A journalist discovers spontaneous order in city development — and takes on City Hall to fight its vision of a bulldozed, centrally-planned urban landscape. Citizen Jane: Battle for the City credits: [Dir: Matt Tyrnauer/ 92 min/ Documentary/ Eminent Domain, Libertarian Heroes/ 2017]
“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” ― Jane Jacobs
For virtually all of human history, the vast majority of the world’s population lived in rural areas. However, over the last hundred years, people have been moving to cities. Today, most of us live in urban areas, and the trend is ever more so.
What few know, however, is that just what it would mean to live in a city — what cities themselves would be and look like, and under what circumstances city dwellers would live — hung in the balance between two polar views that were fought out in a titanic intellectual and political battle several decades ago.
It was a battle familiar to libertarians, between well-meaning utopians with a vision of a centrally-planned paradise and those with an understanding of the organic nature of progress. It took place in New York City, between Robert Moses, a public official who had amassed vast power over the city landscape, and Jane Jacobs, a minor journalist who happened to discover and wrote about the spontaneous order she observed in how cities were organized and developed. Her observations on the subject were a Hayekian moment, and her landmark book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, altered the course of history. Her story is the subject of Citizen Jane: Battle for the City.
They say you can’t have a great hero without a great villain, so it’s a credit to this film that substantial time is given to understanding the central planners, and Robert Moses in particular. The sin of such planners wasn’t one of bad intentions – they had the best of intentions, to improve the world and help those most in need. Their sin was arrogance, the idea that they knew better and by that knowing had a right to force their utopian vision on others. Interviewed here, Robert Moses even says as much: the people he is displacing from their homes via eminent domain are simply “ill informed” and “you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette.” You hear progressives and socialists make those very same arguments today, and in those very words. Arrogance is the recurring and eternal sin of utopians of all stripes.
Meanwhile Jane Jacobs, a freelance writer, had been writing for various publications about neighborhoods in New York City. A keen observer, she gradually developed theories about how neighborhoods work, in particular how the organic nature of communities – in which individuals made their own decisions about private property development – is essential to a neighborhood’s well-being and prosperity. Citizen Jane: Battle for the City is something of a teaching moment in that regard, making the case for her libertarian ideas through numerous examples.
Jacobs’ ideas were, of course, in direct opposition to those of the planners, who first ignored her, then belittled her, and ultimately had her arrested for “inciting a riot.” She nonetheless prevailed, saving now iconic neighborhoods such as Greenwich Village from destruction; but her real, lasting significance is far more broad and global. Her theories influenced the social sciences and shook urban planning to the core. This delightful documentary is a fitting tribute to Jacobs and a welcome introduction to this little-known hero, without whom many more of us would have been doomed to live in the sterile, concrete public housing of “progressive” visionaries.
External Reviews of Citizen Jane: Battle for the City
“The movie invites you to sink into her challengingly supple and vibrant analysis of why cities, which we mostly take for granted, are in fact rather magical places. Even if you live in one and think you know it inside out, you come away from Citizen Jane understanding, more than you did going in, the special chemistry of what makes a city tick.”
“Though the central David-and-Goliath story of Citizen Jane is quite satisfying, nimbly told, and just plain fun to watch, what stuck with me long after the credits was the film’s presentation of Jacobs’ unique and humane insight into the ecosystem of an American city…Jacobs had a keen appreciation for all the moving parts of an urban landscape; what appears as chaos on the surface of a huge city, is, in fact, a remarkably intricate layering of smaller communities working in tandem.”
How to See It
“She asked herself how the city worked, what kept it orderly, what made it a place people could live happily, benefiting from the neighborhoods in which they lived. The conclusions she reached…were remarkably similar to those Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek had reached earlier by different routes. A city is, at base, a marketplace. It is a spontaneous order. It cannot be planned. The people who try to plan cities have failed above all because they have not comprehended the way the spontaneous order of cities works.”
–Mises.org: Jane Jacobs: Libertarian Outsider
“The writer and activist Jane Jacobs was one of the first people to sound the alarm against the reigning dogma of urban renewal. Her classic work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which was published in 1961 and has never gone out of print, begins by announcing an ‘attack on current city planning and rebuilding.’ And attack she did.”
–New Republic: Bright Lights: Small Government