The Citizen Saint: Jane Jacobs on the Screen, the Page, and the Streets

The Citizen Saint: Jane Jacobs on the Screen, the Page, and the Streets

By Sam Hall Kaplan

Nearly 60 years after the publication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and a decade after the passing of its author, Jane Jacobs, her street-smart homilies echo louder than ever. The latest of these echoes is the recently released documentary film, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City.

First, the quick take, in keeping with our twittering, capsulated, commercialized present, and with deference to friend Jane, who loved a critical quip: the widely publicized and reviewed documentary by Matt Tyrnauer is unfortunately flawed and superficial.

But it is also recommended — and no doubt the Jane I knew would have appreciated it — for regardless of flaws, it does raise public consciousness about urban design and an appreciation for the potential of grass roots advocacy. And that is what she sought to do in her classic, written against all odds and the powers-that-were. The documentary celebrates her spirit and effort, and should be praised on that basis alone.

This public consciousness is becoming ever more urgent. The future of the world is urbanization, intensifying and voracious, frustrating and challenging. And so Jane’s thoughts are ever more relevant for those who must somehow survive it, there being little alternative.

Be she labeled Citizen Jane or Saint Jane, her pitched public battle against the prevailing planning and development dogma of a half-century ago represented a rare victory of the common citizenry over the unholy alliance of builders, bureaucrats, and politicians. It offers a faint ray of hope in similar battles to come, involving property rights, political power, and the promise of profit.

I remember when Jane first laid out her prescriptions for a more livable city in the late ’50s and early ’60s, over cheap beers in a haze of carcinogenic smoke at a local bar with friends and a few fawning journalists (at the time I was both). That was in the heyday of New York City’s then modest and affordable West Village, where “truth to power” was preached to whomever would listen, and buy a round for the gathered ensemble. The Scranton-born, middle class-bred Jane conveniently lived a few short blocks away from the bar, in a disordered apartment above a vacant store, with her staunchly supportive husband Bob and three children — early urban pioneers bucking the suburban tide of the times.

(For the real estate obsessed, the Jacobs bought the three-story building in the early ’50s for, as I recall, a measly $7,000, which, I noticed recently, is now a month’s rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the gentrified neighborhood. As for the bar, it is now an enlarged, teeming tavern catering to tourists and Wall Street types.)

So much for the documentary’s absent back story of a once garrulous social scene that included renowned political and urban theorists Michael Harrington and W.H. (Holly) Whyte, authors, respectively, of the seminal tract on poverty, The Other America, and The Organization Man, which exposed the insidious rise of the conformist corporate world.

These and a clamorous chorus of other opinionated ladies and gentleman informed the then aspiring, decidedly left-leaning journalist Jane, as well as me. And though we didn’t realize it then, the scene was a harbinger of the anti-war, feminist, counter-cultural movement that would explode into the national consciousness a few years later.

It was primarily Whyte, a respected senior editor at Fortune magazine, and Douglas Haskell, of Architectural Forum, who mentored the indefatigable Jacobs, feeding her heady assignment on the then struggling center cities. Much to their pleasure, expressed in retrospect to me, the work she brought back revealed a refreshingly contrarian take on the lock-step city planning theory of the period, raising eyebrows in the Times Inc. board room and among the catty academic and self-anointed design and urban planning authorities of the day.

And with Whyte’s assistance, despite her lack of architecture and planning schooling, or maybe because of it, she snared a prestigious Rockefeller Foundation grant. This validation came at a time of strained family finances, and was critical to her being able to write her heartfelt, perceptive, neighborly Greenwich Village-inspired tome.

Impressed by her enterprise and bottom-up urban perspective, Whyte and Haskell further helped her find an interested publisher, the august Random House, and an esteemed editor, Jason Epstein, one of the founders of the New York Review of Books. A devotee of his adopted city, Epstein took a particularly patient interest in the self-described “plain Jane,” whose thick glasses and rumpled house dresses belied her raw intellect, sharp wit, and deadline-driven writing.

To be sure, Jane was not an Ivy League grad with a degree in English lit, which made her a breath of fresh air in publishing circles. She had fire in her gut, for which those who knew her loved her.

Though Citizen Jane is devoid of what I feel is a most relevant and engaging political context and personal drama of Jane as a dedicated activist author, it has nevertheless been enjoying a relatively successful run in art houses, and will likely end up on civics lesson plans in classrooms. The documentary may even reverberate the sycophantic gaggle of community activists, city savants, planning professionals, and apparatchik academics who have held the torch for Jacobs book over the past 50 years. Maybe the book will now be read, as Jane had originally hoped, by neighborhood activists all across the country, who can use it as a guide in their confrontations with avaricious developers and toady local bureaucrats.

