Documentaries That Punch

Still from "Citizen Jane."

Still from “Citizen Jane.”

As a rule of thumb, political documentaries work best when they have a hero and a villain just like in narrative films. One of the most memorable examples is Michael Moore squaring off against Roger Smith in “Roger and Me”. Granted, the richer and more entrenched in the Democratic Party Moore has become, the more the likability factor has worn off. But back in 1989 who could not love the shambling son of an auto worker trying to track down and confront the corporate boss responsible for shutting down the GM plant in Moore’s home-town and other rust belt cities?

You can see the same sort of human drama in “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City” that opens on April 21 at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York and on VOD platforms. Citizen Jane is Jane Jacobs, the author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” that was published in 1961 and was in its way as important as Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” that was published a year later. If Carson’s book was a clarion call for preserving the integrity of the natural world, so was Jacobs’s book a call for preserving the integrity of the urban world, specifically New York City.

Jane Jacobs’s Roger Smith was Robert Moses, the “power broker” profiled in Robert Caro’s 1975 classic who was a symbol of the corporate-driven agenda of “urban renewal” that ran counter to Jacobs’s vision of urban spaces that grew organically from the bottom up, just like the flora and fauna of “Silent Spring”.

There were ties between Smith and Moses that might not be obvious at first glance but ultimately the “power broker” and the GM CEO shared a vision of American cities that privileged the automobile and saw the expressway connecting suburbs to the heart of the city as a kind of economic bloodstream that could make America great. Alfred Sloan, who was the CEO of GM in its early years, was deeply hostile to FDR and joined the American Liberty League, which was 1930s equivalent of the David and Charles Koch’s Americans for Prosperity.

But as WWII broke out, GM’s new CEO William Knudsen became Secretary of Defense just as his successor Charles E. Wilson would become under Eisenhower. The internecine ties between GM, the national-security state and the post-WWII economic recovery helped crystallize a “golden age” that both Michael Moore and Donald Trump in their own way seek to resurrect: the Chevrolet and the suburban tract home as the divine right of workers.

For Jane Jacobs, that was bunk from the start. She had a totally different vision of America that while not particularly radical would inevitably collide with the socio-economic imperatives of Robert Moses and his corporate and governmental allies, all of whom saw themselves as carrying on in the New Deal tradition.

Although Robert Moses’s entrance into political life was as a Republican candidate for NY governor in 1934 (he lost), his take-off as a power broker was made possible by his close ties to Al Smith, the Democratic NY state governor from 1919–20 and 1923–28, under whose second term he served as Secretary of State. Smith was associated with the Progressive movement and ran against FDR in the 1932 election. After losing to FDR, Smith became embittered and joined Sloan in the American Liberty League. Despite his evolution to the right, it was during his time as governor that New York State developed policies that inspired the New Deal, particularly the centralization of power under the governor and his willingness to spend lavishly on public projects. As Smith’s right-hand man, Moses pushed through some projects that were widely viewed as friendly to the interests of working people such as Jones Beach State Park that allowed commoners to enjoy the waters off Long Island.

After FDR took office, New York City was primed to receive massive federal funding since Robert Moses, who was then serving as left-leaning Fiorello LaGuardia’s Parks Commissioner, had lined up shovel-ready projects that the WPA and CCC could implement such as the construction of 10 immense swimming pools that offered the same kind of democratic pleasures as Jones Beach.

If Moses had stuck with projects such as these, Jane Jacobs would have never become his nemesis. When Moses became the head of the Triborough Bridge Authority, he began to steamroll through construction projects intended to make the automobile the master of metropolitan New York. There was little objection to bridge-building since there was no need to tear down apartment buildings and small shops in order to build something like the Verazzano-Narrows bridge that only disturbed the occasional seagull. It was only when Moses decided to carry out “urban removal” to make way for expressways that Jane Jacobs said no.

In 1961, Robert Moses proposed that an expressway be built through lower Manhattan that would have plowed through Soho and Greenwich Village, Jacob’s neighborhood for many years and that for many people epitomize what makes New York unique. Its winding streets defy the grid-like structure of the rest of the city and hearken back to the early days of the city that was an agglomeration of villages, as the name of the neighborhood implies.

The heart of the film depicts the public battles between Moses and Jacobs, who was a master strategist who knew how to exploit the media in a way that put Abby Hoffman or Medea Benjamin to shame. Jacobs recruited elderly Italian widows to come speak with her at rallies and at City Hall meetings where the expressway was being debated. When you declare that an 80-year old widow on Mulberry Street has to be removed in order for “progress” to take place, the public will not be easily convinced.

Watching Moses being interviewed on news shows from the period will leave you gaping in amazement. He is absolutely tone-deaf and arrogant beyond belief. Indeed, his defense of the expressway will remind you of LBJ’s blustering speeches a few years later as the Vietnam War divided the nation. One can understand why Robert Caro devoted years to writing biographies of LBJ and Robert Moses. They symbolize New Deal politics grown rancid.

