Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

The epic struggles between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses have achieved mythic status in the lore of urban planners: two larger-than-life heroes battling over the streets, skylines, and neighborhoods of New York City. Given the importance of this story (and the recent market for superhero films), the appearance of the two together on the silver screen seems long overdue.

CITIZEN JANE: BATTLE FOR THE CITY (Hammond/Tyrnauer, 2017) fills this gap: a workmanlike treatment of the topic, with just enough background and gloss for the newbie, yet plenty of surprising details and war stories to keep the attention of the old hand.

The viewpoint is certainly not “balanced” – Jacobs gets top billing, and seems to have resoundingly won this debate, at least for the present — but the treatment is nonetheless fair, with enough historical context to help viewers appreciate the fears of urban decay that Moses was confronting and the Utopian visions his modernist projects were trying to embrace.

The film is rife with talking heads – over a dozen planners, academics, politicians, activists, and historians, including Max Page, James Howard Kunstler, Mary Rowe, Anthony Flint, Thomas Campanella, and even Mayor Ed Koch – but it wisely limits each to short quips and color commentary. The voices of actors Marisa Tomei and Vincent D’Onofrio bring the words of Jacobs and Moses to life as well.

Primarily, the story is allowed to unfold through an impressive array of archival material: footage of both vibrant streets and failing slums; maps, plans, and renderings depicting gleaming urban renewal schemes (often matched with disappointing images of the post-construction reality); newsreels of “experts” – male, white, suited – planner-splaining their remedies for the cancer of inner city blight; and the obligatory shots of the wrecking ball and the imploding tenement.

The story takes a few side-treks along the way, situating Jacobs in a decade of protest (feminist, environmental, civil rights, anti-war, and highway revolt movements) and exploring the rise and abandonment of large-scale public housing projects. The introductory scenes and closing chapter remind us that the story is not just about New York in the 1950s: urbanization continues to accelerate, and the future of the planet may hinge on the lessons we learn or ignore from this pivotal past.

Viewers eager for more might also be interested in checking out “City Limits,” a 1971 documentary by Laurence Hyde featuring interviews with Jacobs with some great footage from the era; see https://www.nfb.ca/film/city_limits/ to watch online.

(An edited version of this review appeared in the July 2017 issue of Planning Magazine.)

Rebels with a Cause (Nancy Kelly, 2014)

This documentary, subtitled “How a battle over land changed the American landscape forever,” recounts the battles to stop development of the country’s national seashores and other recreation areas. More broadly, it seeks to describe the birth of the modern environmental preservation movement, giving full credit along the way to the “little people” — garden clubs, small farmers, hippies, and community activists — who took the fight to the nation’s capital — and won.

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Narrated by Frances McDormand (FARGO, MOONRISE KINGDOM), the story unfolds from small regional struggles to a national movement with petitions to the White House and eventual action by both the President and Congress. Beginning in Northern California in the 1950s and 60s, the notion of saving the agricultural land in Marin County from development began to took root; with Kennedy’s election, attention shifted to the Cape Cod seashore — but rather than play into the politics of division, the emerging movement grew to embrace both coasts. Soon lands in the east and west — and much more — were on the preservationist agenda. What had once seemed an unconnected string of local fights was a snowballing national movement attracting causes (and supporters) across the country.

Along the way, we hear from an all-star cast of 1960s crusaders, including Stewart Udall (Secretary of the Interior from 1961–1969), Huey Johnson (co-founder of the Trust for Public Land), and Amy Meyer (co-chair of People for a Golden Gate National Recreation Area). Importantly, for urban and regional planners, the film is unequivocal about exactly why these lands need preservation: all too often — both then and now — natural areas are consumed by rampant and poorly planned residential sprawl.

The film is directed by Nancy Kelly. If you enjoy it, you may also want to check out her 2002 film, DOWNSIDE UP: HOW ARE CAN CHANGE THE SPIRIT OF A PLACE, which explored the creation of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and the role it played in revitalizing the post-industrial town of North Adams.

Watermark: Reflections on a Vital Resource

For one week starting April 11, the Kendall Cinema in Cambridge will feature a new film called WATERMARK by Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky. It’s a clever and fitting title, as the film’s main theme is both transparent and indelible: by exploring the myriad ways that water connects, supports, and shapes life on earth, and the reciprocal ways that humans exploit, worship, transform, and increasingly threaten this precious resource, we come to appreciate the changing nature of our relationship to the limitless world of water and the limited water of the world.

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Similar to the team’s 2006 award-winning collaboration, MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES, the film follows Burtynsky as he travels around the globe to create large-format photographs of large-scale phenomena. Together, we confront stunning examples of just how profoundly our species has altered the planet’s natural water systems: the concrete walls of the towering Xiolangdi and Xiluodo dams; the technicolor contamination of tannery runoff sluice-ways in Dhaka; the immense “Water World” grid network of floating abalone farms in the South China Sea; and the dry river beds and toxic dust storms left behind from the thirsty snaking aqueducts in California and elsewhere. Added to these environmental and infrastructural landscapes — again, as in the previous film — Burtynsky’s eye seeks out massive rivers and oceans of humanity as well: beaches thronging with people at the U.S. Surfing Open; crowds, mesmerized hourly, by the Bellagio’s Dancing Fountains in Las Vegas; and the obligatory story of 30 million pilgrims streaming down to wade in the Ganges River each year.