Doing what marketable biopics do, Citizen Jane simplifies Jacob’s thesis and presents a classic story of the battle between good and evil, with Jacobs as Saint Jane, and the all powerful, condescending, bombastic bureaucrat Robert Moses as the devil. The battle culminates in Moses’s defeat and demise, and an all victorious and acclaimed Jacobs riding off into the sunset, to Toronto. (And thus taking her two boys out of the draft and harm’s way in the Vietnam War, which she and Bob were vociferously protesting.)

The film gives only a cursory glimpse of how cities are shaped and misshaped, coached in clichés for which the filmmaker could be excused, having been born and bred in suburban Los Angles. But I have to take personal exception to his misreading of East Harlem, where I lived during the tumultuous ’60s and, not incidentally, was Vice Chairman of its Planning Board.

Yet the documentary does provide evocative visuals. Much credit should be given to editor Daniel Morfesis, the archival producers Susan Ricketts and Samantha Kerzner, and the archival researcher, Amilca Palmer. The latter have mined wonderful clips from the morgues of television news stations, which capture the mood of the times and the flavor of the swarming streets. I particularly loved the elderly woman who spoke from the guts against a proposed lower Manhattan expressway that would have devastated her neighborhood and impacted Jane’s beloved West Village; she embodied the salt needed for Jane’s chicken soup.

More of that saltiness and fewer self-conscious talking heads in studio settings would have helped reflect Jane’s passion and commitment. We need advocates rather than apologists. And in updating Jane’s theories, perhaps scenes from the Zuccotti Park protests in lower Manhattan of a few years ago would have been more on topic than stock clips of the high rises of China and the Mideast. We need people not projects.

Ironically, it was the focus on projects rather than people that, in the final analysis, led to Moses’s fall and Jane’s victory, which should be a lesson for neighborhood activists, as well as documentary filmmakers.




Summer and planned trips near, and still so many cultural events to be seen and recommended in Southern California. So with the clock ticking here is a short list, I reviewed on public radio 97.5 KBU and select websites everywhere.:

At the Hammer, opened this week is an exhibition of the works of Marisa Merz, an Italian painter, sculptor and installation artist. And if that sounds busy, her creations certainly are, the result of working with traditional and non-traditional materials, and processes, in a variety of scales and setting.

This includes her early sculptures and her later multi media installations, covering five decades of her challenging conventional art, while expressing her own life experiences.

You might ask just what is this art all about. Suggesting an answer is the adjacent Hammer exhibit of recent acquisitions, which is described as –quote- “histories of recent artistic practices that are disparate, divergent, and reflective of the broad range of identities, disciplines, and forms that give shape to an idea of contemporary life,” and I add, to contemporary art.

At the Getty, among its many offerings, most provocative for me, someone who appreciates art and design but as a writer deals in words, is the exhibit: Concrete Poetry: Words and Sounds in Graphic Space.’’

Explored is a 50s movement that according to the Getty, sought to break down the barriers between the visual arts and the written word, that a poem was not just words on a page, but a spatial construct whose design was central to its content.

And, yes, this includes melding a poem to decorate a concrete cube; hence the title “Concrete Poetry

Also at the Getty, is another different exhibit: Eyewitness Views, a collection of over fifty works of art capturing actual events as they happened in 18th Century Europe.

On view are scenes that range from a spectacular Venetian carnival, to the dramatic eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Top of the news, page one items, albeit in oils and on canvas, drawn under deadline by artists of the day. Historians and news hawks should love it.

And if you can’t make it to Italy this summer, there is an exhibit entitled the lure of Italy that in the spirit of a dated travelogue captures in painting the essence of Italy’s attractions.

At LACMA, the featured exhibit this summer is a focus on Latin and Latin American artists,. Explored are affinities within artworks relative to immigration and political repression, dislocation and diaspora, and personal memory and utopian ideals. Its entitled “Home—So Different, So Appealing, “ And also is so topical.

Meanwhile, this commentary goes on vacation, to coincide with a hiatus in the daily KBU news report. But that should not stop anyone from enjoying the regions cultural attractions




The proponents of a sprawling recreational center atop of Bluffs Park persist, with pleas and petitions to prompt the Malibu City Council to reverse itself and approve an environmental impact report for their wish list of facilities.

