urban issues

Documentary Spotlight: “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City”

Director Matt Trynauer’s new documentary “Citizen Jane” is both a welcome film bio of the late author-activist-urban theorist Jane Jacobs and a fortifying reminder of how committed and creative “people power” can be more than a match against monolithic government and business interests when they have negated any sense of human decency. Jacobs was a writer and magazine editor living in Manhattan’s West Village who developed a homegrown value system about what makes cities work best, an ideal of people-centric short blocks with mixed usage and a vital network of safe and productive interconnectedness among a diverse population. This was spelled out in her first book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” first published in 1961 and a work that is still influential to this day.

“Death and Life” was both a celebration of spontaneous urban vitality and an unabashed assault on the doctrinal city planning theories of the day, which centered on the construction of endless rows of monolithic housing towers cut through with multi-lane expressways. All this would be accomplished by first enabling the wholesale demolition of the “slum” neighborhoods that Jacobs saw as vital communities. As per the film’s subtitle, a large chunk of “Citizen Jane” concerns the high-profile contest of wills between her and the imperious Robert Moses, New York City’s powerful city-planning czar.


Not the best of friends: Jacobs and Moses.

Moses in his earlier days was known as an enlightened master builder. His first major project was the populist and popular Jones Beach State Park, opened in 1929. By the Fifties and early Sixties, however, he was firmly aligned with the visionary but abstracted Modernist dictates most associated with Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier. Jacobs thought these ideas were poisonous and was pretty blunt about it (the first sentence “The Death and Life” is “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding”). In the trailer below, you can get a taste for Moses’ arrogance. He refers to certain neighborhoods as “cancerous” and insists that his projects will be bulled through at whatever the cost. It was a typical urban renewal attitude at the time and one that Jacobs said made people feel as no more than “subjects of a conquering power.”

That all began to change when Moses wanted to build a road straight through the historic and well-loved Washington Square park in Greenwich Village, for no other discernible reason other than he thought he could and perhaps to extend fashionably expensive Fifth Avenue. Jacobs sprang into action. File footage, period newscasts and TV appearances show a blunt but savvy organizer who could marshal great support (future NYC mayor Ed Koch was one of her early allies) and counteract elitist and sexist belittlement with attention-grabbing tactics (concerned citizens crowding city hall meetings, baby-carriage blockades). When the Washington Sq. road plan was nixed, it was the first setback for Robert Moses, who saw himself as an embodiment of the “Great Man” theory but whom Jacobs breezily derided as being “scared of life.”

There would be other battles to follow and Trynaeur does a pretty fair job of hashing these out for a general audience, with help from interviewees like Anthony Flint (who wrote the book “Wrestling with Moses” on this subject), architect Robert A.M. Stern, architecture critic Paul Goldberger and others. While the presentation here tends to be one-sided, the film does well to trace the gradual ascendancy of Jacobs’ ideas and Moses’ concurrent (and also gradual) fall from grace, with examples like his failure to raze 16 square blocks of her beloved West Village in the name of urban renewal.

For me, the most vivid case history in “Citizen Jane” is the saga of the would-be Lower Manhattan Expressway (LOMEX), a double-pronged Ayn Randian nightmare of a ten-lane highway topped with a Space Age ziggurat on one end. This would have obliterated large chunks of Soho, Little Italy and the Cast Iron district while presumably letting the oligarchs look down on those left behind in the exhaust and neglect, many of them crammed into the long-discredited housing projects that are a prime part of the legacy for Robert Moses and his ilk.


Fountainhead Folly? This proposal for LOMEX dwarfs even the Manhattan Bridge.

New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller finally shelved the LOMEX project in 1971 and for good measure accepted the last in a long line of Moses’ fit-of-pique resignation letters. Today, Jacobs’ insistence that people need to shape cities for themselves is pretty well embedded. Community input in urban planning is much more prevalent and the public realm in New York and other big cities is often safer and more welcoming for residents and visitors alike. Huge problems remain of course with gentrification and income disparity and the same authoritarian attitudes prevalent in America in the 50s and 60s have been exported: one talking head here describes city planning in China today as “Robert Moses on steroids.” But Jane Jacobs’ idea that our cities are an ecosystem that needs to be understood and cared for to be truly successful can also be exported, and reinforced here at home, and a viewing of “Citizen Jane” would be a good place to start.

“Abandoned America” In Extremis: A Place Where More Than the Buildings Have Been Vacated

Abandoned America: The Age of Consequences
Photos and Test by Matthew Christopher, Foreword by James Howard Kunstler
(Jon Glez Publishing)

All photographs in this post are copyright to Matthew Christopher

Regular visitors to this site will know something of my fascination with lost or abandoned places, the main side topic here when I’m not traversing the highways and byways of rock music history and documentary film. The public’s interest level with such deserted locations has grown to the point where the phrase “ruin porn” is now a thing. Photographer Matthew Christopher, in the introduction of this remarkable and sobering book, says he is well aware that his work may be seen as a modern version of the old Picturesque school of aesthetics. But the book’s subtitle lets on right from the cover that there is a lot more afoot here.

