IFC Films

If you’ve ever thought positively about concepts like walkability, density, and street life, then you owe Jane Jacobs a debt of gratitude. The urbanist and activist didn’t just change the way that a whole generation of city-dwellers think about how they live; she also changed facts on the ground: Were it not for her, much of downtown New York City would look and feel much worse than it is now. Jacobs not only gave us all a language with which to fight soulless urban planning, she also went out there, waved her signs, got arrested, and made the world a better place.

For these achievements and others, Jacobs has become an icon: the subject of multiple biographies and academic conferences, she’s also now the focus of a feature-length documentary, Citizen Jane, which comes out Friday.

The adulation is wholly deserved. Jacobs’s big enemy was none other than Robert Moses, arguably the most powerful man in post-war America—and she defeated him, three times, fighting not only Moses but also the forces of entrenched sexism.

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And yet the degree to which Jacobs actually changed the world for the better is much smaller than you might think, and has generally been confined to areas filled with privileged white people, such as her own neighborhood of Greenwich Village. (To be fair, the Village wasn’t as rich in Jacobs’ day as it is today, and its population of immigrants from Italy and Poland was not particularly well respected.)

As an activist, Jacobs was hyper-local: All three of her successful campaigns were against proposals that would have directly affected her tiny neighborhood. The fact that she saved the Village is undoubtedly good, but she failed to prevent massive Robert Moses projects as nearby as the Lower East Side, just a short walk away on the other side of Manhattan. (Many of the buildings that Moses tore down in 1959 became empty lots that are only now being developed, 58 long years later.)

As Citizen Jane shows, other brutal Moses projects, like the horrendous Cross Bronx Expressway, faced only ineffective opposition. Jacobs could organize her own neighbors in defense of her own neighborhood and her own community. She was very good at that, thanks in large part to the contacts and the rhetorical skills she had built up working at Architectural Digest. But that activism didn’t scale, and Jacobs had little interest in getting involved in other protests elsewhere in the country or even in her own city. “When people came to her later, asking what should we do, she didn’t answer them,” says Robert Hammond, one of the film’s producers, adding that Jacobs considered it up to local residents to work out how best to fight local battles.

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So while Jacobs covered East Harlem in detail in her masterpiece, for instance, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she only did so analytically. In practice, she proved powerless to prevent its destruction.

Jacobs’ larger contribution was as a thinker and urbanist, but even there her influence has been limited. Citizen Jane was funded in part by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation, precisely because they understand that while she might have won the intellectual battle, her side is still losing the global war against top-down urban planning.

Jacobs’ Greenwich Village is a pleasant and prosperous human-scaled neighborhood now, as are many other areas in cities like London, Amsterdam, and Berlin. But if you go to any of the cities that are growing fastest today, be they in China or India or Nigeria, almost none of them are being built according to Jacobs’ precepts. We know the harm that identical rows of high-rise housing towers can cause, and yet those towers are still being erected, around the world, at a rate that would make Robert Moses blush.

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Once again, where the people being negatively affected have no real voice, they can be—and generally are—utterly ignored, expected to raise their families in areas that are clearly gruesome and out of scale, with precious little walkability, street life, or community. Jacobs has given us the vocabulary to diagnose what’s wrong, but she didn’t give us any kind of playbook to prevent it from happening on a systemic scale.

Jacobs was a first-rate grassroots activist, and a first-rate analyst. Both of those things are important, but they’re also limited. Jacobs shows us that the radius of grassroots activism can be very small, and that the real-world effects of compelling analysis can also be decidedly limited.

The lessons of her story, then, are these:

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Firstly, if you want to make a difference on the ground, you need to work from the bottom up in every single neighborhood. And be aware: The poorer your neighborhood, and the less well-connected the people in it, the harder it’s going to be to get traction.

Secondly, the big fight is not between left and right, so much as it is between the powerful and the powerless. And in that fight, the powerful nearly always win. (It’s worth remembering that Jacobs’ urban-planning foes were in large part left-wing idealists, who grew out of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.)

And thirdly, while local activism can sometimes get results, it’s incredibly difficult to scale. So difficult, indeed, that Jane Jacobs never even tried.