So what if the costs are going to be prohibitive, the Coastal Commission most likely will reject the plans, and probably suggest the city look elsewhere. I certainly do, wearing various hats that include a former little league coach.

But where there is a hope, there must be a way, declare the sincere if misguided playing field proponents. And by the way, they add, why do people opposed to the plan hate children. Personally, as a father of four, I don’t.

Their arguments have been particularly emotional. These include the fatuous playing of the gender card since all three council members who voted for the park’s status quo were male, to the more pertinent review of the promises of playing fields not kept by past councils.

The councils did have several opportunities to increase the playing fields, without compromising Bluffs Park.

There was what is now Legacy Park, which was proposed 20 years ago when I was a Parks and Recreation Commissioner.

But City Hall and several successive servile mayors back then had their own agendas. (That they are now publicly quoting the Mission Statement in support of compromising the Bluffs is pure hypocrisy.)

They had worked out a back door deal with a few commercial property owners, and opted for a water treatment plant. That would satisfy an E.I.R. to allow more civic center development. while covering the plant with vegetation, call it a park, and let the city and gullible locals pay for it.

I feel Legacy still could be sensitively landscaped for a few playing fields, if the city really pushed it.

And then there is Trancas Canyon Park, whose exercise field can easily accommodate several playing fields, and with a few inexpensive touch ups, almost immediately, certainly much faster than the city putzing around with Bluffs Park.

Again, all the city has to do is amend its specious agreements now banning active sports there, which it did to please a few vociferous locals. It is not like the park doesn’t host active sports now, at least what I view daily from the dog park overlooking the field.

Hey, neighbors, times change, needs change, and it seems many of the kids in active sports are from west Malibu and Point Dume. It certainly would be convenient. Then there is also Trancas Field and its potential. Hopefully the city didn’t buy the fields as a private front lawn for few dozen homes.

This prompts me to suggest that city first and foremost contract for a new needs assessment study. We know what the park advocates want: everything, of course. But what we really should know is what actually is needed: how many kids are expected, from where, now and the future. Details please.

This was not done three year ago to by city’s cozy, costly, consultants. Their workshops were a charade, as is the city’s bumbling planning process.

Needed also is a site analysis: what can the Bluffs’ geology actually accommodate: more structures, cut and fill, or just light footed outfielders?

Those are questions that should have been answered first if City Hall didn’t do things ass backwards, and before some council members made promises.

Hold the divisive grandstanding, Lets get the facts, and then consider the options. Come on city, play ball!





Given the frustrating traffic inundating Los Angeles, my arts and entertainment commentaries on public radio 97.5 KBU and websites everywhere have been on the more accessible cultural venues on the west side.

The sad fact is traffic is the tail that wags the cultural dog in L.A., which for many of us has morphed from our hometown to crazy town.

But sometimes in the pursuit of culture you just have to go Downtown, to the Music Center and the Disney Concert Hall, and just gird yourself for the usual two plus hours in stop-and-go freeway traffic to get there.

Such was an evening recently when we braved the traffic to go the Disney for a stellar program of early cutting edge 20th century music, composed by three brilliant symphonist of the period, Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok, and Leos Janacek.

Up to the challenge was the increasing adept and praised Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and for the Stravinsky and Janacek compositions, the Los Angeles Master Choral and four solo singers.

Though without question if repeated curtain calls, standing ovations and thunderous applause is any measure, and my own cheering, the super star of the evening was the astonishing young pianist Yuja Wang.

The 30-year-old Wang is known not only for her musicality, but also for her stunning outfits. She did not disappoint.

Her jaunty entrance in a shimmering, tight, rose gold colored metallic gown, split up to the top of her thighs, stirred the audience. And then there was the four-inch high heels that made you wonder if she could work the pedals, as needed.

But this just added to the excitement of her playing the very challenging Bartok Piano Concerto Number One, which she did with verve and dexterity. It was, in a word, breathtaking.

With her energetic attack of the keyboard, she more than matched the percussion-dominated reverberations of the orchestra under the busy baton of an enthusiastic and obviously pleased Dudamel. It took your breath away.

Yes, the Bartok concerto was bookended by a sensitive short Stravinsky requiem, and a spirited, edgy Janacek mass, accented by a striking solo organ movement. Both compositions were engrossing.

But it was Wang that marked the evening as memorable. We flew home to Malibu on the freeway in a state of euphoria.