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Apr 24, 2017 11:22 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

'Citizen Jane' At The Parrish Shows How Jane Jacobs Changed Views On Planning, Urbanism

Jane Jacobs from Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary
Apr 24, 2017 12:48 PM

Many architects, planners and urbanists look at Jane Jacobs, the writer, citizen activist and creative thinker, as part of the foundation of their professional education. Today, most people haven’t heard of her, and yet, her keen observations on her own neighborhood, Greenwich Village, led to a book which defied and transformed established viewpoints on planning and urbanism.

Written in 1961, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” chronicled and analyzed the nature of community, the perception of urban space and the need to protect neighborhoods from the reckless forces of greed and development. Phrases coined in the book like “social capital,” “mixed primary uses” and “eyes on the street” became part of the lexicon used by urbanists, sociologists and planners. Jane Jacobs was a fearless crusader whose radical ideas for rebuilding cities were a clarion call against the urban renewal plans promulgated by Post-war Modernists and Robert Moses, who advocated for the demolition of untidy slums that were still diverse, vibrant New York neighborhoods.

Mr. Moses, often called her nemesis, once held 12 unelected positions both in New York State and New York City. As a power broker he commanded enormous influence and managed to ride roughshod over the public, politicians and anyone else opposing him in his quest to cut highways through existing neighborhoods and build monotonous superblocks and housing projects. This recasting of New York stirred Ms. Jacobs’s ire and she managed—with the support of Margaret Mead, Eleanor Roosevelt, William H. Whyte, Lewis Mumford and other notables—to prevent Mr. Moses’s 1955 plan (first proposed in 1935 to huge opposition) to ram Fifth Avenue right through Washington Square Park in her Greenwich Village neighborhood. Mr. Moses claimed that it would improve traffic flow downtown.

In 1959, Ms. Jacobs fought an even longer battle with Mr. Moses over his proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, a 10-lane highway above Broome Street through SoHo, and Little Italy, the building of which would have resulted in the demolition of 416 buildings. She organized the community and enlisted mothers and local residents to protest the expressway. And perhaps on the strength of her book she once again defeated Mr. Moses. At the time, however, Mr. Moses claimed, ”Everyone is for it except for a bunch of mothers!”

In 1968 she moved with her family to Toronto. She opposed the Vietnam War and worried about her two sons who were draft-age. She continued writing books and articles until her death in 2006.

It seems especially timely to reintroduce Jane Jacobs with the screening of director Matt Tyrnauer’s new documentary “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City,” the second program of the Parrish Art Museum’s Inter-Sections: The Architect in Conversation series. After the screening, Roberta Brandes Gratz, former New York Post award-winning journalist and author of several books including “The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs,” and Peter M. Wolf, author of six books, land use expert and chairman of the Board of Fellows of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York, will discuss Ms. Jacobs’s present-day legacy. Both guest speakers were well acquainted with Ms. Jacobs. Ms. Gratz and Ms. Jacobs were friends for 30 years and shared similar observations on preservationists who, she notes, are really urbanists taking into consideration people, economics, architecture, and the holistic whole of the city. In Ms. Jacobs’s last book, “Dark Age Ahead,” Ms. Gratz sees Ms. Jacobs’s prescience regarding Donald Trump as well as the real estate bubble. Mr. Wolf appreciates Ms. Jacobs’s reverence for small-scale urbanism as a way to make neighborhoods more sociable. He likens her to Rachel Carsen. Both women were visionaries and original thinkers who were able to aggressively move important messages into the mainstream.

“Citizen Jane: Battle for the City” will be shown on Sunday, April 30, at 2 p.m. in collaboration with the Hamptons Take 2 Documentary Film Festival at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, followed by a talk. Tickets are $20, or $5 for Parrish members. Visit parrishart.org.

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