“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody,” wrote Jane Jacobs, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, her 1961 study of how cities and their denizens function.
If you haven’t read Jacobs’ influential book, you should, but in the interim, Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary provides a good introduction. It offers a précis of Jacob’s insights on vital street life and how cities foster organic growth and opportunity, as well as outlining her defining battles in New York City against proposed developments that favored automobiles over people. The film also lays out the larger socio-economic, political and cultural issues that fueled the drastic mid-century changes to American cities, such as slum clearance, freeways, public housing, and skyscrapers centered in acres of concrete.
In New York City, Jacobs clashed with Robert Moses, who oversaw the city’s re-development projects. It became personal when the city proposed extending Fifth Avenue through Washington Square Park — a lively meeting place for students, artists, tourists and nearby residents, which included Jacobs and her young family.
Encapsulated here are the tragedies — vibrant neighborhoods destroyed, the construction of high-rise public-housing projects — and successes. Jacobs’ writings changed minds — and helped curtail poor developments — everywhere. Today, we acknowledge those past mistakes — locally, see the Hill District or highways bisecting the North Side — and even work to correct them. We’ve torn down failed housing projects, in part, because we learned that Jacobs was right about how socially destructive it was to isolate people from street life.
And yet, how timely this film is, because the underlying issues and conflicts presented here never go away — whether it is the general frustration of the little guy fighting back against seemingly intractable corporate interests (David can beat Goliath), or conflicts specific to urban development. New highways, bike lanes, surface parking lots, mixed-use development, sidewalk cafes, affordable housing: Everything we argue about today has direct callbacks to the concerns Jacobs raised more than 50 years ago.