Through Burtynsky’s lens and the still images he creates, we see these people, places, and problems transformed into luxurious, wall-sized, 60-megapixel color prints; the flow of the film is punctuated with pauses as the finished photographs emerge and expand to fill the entire screen. At the same time, through Baichwal’s lens and the moving images she captures, we learn how these photographs were made and — perhaps more importantly — we learn how read them and make sense of what we are seeing. In the words of the director, “Watermark tries to create a space to think about something in a different way. After three years of almost total immersion, I will never turn on a tap with the same unconscious nonchalance that I did before we embarked on this challenging and deeply rewarding film.” Taken another way, the “watermark” of the title could therefore evoke this hidden sigil, a promise of potential transformation for those who look: that is, the life-altering change in perspective that great art is able to bring about may require us to stop for a moment to seek it out.

The film illustrates Burtynsky’s process, guiding us through his unique way of inquiry as he visits each location and uses his camera to reflect critically and think deeply about our dependence on water and the effects of our actions on the planet’s natural systems. We see him approach each image – often with a jeweler’s loupe fastened to his eye — to probe the pictures and extract the stories contained within them: to help us learn this process ourselves, the film likewise zooms in to the actual scenes and animates the stories, restoring the context and life frozen (or perhaps encapsulated) by the camera. When treated as such — by a truly inquisitive, reflective, actively-engaged viewer — Burtynsky’s photographs can be recognized as a form of fully “synoptic art” (following Allan Bloom’s introduction to Rousseau’s Emile): similar to great works of philosophy, they present “something with which one can live and which becomes deeper as one becomes deeper.”

Finally — again, as with a true watermark — the images in the film also serve as proof of the distinctiveness and quality of this particular product, and no written review can convey the power and complexity of these images: Burtynsky has selected the perfect medium to make his points; Baichwal’s equally important contribution is to guide us (wordlessly; artfully; showing, not telling) so that we may learn to see in new ways and begin to think with an active eye that connects what we observe with what we know, feel, experience, and perhaps ultimately, choose to do about it.

Living in Boston, we are extremely fortunate to be able to see this film on the big screen, as it must be seen, even if for just one week.1 Consider these brief comments as a teaser for the film, not a replacement: go see it, pause, and think about the landscape of water you inhabit.

Footnotes:

1 The film is also scheduled to screen throughout April and May in New York, Washington DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Chicago, Austin, Charlotte, Denver, Seattle, Portland, and elsewhere — see http://burtynsky-water.com/watermark/us-screenings-theatre-listings/ for complete listings.

Gaining Ground at MIT: Wednesday, December 11, 2013

There will be a free screening of GAINING GROUND: BUILDING COMMUNITY ON DUDLEY STREET at MIT on Wednesday December 11th, 6:30pm, MIT AVT/Long Lounge, Room 7-341, 77 Massachusetts Ave. Food provided, Q&A to follow.

The film — a one-hour follow-up to the award-winning documentary Holding Ground (1996) — shows how one diverse Boston neighborhood has stemmed the tide against enormous odds. In the midst of the economic meltdown, GAINING GROUND explores the innovative, grassroots organizing efforts of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) in Boston. DSNI was created 25 years ago when the community had been devastated by bank redlining, arson-for-profit and illegal dumping, and has become one of the preeminent models for community-based change. Over the course of two years, we watch a new generation of leaders working to prevent foreclosures and bring jobs and opportunities for young people to one of the city’s most diverse and economically challenged neighborhoods.

This screening is sponsored by the MIT Office of the Dean For Graduate Education.

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (Chad Freidrichs, 2011)

There are a number of important films that tell a story that you’ve never heard before; THE PRUITT-IGOE MYTH, on the other hand, tells a story you’ve heard many times over, but does so in a way that makes you stop and question what you thought you knew, leaving you in a state of mind to keep thinking about it long after the film ends.

In brief, the film recounts the history of the now-infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing project, through the voices of past residents (as well as a couple notable experts in housing policy and urban history, including both Robert Fishman and Joseph Heathcoat). The details of this story are known by all: built in the early 1950s in Saint Louis in an attempt to eliminate slums and provide new modern housing for the city’s anticipated post-war growth (and perhaps also maintain color lines in this deeply-segregated city), the project soon came to symbolize the ills of large public housing projects; by 1972—less than two decades after opening—work began to raze all 33 structures at the site. The dramatic images of the demolition—a huge public housing project literally imploding—now serve as haunting reminder of this past, a visual shorthand for the failure of modern planning and the sad shift from noble ambition to national resignation.

