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Friday, July 28: Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

Jane JacobsWe invite you to join us this Friday for a movie about Jane Jacobs, an incredible woman who changed how we think about the city. After the movie, there will be a reception for discussion and socializing, including a chance to meet one of the Executive Producers, who is a Madison resident. The movie is at 7 PM at Cinematheque, Rm 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. The reception will be following the movie –⁠ about 8:30 PM, at the University Club, 803 State St.

If you know about Jane Jacobs, you need read no further. If you don’t know of her, I’m going to link to a few Wikipedia pages below, in case you want to dive in just a bit deeper.

Jane Jacobs was a resident of Greenwich Village during the Depression. She took on one of the most powerful men of her time, Robert Moses, who was not only the “master builder” of the mid-20th century, but a political force stronger than even the Mayor of New York. At one time, he held 12 positions simultaneously (none elected) in New York city and state government

Jacobs became a hero to her neighbors, coming to public meetings with stacks of papers with information and petitions signed by the people who would have been displaced by the grand plans of Moses. She was initially just trying to save her neighborhood, but she changed how we talk about housing, transportation, cities, neighborhoods, and businesses. Her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is considered one of the most important works about urban planning. She wrote about the concepts of “eyes on the street,” the importance of sidewalks, and social capital.

Jacobs knew that average people banding together and speaking up at public meetings could bring enough political pressure on the powers-that-be to change the course of history.

Moses believed in clearing the city of small, old apartment buildings that were affordable housing for people of modest means. Instead, he strived to construct large public housing projects set in a “park-like” setting. He thought the existing housing stock and small businesses – apartment buildings such as Jacobs and her husband lived in mixed with family-owned businesses right down the street – was “sub-standard” and “crowded.” He thought the neighborhoods fostered criminal behavior and unhealthy living conditions.

Of course, those neighborhoods were really walkable, transit-friendly, and often close-knit. You could buy everything you needed within a few blocks of your home, and people sat outside on the building stairs or stopped on the sidewalk and talked to each other. The “park-like” settings that Moses envisioned spread out the buildings so far that walking was difficult, and the community feeling was absent. Retail and jobs were separated from residential buildings, so all daily trips became much longer.

Moses also loved to build huge highways and arterial roads that made driving easier. Under his reign, large swaths of low-income and minority neighborhoods were bulldozed to make way for roads that carried white suburbanites on their trips into and out of the city each day. Moving cars and “urban renewal” were his goals.

The battles between Jacobs and Moses are the stuff of legend. But in the end, Jacobs saved Greenwich Village; the Lower Manhattan Expressway was not built through Washington Square Park; and walkable, mixed-use urban neighborhoods were recognized as valuable to the life of the city.

I hope you can join us for the movie and reception to take inspiration from Jane Jacobs for our own efforts.