When I ventured out to Fire Island last weekend, it took us nearly an hour to get from the ferry landing to the house by traversing a forest path in pitch darkness. As I strained to wheel a suitcase through the sand, we joked nervously about the classic horror movie scenario, and I wondered which one I was going to get first: poison ivy? lyme disease? eaten by coyotes? Once we got to the house, though, we were enveloped in blissful solitude, and I cracked a book about Fire Island only to be reminded that Robert Moses had once sought to run an expressway through the quiet little place.
Ah, yes, Robert Moses. The Power Broker. The Master Builder. A man who, for all of his good work as Parks commissioner in the 1930s, eventually became synonymous with shitting the bed, if New York City is the bed. On Nov. 10, the annual DOC NYC festival will open with a film that documents his battle with Jane Jacobs, the celebrated architecture critic and activist who fought his projects in the West Village and Soho. The screening of Citizen Jane: Battle For the City will be at SVA Theatre in Chelsea, and will be followed by a Q&A with filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer (Valentino: The Last Emperor). But I was lucky enough to see a preview at IFC Center, not far from where Jacobs lived, above a candy store at 555 Hudson Street.As I left the theater and walked through Washington Square Park, I tried to imagine the park as Moses envisioned it, with four lanes of traffic running through it, and LaGuardia Place renamed Fifth Avenue South. To get a sense of what Moses’s Greenwich Village would’ve looked like, you need only walk over a few blocks to where NYU’s Washington Square Village rises above the neighboring brownstones. The complex was built atop the few blocks that Moses, toward the end of his tenure as construction coordinator, managed to mark for slum clearance before his larger plan to raze 14 blocks was kiboshed. The superblocks he created continue to be controversial to this day, as NYU adds two new buildings there, to the ire of local residents and preservationists.
If you’re like me, you generally avoid walking these blocks, because they feel so interminable and isolated. There’s none of the bustling, convivial street life that Jacobs compared to “an intricate ballet” in her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which she outlined her vision for a healthy, thriving city. “The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place,” Jacobs wrote in that book, “and in any once place is always replete with new improvisations.” A walk down Mercer Street, between West 3rd and Bleecker, feels more like you’re in a Western– you almost expect to see tumbleweeds.
For a city to generate exuberant diversity, “most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent,” Jacobs insisted.
Of course, Moses wasn’t buying this. As Citizen Jane makes clear, he was instead under the sway of modernism and particularly Le Corbusier’s vision of “towers in a park.” Among the architects, social critics, activists, politicians, and other urbanists interviewed in the documentary are Robert A.M. Stern, the late Ed Koch, and James Howard Kunstler. Some argue that Moses corrupted a concept that was supposed to be applied to office buildings, with low-rise housing around them. Instead, he created residential towers without the balconies that Le Corbusier imagined, crowding low-income people into isolated compounds on the fringes of the city. The reason for this arrogance, some argue, was simply that such construction was an engine of profit.
Moses defended himself by saying that he was giving people nice views, and shrugged it off when an interviewer noted that the view was of the next building over. One of the most notoriously disastrous housing projects to arise out of this vision was the Pruitt-Igoe houses in St. Louis. If you’re a fan of Koyaanisqatsi, know that Citizen Jane uses some of the same footage of the towers, mostly abandoned and dilapidated just a handful of years after they were built. The documentary also features a soundtrack that’s similar to Philip Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi score, which acts as a fine compliment to an abundance of archival footage of New York City street scenes.
Citizen Jane also digs up clips of interviews with Jacobs herself. In one, she recounts her arrest at a hearing regarding the 10-lane Lower Manhattan Expressway that Moses sought to build along Canal Street. (Renderings of the scuttled “LOMEX,” which would’ve displaced a couple thousand families in Soho, Little Italy, Chinatown, and the Lower East Side are quite dramatic.) At the time, in 1968, the police charged her with second-degree riot and criminal mischief, and claimed she tried to tear up the stenographer’s transcript. But Jacobs contended she was merely trying to approach the microphone when the stenographer became so terrified that she clutched her machine to her chest and the transcript tape fell out of it like confetti. Either way, the hearing was put off.
The documentary is careful to shake the reputation with which Moses and other detractors tried to smear Jacobs: that she was a housewife and a busybody rather than an accomplished journalist who bucked gender norms by writing for Architectural Forum in the early ’50s. The way she’s presented here, Jacobs was pulled into activism (or NIMBYism, if you prefer) reluctantly, and only because Moses’s aggressive slum clearance was threatening to come to her backyard. Jacobs saw the automobile as “the chief destroyer of American communities,” so of course she was going to rise up when Moses threatened to run buses through Washington Square Park. Somewhat amusingly, she ended up moving to Toronto, only to end up fighting another expressway that threatened her neighborhood there.
That her “battle for the city” followed her to Canada is, of course, testimony to how internationally influential Moses’s “top down” vision of urban development ended up being, even if it has been deemed disastrous by so many city planners. The documentary ends with scenes of high-rises in China, going up like rows of dominoes, and the implication is that they’ll eventually be imploded just like the Pruitt-Igoe houses. It’s Koyaanisqatsi redux.
To be sure, Jacobs’s battle continues to be fought here in New York (who can forget the 2009 card campaign, “Less Marc Jacobs, More Jane Jacobs,”). But I felt thankful for her efforts as I stepped out of IFC and onto bustling, scrappy, diverse Sixth Avenue. The person who came out of the theater behind me was several steps back and normally I would’ve let the door close, but I waited and held it open for him. As Jacobs once wrote, “Lowly, unpurposeful, and random as they appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life must grow.”