Sunday, May 28, 2017

Socially Engaged

When everyone's heading out to Memorial Day barbecues, where else would I go but to a matinee at the Bijou?

It was steamy and the rain had let up for a bit, but I'd have walked through a downpour for a good documentary and "Citizen Jane: Battle for the City" was definitely that.

Based on how many multiple pleasure points it hit - cultural history, architecture, civic activism, feminism, urban life - I concluded that I was just the nerdy demographic for a film about a woman journalist taking on a big league NYC developer to stop him from destroying neighborhoods circa 1950s to '60s.

You go, girl.

Embracing the deeply flawed mid-century goal of urban renewal (aka "Negro removal," the film reminds us), big bad developer Robert Moses has no compunction about extending a road through a park, running a highway through lower Manhattan (a move that would have wiped out entire swaths of SoHo) and replacing tenements with massive housing projects.

Naturally, it took a woman to point out that a city is not made up of shiny new buildings and easy access for cars, but made up of people, people living their lives on the sidewalks and streets of that city. Social engagement nearly 24/7.

And when you take away stoop culture, the neighborhood becomes more unsafe because fewer children on the street mean fewer adults looking out for them. Fewer shops and restaurants interspersed between houses mean fewer people out at night and history has proven that strangers and bad guys show up when few people are around.

Jane also noted that cities are like a social ecosystem that corrects itself when something is out of whack and when you stack people on top of each other, it messes with the ecosystem.

The documentary used lots of wonderful old film footage to show the bustling sidewalk scenes of life in NYC during the 20th century.  In one memorable scene, a woman who lives in Little Italy and is at a protest against the Manhattan Expressway expresses frustration about people being made to move so anonymous hi-rise housing projects can be built.

Her complaint? Without cafes scattered along the streetscape, it won't be safe for women to walk around at night. She says she feels perfectly  safe walking around the neighborhood, even at 2 a.m., because she knows that all the men are in cafes looking out for them when they go out at night.

Besides the flagrant sexism of men sitting in cafes every night while all their womenfolk can do is walk over to a girlfriend's house, that's a pretty fascinating slice of immigrant life at mid century.

Moses tried to shake off Jane and her band of concerned citizens (so you have to kick some people out of their homes, it's all in the name of progress, rah, rah) but organized protest prevailed and today Soho stands and there's no highway through lower Manhattan.

The film even connected the dots on significant female treatises of the period, linking up Jane's landmark book "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" with Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" and Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," all published between 1961 and 1963.

Even so, Jane was mockingly referred to as a housewife by the press despite years of journalistic experience writing for Architecture Forum and Vogue. Twice as hard, backwards and in high heels, that's a woman's lot.

Walking out of the Bijou at 3:30 on a muggy afternoon, I looked around for some of that teeming social ecosystem that populates city streets, but hardly anyone was out and about. Oh, right, it's Sunday, the bland filling of the Memorial Day sandwich.

Looks like everyone else got invited to a cookout.


  1. no cookout? you're starting to make me cry!! What would have Jane Jacobs done? She'd of had her own!!!


  2. You're making me laugh, cw...I should have thrown a shrimp on the barbie and called it a day!

  3. Laughter is good...suspect we all need more... and of course it is Memorial Day. Sun's out, it's quiet..except around the Virginia War Memorial. ..that's a beautifully haunting spot at night..especially today. Summer's beginning. Think of all the summers that mark ones' life. Pretty good stuff. You know what I mean... we're about the same generation. Never too late for that shrimp!


  4. I do love summer just as much as I did as a kid. Headed down to the river now to enjoy it in the spirit of a holiday.

  5. may the kid in you enjoy just as much now as then...