moses
The film goes into the epic battle between Jacobs, favoring people and neighborhoods, and Moses, the champion of autocentrism and wide, long highways - over the future of New York's development. Moses is regarded as a bad guy now, but the truth is, he did a lot for New York: building bridges, beaches, pools and yes, housing. The high-rise I live in was built by Moses.

It was more the way high-rises were made that was the problem: isolated from the surrounding streets, inefficient use of space, discouraging the spontaneity Jacobs saw out her West Village apartment window. The film goes into the popularity of early 20th century architecture that encouraged these kinds of buildings.

Jacobs' ideas are recognized as valid by many city planners today, but putting them into action - doing things like altering street design to slow speeding cars; reconfiguring streets to allow for other means of travel, including bikes; building more pedestrian space - means facing vocal opposition from folks who benefit from and prefer the status quo established by cars. Many of them won't give that up without a fight.

Former NYC transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, in her recent book Streetfight, advocates wedding Moses' persistence and gumption to Jacobs' ideals in order to build more equitable streets and livable neighborhoods:
...Retrofitting our cities for the new urban age and achieving Jane Jacobs's vision today will require Moses-like vision and action for building the next generation of city roads, ones that will accommodate pedestrians, bikes and buses safely and not just single-occupancy vehicles with their diminishing returns for our streets.... Reversing the atrophy afflicting our city streets requires a change-based urbanism that creates short-term results - results that can create new expectations and demand for more projects.
I saw Citizen Jane with Vija on Sunday and then went to my weekly writing group. On my way home, I passed by a live concert held within a pedestrian plaza in Jackson Heights, built several years ago. At the time, the local businesses were vehemently against it, fearing a loss of revenue from the closing of a single block of a street and the rerouting of a bus to facilitate this new open space. For awhile, it looked like the plaza might not survive.

Sunday night, I saw it packed with people, sitting inside and standing all around the perimeter, with a small group near the stage, children as well as adults, dancing to the music. This is far from the first time I've seen the plaza so busy, but it was the first time I saw such a festive atmosphere so early in the season. Imagine how it'll get come the summer!

Streetfilms charts the path towards safer streets
Why does car-free = loser in movies and TV?
Woody v. bike lanes: dawn of ignorance


  1. This is something I really must see. It is so important to the quality of life for citizens in cities. I notice when reading the realtor section of the paper that the "walk score" is getting more prominence with buyers and sellers.

  2. People are returning to the cities. They're gonna want to be able to get around better, and these days, owning a car is no longer the only option, or even the best option, sometimes. Kids especially are taking to this.


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