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Page after page feature the devastated remains, in beautifully rendered hi-def photos, of buildings magnificent in scope and/or noble of purpose. These eye-popping images of derelict power plants, factories, trade schools, churches, fraternal lodges and communal vacation resorts speak powerfully of a severely shredded social and economic fabric. (Most of these locations are in Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states). Some may react with an out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new shrug but these ruins nevertheless say a lot of what we don’t want to hear.

Back from the late 19th century through to the Second World War era, when most of these places were constructed, there were political and social differences aplenty, often profoundly so. But there was also was a common-denominator civic pride as a baseline, not to mention a colossal industrial sector that not long ago was the envy of the world. This formed the basis for the eventual building up of a solid American middle-class and a wavering but respectable network of aid and comfort for those in legitimate need.

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Speaking of that America in his foreword, writer and social critic James Howard Kunstler (author of “The Geography of Nowhere”) says “we have come to regard its institutions as permanent achievements.” Reflecting on Christopher’s pictures of a shuttered 1927 movie palace, Kunstler observes that it “presents a display of middle-class opulence that is nearly unimaginable now. Reflect on what that suggests about the psychology of yesterday’s working people: they believed that they deserved to have beauty in their lives, and the builders agreed to furnish it.” Nowadays, not so much.

After Kunstler’s incisive foreword, Christopher in his introduction speaks of the theoretical connection between these defunct places and human mortality. In fact, he does so for several paragraphs, perhaps as a bit of a defensive counterpoint to the fetishization of this subject matter in some quarters. (In fact, he has given several of these locations assumed names to discourage both scrappers and weekend urban explorers). By the end, though, he is squarely on topic: mourning our “shared heritage,” he sees these buildings, both mighty and graceful, as a reflection of a national character that has been diminished. In its stead, Christopher sees the endless repetition of strip malls and big-box stores with their cheap imported goods proffered to people who are often in reduced circumstances, holding down meager service-sector jobs themselves.

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The Northeast Manual Training School, with its distinctive castle design, was built in Philadelphia at the turn of the 20th century as an innovative publicly-funded free school in an area with a burgeoning industrial sector. It later went through various name changes (ending up as the Thomas A. Edison High School) and declined along with the industry and the neighborhood. By the time “Abandoned America” was published it had been unceremoniously demolished and replaced with a discount chain store.

This is not mere nostalgia for a robust heavy-industry economy never to return, it’s more for the loss of the wherewithal to even try and have a constructive dialogue about how to adapt to a changing global economy. It’s there in every achingly vivid photograph of a silenced turbine hall, molding lobby in a working-class resort or half-demolished church. An ideal has been abandoned along with the edifice: this is “a book of heartbreaks” as one person put it in “Abandoned America’s” Amazon comments section.

Not only do those “permanent achievements” look a lot less invariable by the day, the political dialogue (such as it is) about what to do has become the worst sort of zero-sum game. The idea that the two sides of the aisle would have a clash of ideas and each would come away with some of what they wanted is almost laughably quaint now. Now, with Republicans having spent decades literally demonizing Democratic leaders while coastal liberals (many feeling safe with their high-tech jobs) speak glibly of “fly-over states,” we’ve come to a pretty pass indeed.

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Some may think of James Howard Kunstler as a gloom-and-doomer when he talks of America as a once-advanced civilization facing a lasting turnaround “toward a loss of complexity, a reduction in the scale of activity, a loss of artistry, and probably the end of many comforts.” It’s that wish for a return to that greatness, without facing up to any of the complexities needed to get there, that looks like an unsolvable problem in this age of anti-intellectualism and safe spaces. After an election season filled with a succession of soul-crushing inanities, the U.S. elected in Donald Trump the exactly wrong person needed, even if his famous slogan played to those sentiments. Spurred on by a frustration with political gridlock and, let’s face it, conservative media outlets that only know how to act on its most pernicious impulses, struggling Middle America elected someone whose one and only skill is exploiting their prejudices and frustrations—-in fact, a man whose narcissism and unpredictability borders on outright insanity. After not hearing a single utterance of true empathy from Trump, even directed at his own voters, it’s safe to say that not only does he not care about any true “social compact”, but he probably has never given it a single thought in his entire perversion of a life. Man, oh fucking man, have we lost our way in the wilderness of of our own self-regard, leaving us with a national psyche as rusted and hollowed out as the places pictured in Matthew Christopher’s elegiac testament.

