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A new documentary leaves Jane Jacobs trapped in the rubble of old arguments

It takes some chutzpah to give your sophomore effort as a film director a title that rhymes with “Citizen Kane.” And good for Matt Tyrnauer, the Vanity Fair writer turned filmmaker whose newest documentary, “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City,” opens April 21 in New York and April 28 in Los Angeles. Chutzpah was probably central to getting the movie made in the first place. It’s not often we see debates about urban planning and the design of cities hashed out on the big screen.

Maybe it’s that spirit — a sense that this is a story that will be entirely new to most moviegoers — that led Tyrnauer to paint with such familiar strokes in telling the story of the legendary battles over the shape of New York City between the writer and activist Jane Jacobs and the urban-renewal czar Robert Moses. Ostensibly (at least to judge from the title) a portrait of Jacobs, whose 1961 book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” galvanized a generation of opposition to modernist city-planning dogma, the film turns out to be a David and Goliath story in which Goliath, in the person of the slimily self-confident Moses, gets more than his share of screen time.

Fans of Jacobs may lament the fact that even as she grapples with Moses in the battle of the documentary’s subtitle, trying to fend off highways through Washington Square Park and SoHo and an urban-renewal purge of West Village brownstones, she is also struggling with him for control of Tyrnauer’s narrative. It’s almost as if the director sees Jacobs’ complicated story the way Moses saw the crowded, diverse neighborhoods his nemesis so prized: as territory that needs to be sliced through, in Tyrnauer’s case with a clear arc of conflict.

Moses, as anyone who has read Robert Caro’s masterful, doorstop-sized biography “The Power Broker” already knows, is hugely appealing as a villain, a reformer who emerged out of the Progressive movement and got so drunk on accumulated influence that he began to think himself untouchable. But there are some risks in turning this story into a two-hander, as Variety might put it, as intelligent and briskly entertaining as this particular two-hander often is.

One is that — at least in architecture and planning circles — this version of events is so-well known that much of the life has been squeezed out of it. It doesn’t help that Tyrnauer relies for his talking heads on the very group that did a good deal of the squeezing in the first place, including the critics Paul Goldberger, James Howard Kunstler and Michael Sorkin and the bow-tied planner Alexander Garvin. Each is handed mashed lemons and asked to make fresh lemonade.

Tyrnauer might object — and indeed already has, in interviews promoting the film — that he wants to reach beyond planning insiders to a general audience. Yet to assume that Jacobs won’t be appealing to a broad public unless she has a larger-than-life onscreen opponent like Moses to contend with overlooks the fact that appealing to a broad public — writing for lay readers in urgent, clear-eyed and charismatic prose — was in fact her greatest achievement, greater even than forcing Moses to abandon his grandest plans for Lower Manhattan. The full span of her career and the complicated legacy of her ideas are more than enough fill 90 minutes.

It’s that legacy, more than anything, that gets left out of “Citizen Jane,” as Tyrnauer chooses instead to roll out yet more archival footage of Moses saying despicable things in the high-toned accent he perfected in New Haven. Jacobs’ victories over Moses in the planning battles of the 1950s and 1960s are, after all, now a full half-century old.

You could make a case that the ideas that anchor “Death and Life” are as much dogma now as Modernist planning principles were back then. Her work is cited these days by all kinds of neighborhood groups that would seal their cities in amber — hardly a recipe for the sort of vitality and surprise she celebrated. Her approach to analyzing city blocks has become a kind of default, leading to neighborhoods that are not authentic and diverse but quaint, expensive and exclusive.

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Tyrnauer bookends the documentary with a look at the headlong urbanization that is happening in China, the Persian Gulf and elsewhere, suggesting that Jacobs’ ideas have continuing relevance in helping us grapple with humanity’s ongoing rush to cities. But while Jacobs’ theories offered a brilliant guide to protecting existing neighborhoods, they’re not much use in helping us figure out how to design and build new ones essentially from scratch, as is happening in places like Dubai.

And what, finally, of a place like Los Angeles? “Citizen Jane” assumes a black-and-white view of urban neighborhoods, that they are either Jacobsesque or Moses-like, messy and teeming with life or shiny and homogenized. And it trots out familiar homilies about “real” and “important” cities, as when Garvin declares that “without a great public realm” you can’t have a great city.

Los Angeles has always thrown a wrench into that kind of thinking: Its greatness and indeed its vitality was for many decades tucked away in its private realm, in significant part as an ingenious response to the deadening effects of urban-renewal overreach. Even as the mega-block and the freeway killed its public space in the postwar decades, L.A. didn’t wither, as the acolytes of Jacobs might have predicted; it thrived and achieved cultural and architectural influence precisely by retreating from the sidewalk to the garden. Now it is making a complex and uneven effort to reclaim that sidewalk with an ambitious level of investment in its long-neglected public sphere.

What would Jacobs — such an astute and thorough student of cities, such a brilliant skeptic of conventional wisdom — have made of contemporary L.A., I wonder? One chapter in “Death and Life” is titled “The Kind of Problem a City Is.” What kind of a problem is L.A.?

This is not to say that Tyrnauer (an L.A. native) ought to have dedicated a chunk of his film to Southern California — only to suggest that testing Jacobs’ theories against more relevant locations than Dubai might have given the documentary the sort of shading it needs, digging deeply into her ideas instead of sanctifying them. And might have revealed that some of those ideas are less portable, across both space and time, than they appear.

Building Type is Christopher Hawthorne’s weekly column on architecture and cities. Look for future installments every Thursday at latimes.com/arts.

christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

Twitter: @HawthorneLAT

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