In the history of cities and city building, there are few rivalries more fierce than the one that existed between Robert Moses–New York’s “master builder” who pushed large-scale urban development and infrastructure projects–and Jane Jacobs–a journalist and activist who championed people.
One of Moses’s most infamous plans involved demolishing Washington Square Park and much of Greenwich Village to make room for a highway. Jacobs, who was a resident of the neighborhood, mobilized a grassroots movement to squash the project. She resisted, she won, and she cemented her stature as one of the foremost voices on urban design. A new documentary, Citizen Jane: Battle for a City, chronicles this saga and hits theaters April 21.
The fight between Moses and Jacobs is well known in design circles, but the story of a citizen going up against big government–and winning–holds special significance in today’s political climate. It’s a historical reminder of how the voice of the people can combat powerful forces that don’t have public interests in mind. And beyond that, the film’s trailer shows how the rhetoric of the era has reappeared in the language of the current administration.
Moses thought of New York as a dirty, crime-ridden dystopia in desperate need of an overhaul, which he framed as “Urban Renewal.” His racist and discriminatory policies built freeways through low-income areas in the name of transportation efficiency, razed entire neighborhoods as a way to clean up what he perceived to be slums (really, he was putting poor people and people of color out of sight and out of mind), and forcibly displaced people to towering housing projects. “I say you have a cancerous growth there that needs to be calmed down,” Moses once said about cities in a clip that appears in Citizen Jane.
If this sounds eerily familiar, you’re right. It’s the position of our government’s executive branch today. To better understand how and why the administration thinks and talks this way, going back to the ’60s offers insight.
In his inauguration speech, Trump went on a zealous diatribe about how he perceives cities: “Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities,” he said. “And the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
Trump has projected his negative urban rhetoric on Twitter; in campaign speeches (“Our inner cities are a disaster. You get shot walking to the store. They have no education. They have no jobs,” he said in a debate against Hillary Clinton); and in his policies, which are robbing cities of essential funding. (Oh, the irony that the man with these sentiments has spent his life hiding in skyscrapers.)
Sixty years ago, Jane Jacobs successfully outwitted a man that harbored the same beliefs. Citizen Jane shows us how and why–and might offer some fuel for the fight today.