urban planning

In a Dream of Strange Cities, Part One: Farewell, “Jean” Moreau

Text by Rick Ouellette, photos are archival except where indicated

When the iconic French actress Jeanne Moreau died last month, I’m sure most obituaries ignored her work in the 1955 film M’sieur la Caille, while lauding her performances in such classics as Jules and Jim and Diary of a Chambermaid. Known in the States (if it was known at all) as No Morals, it seems from the trailer to be at least a half-serious film about the shadowy world of prostitutes and gangsters. It’s even called an “art film” by the YouTuber who posted the trailer. But listen to the titillating, oversold narration that goes with the American sneak preview and you quickly realize this is just the sort of movie that could be peddled across the Atlantic as a sex film in the days before the large-scale production of straight pornography.

When No Morals landed in Boston, a few years before I was born twenty miles away, it was at the since-demolished State Theatre at a prime downtown location at the corner of Washington and Boylston Streets. The top photo is one of a series of images I gleaned from Google that taken together suggest the continual architectural and social transfiguration of an urban center over a century and a half. Going back that far, we find the original venue on that spot was Beethoven Hall. I love that name but by scanning that ads they ran (several are up on Wiki Commons) the programming had little to do with Ludwig Van and a lot to do with late 19th century diversions. There were comic operas, freak shows, minstrel singers and even Greco-Roman wrestling. If there were such a thing as a time-travel bucket list, I would pencil in “The Great English Mesmerist” Annie de Montford and her “amusing entertainments of psychology.”

Even better would be a time-lapse view of the historical transformation of just that one site. The first change came in 1879 when Henry E. Abbey, owner of the Park Theatre in New York, comprehensively re-built Beethoven Hall and named it the same as his Gotham property. The elegant interior space continued for years with the parade of comedies and singing shows under a number of different proprietors, one of whom was none other than Lotta Crabtree. Once dubbed “The Nation’s Darling”, Lotta started in showbiz as a girl in California Gold Rush country after being recognized by Lola Montes for her singing and dancing skills and comedic personality. By the time she migrated to Boston and took over the Park, she was one of America’s wealthiest and most popular performers. So popular in fact, that she felt the need to construct a private tunnel that went from the theater’s basement to the nearby hotel where she lived. Crabtree was also a philanthropist and some of her Boston charities still operate today, 93 years after her death.


I like Lotta a lotta: Ms. Crabtree in the 1870s.

What is less charitable is the fate of the Park Theatre in the years afterward. The playhouse gradually got into the burlesque business (the only local establishment to ever host a Gypsy Rose Lee striptease), then found use as a B-movie cinema as the once-impressive horseshoe shaped interior likely faded and it became The State. The racy fare showing here in a mixed urban tableau pre-dates (but not by much) the city-sanctioned red light district commonly known as the Combat Zone. By the time those lines of demarcation were drawn up, the State Theatre fit snugly up in the Zone’s northwest corner and was showing X-rated features one after another daily.

A forensic study of the top photo displays a transitory peek into an age that was already vestigial by the time I moved to Boston no more than two decades later. The 600 block of Washington Street is a vibrant jumble of visual cues: a second-floor bowling and billiards joint; a pizza joint with a delightfully off-kilter sign, two Civil Defense fallout shelter markers and, to the left of the theater, the Crabtree office building (the name is probably not a co-incidence) featuring the Progressive Clothing shop, where some nice suits can be seen hanging on a rack in the window.

That makes sense because the people on the sidewalk are so nicely dressed in the “Mad Men” style of the day. Even the guy in the outside ticket booth has a suit and tie. Under the boldly projecting marquee, anyone could have a nice look-see at the poster for The Shocking Set (where “men were playthings”!!) or the one for “No Morals” where Jean (sic) Moreau, although she’s probably just looking for love in all the wrong places, is claimed to have “many men on the string.” This double billing seems to suggest some early strain of erotic feminism. It’s a notion may have caught the attention of the shifty-eyed lady in the white coat who is suspiciously close to the ticket booth—if so, that would explain her assumed husband’s sheepish grin. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink!


Photo by author

By the time this era (and area) was replaced by the more openly raunchy Combat Zone, the marquee didn’t even bother with titles, never mind enticing phrases, it usually said something like “Continuous Adult Films XXX Shown Daily.” In 1990, the State Theatre was razed in the process of yet another (and current) transformation, brought on by civic improvement (though home video and the Internet had a lot to do with moving the sex industry off the street grid), university expansions and Ayn Randian real estate power grabs. In the photo above, taken on an early Sunday morning in 2016, the State Theatre would have been between the Cathay Bank and the CVS store on the right, part of the blank back wall of a Ritz Carlton complex. At this same spot fifty years ago, you would have been looking out onto maybe twenty theater marquees, and not just the naughty stuff. As lower Washington St. was one edge of Chinatown there wer kung-fu flicks and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey played at a now-defunct movie palace where now is the barren frontage of the building on the left. If I live long enough, even this view will become a complete stranger to me.

With No Morals sadly unavailable, my Jeanne Moreau tribute viewing was 1957’s Elevator to the Gallows, the taut film-noir that was Louis Malle’s first major work and a sort of springboard for the actresses’ later exaltation. Moreau is uncommonly beautiful and tersely soulful as the wife of an industrialist who conspires with her lover, one of her husband’s top men, to murder him. The scheme gets foiled when, unbeknownst to her, lover boy gets trapped in a lift. Confused and upset but still imperious, Moreau’s character—her world suddenly upended—famously wanders thru a shifting Parisian streetscape to the Miles Davis’ haunting score, in a fruitless search, lost as if moving thru a dream of a place she thought you once knew. How I relate.

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.