Detropia (Doc of the Week #7)

Detropia

(Just caught another view of this film as it is the newest entry on PBS’ “Independent Lens” series. Check your local listings as they say and see a postscript I just added below with other Detroit-related items. Rick)

Detropia
Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady—2011—91 minutes (Docurama DVD)

The fastest growing city in the world circa 1930 is left with 100,000 abandoned houses or empty lots less than a century later. A pioneer of heavy industry and worker empowerment is relegated to being the poster child for a national trend that saw fifty thousand factories close in ten years, leaving behind a permanently insecure labor force. The home of Motown and a mighty civic infrastructure reduced to the outward appearance of a fallen civilization. Few places illustrate the diminished American Dream better than Detroit. The documentary filmmaking team of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (who also made the excellent “Jesus Camp”) grapple with this weighty subject with a blend of citizen testimonials and impressionistic visuals, gleaning both the ground-level personal perspective and the dreamlike aura of an oversized ghost town.

Soon after the opening lament by video blogger Crystal Starr, as she gazes at the Motor City skyline from the upper story window of an abandoned apartment building, the film gets right down in the business. United Auto Workers official George McGregor regales the interviewer with stories of past glories while driving to a union hall meeting where most of the chairs remain stacked in the background of the shot. The nearly depleted rank-and-file membership listen in disbelief as McGregor reads out the latest proposal by American Axle, a company already threatening to move its production out of the country. Faced with either accepting a pay package that will leave them with slightly better than fast-food wages, or seeing the same jobs shipped overseas with impunity, it’s hard to leave the scene without understanding why the American middle class seems as gutted as the deserted buildings we see in so many of “Detropia’s” establishing shots.

Elsewhere, we see a nightclub owner trying to hang onto his business in the face of plant closures and fretting at an auto show when he sees the Chinese poised to corner the electric car market; briefly meet a performance-art couple attracted to the city’s low housing costs; and hang out with some enterprising metal scavengers, picking at the carcass of a once-great metropolis and selling the scrap to a country that can use it (China again). For Mayor Dave Bing, the options for improving conditions in this broke city are few. Left with half the town that once was, Bing (a former Detroit Pistons basketball star) proposes consolidating the thinly-spread population—down to 700,000 from a mid-century high of 1.8 million—into higher-density areas while “re-purposing” vacant land for large-scale urban farming. This idea is met with skepticism at a tumultuous community meeting and by a trio of amused front-porch philosophers. It’s these regular folks that make “Detropia” as appealing as it is, counteracting the directors’ tendency for a grab-bag approach that can cause contextual drift. So even amid the ghostly greens and reds of nocturnal street scenes, or snippets of barely-introduced subjects like the African-American opera singer, there will soon be some level-headed resident, with that Motor City mix of gallows humor and dogged perseverance, to keep things grounded.

In the end, several of the subjects sneak their way into the city’s gargantuan Michigan Central Station, the long-vacant Beaux Arts masterpiece that as much as any one edifice symbolizes this epic fall from grace. While the strategic bailout of the auto industry engineered by President Obama offers a modicum hope, the outlook remains bleak. The city went under state receivership in early 2013 and Dave Bing decided not to run for re-election. While there may be no foreseeable turnaround for the city’s endemic woes, to treat this as a matter apart from us is inadvisable in the extreme. “When you see your neighbor going down, you have to think about yourself,” the club owner warns us in the waning moments of “Detropia,” adding “a fire unchecked will only take you out as well.” It is another reminder of America’s abandonment of a production-based society in favor of an economy dependent on a distracted consumerism many can’t afford and lorded over by esurient Wall Street CEOs rewarded for cutting workforces. Ewing and Grady are to be commended for making their accessible and heartfelt film on this discouraging subject.

Det Disassembled

One thing I would have liked to seen a little more of in “Detropia” is the astonishing scale of both what was built there and the extent to which it has fallen to ruin. If you’re like me, then, check out the book “Detroit Disassembled”. I mean that literally. Check it out of the library if you can’t afford the hefty price tag, even if photographer Andrew Moore deserves every penny of it. This is one of the most extraordinary photo-essay coffee table books I’ve ever seen. Moore’s large-format camera peeks into every conceivable corner of what, through his lens, might as well be a lost ancient ruin. A melancholic paen to a faded nation of makers, the infrastructure and institutions that supported this industry-based system are now seen as losing a visceral battle to decay and the forces of nature. The dilapidation of catherdal-like assembly buildings, rococo theaters, technical schools, grand theaters and handsome apartment blocks may seem like an exaggerated and isolated example to some, but it leaves behind a sour taste nevertheless. It makes one think of the pipsqueak service economy we’re left with, 70% of which is dependent on consumer spending while at the same a huge percentage of workers are making the kind of wages that almost make indentured servitude an attractive alternative.

While I’m at it, I will also recommend the 4-minute film clip link below but don’t read the caption as it contains a spoiler alert, Documenatry Division.

Godfrey Reggio’s 2002 “Naqoyqasti”, the last of his trilogy that began with the trailblazing “Koyaanisqatsi” opens with that solemn tracking shot of the Michigan Central Station’s massive vaulted waiting room and once magisterial upper-floor offices, every window now smashed. Back on the ground, a close-up of the building’s mighty portico and entrance has a raging sea superimposed over it and the effect is of all of Western culture being pulled under.