How one woman harnessed people power to ‘save’ old New York

New film tells story of Jane Jacobs’s battles against the wealthiest developers in the city

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Jane Jacobs outside her Toronto home in 1968
Jane Jacobs outside her Toronto home in 1968 / © Frank Lennon/Getty Images

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Jane Jacobs outside her Toronto home in 1968
Jane Jacobs outside her Toronto home in 1968 / © Frank Lennon/Getty Images

She was a beaky, bespectacled architecture writer, hardly a figure likely to ignite protests that changed the shape of one of the world’s great cities. Yet such is the legend of Jane Jacobs and her bitter struggles to preserve the heart of New York from modernisation that a film charting her astonishing victories over some of the most powerful developers in the US is set to inspire a new generation of urban activists around the world.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City tells the story of Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, who made herself the bane of New York’s powerful city planners from the 1950s to 1970s. Her nemesis was Robert Moses, the city’s powerful master builder and advocate of urban renewal, or wholesale neighbourhood clearance – what author James Baldwin termed “negro removal”.

Moses dismissed the protesters as “a bunch of mothers”, and attempted to ignore their efforts to attract wider attention, which included taping white crosses across their glasses in the style of Jacobs.

But through a combination of grassroots activism, fundraising and persistence, Jacobs blocked Moses and successive city overlords from running Fifth Avenue through the historic Washington Square, tearing down much of SoHo and Little Italy to make way for a billion-dollar expressway, and building a six-lane highway up Manhattan’s west side.

“Some issues you fight with lawsuits and buy time that way,” she later wrote. “With others, you buy time by throwing other kinds of monkey wrenches in. You have to buy time in all these fights. The lawsuit is the more expensive way.” […]

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