If the human race is urbanizing at a rate of 1.5 million people per week, essentially adding a new Los Angeles metro area to the planet every two months, it’s simple logic to take a look back at how we met (and failed) the challenges of urban planning in the twentieth century to insure our cities will survive (and thrive) the twenty-first. “When I told people I was making a movie about urban planning their eyes would roll to the back of their head or they’d walk away, and not surprisingly,” says Vanity Fair writer-turned-documentarian Matt Tyrnauer, who wrote and directed his first documentary, “Valentino: The Last Emperor,” a decade ago. This spring he bowed his second film “Citizen Jane: Battle For The City,” which takes a microscopic (and panoramic) look at urban planning—past, present, and future—through the lens of writer-turned-activist Jane Jacobs and her decades-long campaign for the value of “social capital” against the bulldozing agenda of New York City planning czar Robert Moses.
For three decades the latter uprooted countless neighborhoods across the five boroughs to build housing projects and expressways—including two lower Manhattan roadways Jacobs helped defeat from barreling through Washington Square and SoHo—that ignored the “complex order” of urbanism and the “ballet of the good city sidewalk” brimming with the messy commercial and communal pageantry of street life Jacobs so eloquently observed in her classic 1961 urban planning critique, “The Death of Life of Great American Cities.” “She was a citizen warrior,” adds Tyrnauer, “and I think she can be a great example to other people who want to go down that road.”
Michael Slenske: What got you into Jane Jacobs?
Matt Tyrnauer: Reading “The Death of Life of Great American Cities” gave me the idea. I picked it up maybe six or seven years ago. I’d never read it, but I’d written a lot about architecture and read a lot on the subject and was really taken with it. I realized there was never a first tier documentary made about Jane Jacobs or her ideas and that’s what got me started. After I read the book, I was talking about it with Robert Hammond, the co-founder of the High Line, and he had recently read the book and had a similar reaction. First of all it was, ‘Oh my god, how could we never have read this book?’ Because we were both involved with projects that were relevant to what Jacobs writes about, him more so than I with the High Line.
MS: And you had just come off making the Valentino film, which grew out of a Vanity Fair profile you’d written.
MT: Yes, it grew out of my experience being with him.
MS: It must be quite a shift going from a jet-setting tour around the globe with one of the most iconic couturiers to getting deep into the arcana of urban planning.
MT: They are two very different styles: one is verité, which is my favorite style of documentary and that sort of observational story-telling was something I was very much interested in with my written work and Valentino picks up on that; Jane Jacobs has been dead for years and Robert Moses has been gone even longer, so this was more archival. The period the movie takes place in has some of the most extraordinary archival photographs of cities and that material was of great interest to me. Also, telling a story with a different kind of exposition was interesting. My next film is another verité, called “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood,” about Scotty Bowers, who was the male madame to the stars after World War II.
MS: Aside from “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” was there another impetus for getting this project moving?
MT: The gateway was my passion for architecture and design in the mid-century and Jacobs has a totally different perspective than the one that I’ve subscribed to really. I’m obsessed with Modernist architecture and Mies van der Rohe is my favorite architect, and a lot of her theories are antithetical to that kind of Modernism and looking at architecture as a grand work of art and the city as a collection of architectural masterpieces. That’s where I was coming from before I read Jacobs. She makes you see what a city really is, which is basically a social capital machine, and once you see that you see the city very differently. If you don’t care about such things, it’s astonishing and it makes you think about the world in a very different way. That was the gateway drug, her ideas. I think they are very important, and I think cities are very important, and they are atop of the global agenda right now because there’s a population and urbanization explosion happening right now.
MS: Did you come across the next wave of Jacobs and Moses?
MT: I think one of the legacy of Jacobs is that she launched a period of citizen activism and the whole concept of the community board exploded after her book. Now a lot of people mischaracterize her as the mother of all NIMBYs [Not In My Back Yard] but I don’t think she really was. I think she was about putting more power in people’s hands. There are urban planners everywhere and some of them have less power and some of them have more power such as in authoritarian places like China. They can have a lot of power and can do a lot of damage really quickly, but they can also do a lot of good really quickly. These are the questions we should be looking at. We went to China and India and met people who are on-the-ground citizen soldiers. It’s baby steps, but one thing to realize about Jacobs was that these were 10-year battles. It’s not for the faint of heart, but she’s really self-taught. By her example you don’t need to have an urban planning degree you just need to be bright, inquisitive, and intrepid to make a new path. She’s a citizen warrior and I think she can be a great example to other people who want to go down that road.
MS: I wonder what she’d make of New York today?
MT: You never know, and you can’t speak for her because everything is situational, but I think she’d be pretty discouraged. A lot of what she was fighting against was corporatization and collusion between governments and corporations. Look at Times Square. Everyone slams Times Square as being Disney-fied, but that was purposefully done. This big cleanup that top-down people want kills cities. Was the dangerous, hooker/peep show Times Square great? No, but I would argue that it was more interesting than the bizarre, hellish tourist nightmare that Times Square is now. I often wish she were around to comment about all these high-rises in Long Island City. Are the mayors giving too much away to developers? These are still pressing questions and she helped raise them in the public realm and made it popular for the average person to talk about these things.