Battle For The City: Documentary on ‘Doyenne of Urban Activism’ Set to Screen in Long Beach

Graphics and additional reporting by Baktaash Sorkhabi.

Ultimately, Jane Jacob’s was an activist as much as she was an intellectual powerhouse when it came to her unique examination of urbanism—and that is precisely why Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, the documentary examining the origins of Jacob’s influence, is such an important see when it comes to the Art Theater Long Beach on June 14 at 6:30PM.

In 1960, Jacob’s book The Death and Life of Great American Cities made her the doyenne of urban activism while sending shockwaves throughout the worlds of architecture and planning. Its exploration of the consequences of modern planners’ and architects’ reconfiguration of cities were not only poignant but policy-shifting. (Not to mention the role that ego played in each of those roles, particularly the ego of architecture.)

Her activism started by taking on New York’s very own “the Sauron of the street corner,” master builder Robert Moses, whose intent on running an expressway through lower Manhattan was at one point unstoppable—until Jacobs, an unknown Greenwich Village mom, stepped in.

As with all influential thinkers, taking Jacobs seriously comes with its conundrums: on one hand, she is heralded as someone who ultimately fought Power Capital with ground-level community; on the other, she is praised by free marketers as a by-the-boot-straps pragmatist and problem-solver.

“Figuring out if this makes hers a rich, original mixture of ideas or merely a confusion of notions decorated with some lovely, observational details is the challenge that taking Jacobs seriously presents,” wrote journalist Adam Gopnik, one of the last people to formally interview Jacobs before she passed in 2006.

“The more successfully a city mingles everyday diversity of uses and users in its everyday streets, the more successfully, casually (and economically) its people thereby enliven and support well-located parks that can thus give back grace and delight to their neighborhoods instead of vacuity.” -Jane Jacobs

The film retraces the battles for the city as personified by Jacobs and Moses—while tossing in the complications that come with fighting urban development: when it is right for the community to shoot down a project and when does it become NIMBYism, fostering a stagnant approach to assuring cities are for those in the future as well as those in the now?

As urbanization moves to the very front of the global agenda, many of the clues for formulating solutions to the dizzying array of urban issues can be found in Jacobs’s prescient text, and a close second look at her thinking and writing about cities—in this sense—is very much in order. And it is not only to examine what she got so right but what she also got wrong.

This film sets out to examine the city of today though the lens of one of its greatest champions. In short, it is how urban space is the key to every form of economy: social, professional, trade, cultural…

“Jane Jacobs was one of the first writers and thinkers to make people aware of how their surroundings affect they way they move and live, and profoundly affect their success and quality of life,” said Steve Gerhardt of Walk Long Beach. “We celebrated her 101st birthday last month by hosting Jane’s Walks in Long Beach for the first time. The issues she fought for in the late 1960s are still with us, including gentrification, poverty, inequality, and creating unique neighborhoods. This film rekindles the important discussions we are having in Long Beach about housing affordability, displacement, equitable economic development, community benefit agreements, and other key issues that make living in a city so desirable for everyone.” 

Join the filmmaker for a screening of Citizen Jane at the Art Theater Long Beach on Wednesday June 14 at 6:30PM. Your admission includes a pre-screen reception with light refreshments, Q&A with the director after the screening as well as a panel discussion with Michael Bohn from Studio 111; Steve Gerhardt with Walk Long Beach; and Christopher Koontz with the City of Long Beach.

Tickets available for sale online at the Art Theater Long Beach.

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Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 16 nominations and two additional wins for Best Political Commentary for his work at KCET and Best Blog for Longbeachize, a section of the Long Beach Post. Brian currently serves as a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post.