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“Haunting” is a good word to describe the atmosphere of the film as well: the camera lingers on empty corridors and barren trees; crying and speechless men and women, once children who called the towers home; grainy images of times now gone. But rather than offering up a resigned funeral dirge—or even a reproachful eulogy—over the death of public housing, the film takes time to explore the space created by this loss, probing for meaning like a tongue forever seeking out the hole left by a lost tooth. Through the stories and recollections of people whose lives were shaped by Pruitt-Igoe, we come to share the fears and the joys it once housed, revisiting the timeline in a reflective, non-linear way. Like Kurosawa’s classic RASHOMON, one senses that there is no simple answer to this puzzle of Pruitt-Igoe, no absolute lesson to be learned from this past, but rather many questions to continue to ask; the “myth” to be busted is that we can pin all of the problems on a single element (the design, the density, the racist bureaucracy and white flight, the drugs and gangs, the breakdown of the family in northern Black cities, etc.) and prescribe a pat prescription so “this will never happen again.”

At a pivotal moment, Brian King (a former resident and the real moral anchor for the film) describes the day his older brother was shot in front of their building: watching his mother—helpless and overwhelmed and grief-stricken—frantically trying in vain to shove her son’s viscera back into the hole in his chest. In the end, at least for the space of the movie, we feel the same mix of loss, frustration, anger, and helpless over the destruction of Pruitt-Igoe—wishing more had been done, but knowing full well that the problems facing cities in the 1960s and 70s were bigger than one housing project alone could solve.

Kickstart This Film: Metropolis (2012), by Tides of Flame

Most of the reviews on this site describe films that already exist, but from time to time we highlight stories on upcoming or proposed projects. One particularly exciting development in recent years is the potential for “crowd-sourced film production” enabled by sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Unfortunately, it can also be time-consuming to sift through all the projects listed to find those of real interest to viewers of urban film. Here’s one that’s worth a quick look, and possibly even a small donation.

With a Kickstarter pitch-page that reads like a cross between a prophetic bible tract and the out-takes from a William S. Burroughs rant, this film was bound to catch my attention. Requesting only an extremely modest (and symbolically spooky!) budget of $666, the filmmakers — known only as Tides of Flame, “a collective of radical film makers from the Pacific Northwest” — are proposing to create an “anti-commercial” “negative production,” using film to alter the way we think about cities, capital, production, networks, modernism, and reality itself.

The description of the project just seethes with ambition. In their own manifestoic words:

“In Fritz Lang’s classic, METROPOLIS (1927), the rulers of the
city and the workers of its sewers come to an understanding at the
end of the film. The workers will act as the body, the rulers will
act as the head, and the intellectual will act as the heart. Our
film will destroy this broken harmony forever.”

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Master Plan (Robert Todd, 2011)

I first saw Robert Todd’s Master Plan over five months ago, and I’m still thinking about it. It’s a beautiful documentary of the best kind: one that presents stirring images and thought-provoking juxtapositions, but once stirred and provoked the viewer’s thoughts are allowed to marinate a while. The film shies away from any pat conclusions, seeming much more comfortable presenting a landscape of places, ideas, and lines of inquiry for us to wander and ponder along with Todd, rather than a single “punch line” he wants us to “get”; I was reminded of the line from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where Pirsig talks about the importance of thinking about “what things are,” and not just “what things mean.”

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Indeed, the film had a certain Zen-like quality, both in its attention to small details and quietly “just being” in the places it explores, as well as its non-attachment to a single-purpose narrative. Although described as “a feature length film about housing,” its scope extends far beyond simply looking at physical housing: its subject is homes, habitats, communities, neighborhoods, buildings, landscapes, and the ways people interact in, around, and with them; the bulk of the footage presents a wonderfully rich portrait — or perhaps nonstop pan — of the ways humans live in places. Beyond all this — and the luxuriously decompressed pace takes plenty of time meandering before arriving at this point — the focal point of the film finally settles on a prolonged meditation on the homes and communities of incarcerated individuals, which is apparently a longer-term project for Todd. (An earlier film, In Loving Memory, explored the experiences of prisoners on death row; his next major project will examine ways that former prisoners are re-integrated into their home communities.)

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Waste Land (Lucy Walker, 2010)

As part of the 2012 noon-to-midnight MIT Urban Planning Movie Marathon, we screened Waste Land, which has already won a number of awards, including the 2010 Audience Award for Best World Cinema Documentary at Sundance, an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature, and the Amnesty International Human Rights Film Award given out in Berlin. It is really a great movie: clever dialog, complex characters, a well-paced story that develops over the course of the film in unpredictable ways, a compelling (but not overpowering) soundtrack, and stunning camerawork that makes great use of the entire screen. Added to all of this, it calls attention to a global policy problem that is all-too-easy to ignore: what happens to the waste we all create, and what are the environmental and human consequences of our very way of life.

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The film follows Brazilian-born Brooklyn artist Vik Muniz as he travels to “Jardim Gramacho,” a sprawling landfill located outside of Rio de Janeiro. He’s a fun, interesting protagonist – clearly believing in the importance of his work but also able to see the absurdity in the entire world of art – and he seems comfortable navigating easily between the slums of Rio and the art galleries of London. Early in the film he dreams up the crazy idea of making portraits of Gramacho’s garbage pickers – not with film or paint, but by literally drawing them in garbage.

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