Although I can recommend this documentary highly, I would be remiss if I did not mention that one of the producers is Robert Hammond, who is executive director of Friends of the High Line that spearheaded the reclamation of a 1.5 mile elevated rail line on New York’s West Side near Chelsea. Working on this project with Joshua David, the two received the Rockefeller Foundation’s Jane Jacobs Medal in 2010. The High Line has become a big tourist attraction and a magnet for restaurants and new apartment building construction on the West Side.

I doubt that Hammond and David would have turned down the award, but I just may have after seeing Rockefeller’s name attached to it. Last year I reviewed a film titled “The Neighborhood that Disappeared” that describes the demolition of a largely Italian working class neighborhood in Albany that Jane Jacobs would have cherished. It was a victim of the master plan to create Nelson Rockefeller’s Empire State Plaza, a monstrosity that left a permanent scar on the capital city even as it expedited automobile traffic. Tying Rockefeller’s name to Jane Jacobs is almost like tying the Koch brothers’ name to an award on environmental activism.

Furthermore, even though the High Line has succeeded in terms that Jane Jacobs might have approved, its obvious charms have not been of universal benefit to people living in Chelsea, not exactly a slum that was ripe for gentrification. By the time that work on the High Line began, it was already vying with Greenwich Village for its own handsome brownstones, adorable ethnic restaurants and gay-friendly vibe.

However, the High Line was key to Chelsea being transformed into one of the city’s most expensive neighborhoods and a home to criminal oligarchs who have bought $15 million condos in the new high-rises that blight the neighborhood. I recommend “Class Divide”, an on-demand HBO documentary that I reviewed last April that identifies the High Line as a beachhead for the invasion of real estate sharks and the Russian, Chinese and Indian gangsters who now call Chelsea home. From the HBO website:

Avenues [a private school that caters to the sons and daughters of the rich] is just one example of the way the neighborhood has been dramatically transformed. The High Line, a once-abandoned elevated railroad track, was reborn and turned into a wildly popular public park in 2009. Attracting five million people a year, The High Line has transformed a once-gritty area into the hottest neighborhood in NYC’s high-end real-estate market. “Every building is trying to outdo each other,” explains Community Board Committee co-chair Joe Restuccia.

However, many buyers in this current wave of gentrification seem to have no desire to integrate into the established lower-income community. Almost 40% of high-end residences have been sold to foreign or anonymous clients, and the average rent for Chelsea apartments has risen almost ten times faster than Manhattan as a whole, ousting many who can’t afford to keep up. “I just don’t understand why the old can’t be with the new,” says Yasmin Rodriguez, a lifelong West Chelsea resident and parent who is rapidly being priced out of her own neighborhood. “I have so much history here.”

Ultimately, Jane Jacobs’s vision was constrained by her acceptance of the very definition of the city as a place separate and distinct from the countryside. As much as we all love a Greenwich Village delicatessen that has been on the block for 50 years, the city is becoming a theme park for hedge fund billionaires, real estate moguls, corporate lawyers, plastic surgeons and their retinues. They would certainly have sided with Jane Jacobs in preserving their neighborhoods from encroachment but there are far more deserving residents of the city who are being evicted because market forces make no exception for the poor. With all due respect to a courageous and idealistic reformer, the death and life of the American city ultimately rests on the social system. Until that system is changed, the city will cater to the privileged as the environmental costs of keeping it afloat become ever more prohibitive.

“The Activists” is a sixty-minute documentary available from Bullfrog Films, a distributor of very fine films of interest to the left. A more accurate title for the film would be “Antiwar activists from the George W. Bush era” since most of the interviewees played major roles in demonstrations prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 such as Medea Benjamin (who is one of the film’s producers), Leslie Cagan, Brian Becker and Iraq war veterans such as Geoff Millard.

“The Activists” reminded me how difficult it is to assign a rating such as “fresh” or “rotten” to such a film in the same way you would for a teen romance or spy thriller narrative film. I had big problems with the film’s message but still found it totally riveting. As someone who was an antiwar activist in the 60s, I was nothing more than a participant in the massive protests that occurred just before the invasion. It was long past the time in my life when activism was feasible.

That being said, I had opinions about how the movement led by ANSWER and UFPJ were lacking and expressed them on the Internet at the time. ANSWER was trying to build a movement in solidarity with Saddam Hussein while UFPJ’s strategy was to fuse the energy of the street with electoral politics in order to elect Barack Obama, who interviewee Carl Davidson waxes nostalgically about.

This was most clear when we spot UFPJ leader Judith LeBlanc canvassing in upper Manhattan. She asks people to sign a petition against the war while seeing if they might also be interested in supporting a peace candidate. This was the strategy of the CPUSA in the 1960s and early 70s that had little traction in a population demanding Out Now and not likely to be assuaged by weak tea peace candidates.

But that was in another country and besides the wench is dead.

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.