Lively conversations at the showing of “Citizen Jane”

Film about the iconic activist is followed by a community discussion on Portland’s current challenges.

The film Citizen Jane: Battle for the City presented a historical account of Jane Jacobs’ activism in the early 1960s, in parallel with environmental, social justice and women’s movements.

On Friday, October 19th, about 150 people participated in a screening followed by an animated discussion of Portland’s current challenges as they were illuminated by the writings and activism of urban pioneer Jane Jacobs.  The film Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, screened at the Northwest Neighborhood Cultural Center, gave an account of Jacobs’ iconic 1960s battles with development czar Robert Moses, builder of freeways and housing projects, and demolisher of what he termed “slums” — but what Jacobs and others saw as vital places of social capital and city diversity.  The film also delved more deeply into Jacobs’ ideas about cities, presenting an overview of her rich theoretical and philosophical perspective on cities.

Heather Flint Chatto discusses the importance of community collaboration on design, and the experience of the Division Design Initiative.

At the end of the screening, a panel and community discussion moderated by Allan Classen of the Northwest Examiner asked what we can learn today from Jacobs’ ideas and legacy.  He was joined by SE Examiner editor Midge Pierce, former Portland Planning Commission Chair Ric Michaelson,  Division Design Initiative coordinator Heather Flint Chatto, and yours truly, co-host Michael Mehaffy of Sustasis Foundation (and this blog).

In my remarks as co-host, I sought to set the stage for exploring  the parallels between Jacobs’ ideas and the current issues we face in Portland:

Thank you all for coming to this remarkable film about a remarkable person, who played such a key role in Portland’s history and so many others’ too – and a person who still has a lot to say to us today about our current challenges.  And we’ll explore that in the discussion afterwards, so please do stick around for that.

By the way, I’m Michael Mehaffy, I’m executive director of Sustasis Foundation, one of the sponsors of tonight’s event, along with the Northwest Examiner and International Making Cities Livable.

So I’m going to take just a couple of minutes to provide some background setup, including some of the Portland context, so please bear with me and we’ll get to the film monetarily.

So the promotion for this movie describes it as a, quote, “chronicle of activist Jane Jacobs’ battle with developers who threatened to demolish NYC’s most historic neighborhoods, and a lesson in the power of the average person to push back,” unquote.

And yes, that’s part of the story – but only part of it. Because really what Jacobs was talking about was how a city WORKS, and how to make it work better – how to make it more diverse, more equitable, more productive, a place of human development and flourishing.  And why certain strategies are doomed to fail — and not only to fail, but to cause enormous long-term harm to the city and its residents, especially to those who are not wealthy or powerful. 

When Jacobs was writing and working as an activist, we were in the surging era of city modernism and modernization, the 1950s and 60s. It was really gripping the country and the world at that time, as the film shows.  We’ll see what Jacobs fought against – the top-down thinking, the expansion of freeways and superblocks and giant buildings, and everywhere the bulldozing of history and human-scale fabric.  That included appalling cases in minority neighborhoods, and as James Baldwin says in the film, cases of quote, “Negro removal.” As we all know, that happened to a shocking degree here in Portland.  

Of course cities do change and grow, and we do need new housing supply to meet demand – Jacobs never questioned that.  But of course the issue always is, where, and how, is growth occurring – and who is really going to benefit in the end. And what do citizens have to say about that in a democracy. Are we using an even-tempered approach across the region, preserving and building on our assets? Are we working with the dynamics of the city, maintaining and increasing its diversity?  Or are we doing something more reckless, perhaps, for other poorly considered and self-interested reasons?  It may seem like progress, we may convince ourselves it’s something wonderful and progressive – but is it really motivated more by the thrill of novelty and financial self-interest?  Jacobs wants us to ask these hard questions of ourselves, and her own judgment was often harsh.  As she says in the film, “Any city that’s tearing down its buildings just to make money for a development, or just to have novelty, is doing something criminal.”

Well, we learned a lot of painful lessons coming out of that era, as the film relates. Places like Portland were part of the battle to recover the human scale of cities, the small-grained activities of the streets, the livable beauty of our heritage, the mix of uses and ways of getting around – and especially, the diversity of the city.  To get that, we had to fight the corrosive influence of money and power and unresponsive government.  And of course we still do.

Robert Moses, Jacobs’ major nemesis in the film, was active here in Portland too, laying out huge freeway projects that were never built.  They were never built because neighborhood activists here rose up and fought for what they believed, a vision of a better city.  And we are in their debt today, more than we realize. 

We made a lot of progress from that era, although Portland has always been a work in progress, with a mix of successes and many challenges remaining.  We still need to fight bad projects that damage our heritage and our city life, and fight for good projects, that build on the best dynamics of cities.  As the title of tonight’s event suggests, the battle for the city continues. 

And now we find ourselves with a new challenge, I would say a new reactionary if profitable phase of modernization – and the same troubling bulldozing of history, the same troubling command-and-control approach to urban problems, the same troubling wave of sterile large-scale, top-down structures created by developers and designers – with ever weirder and, for some, uglier buildings — leaving human beings with little to really engage with.  And we see similar claims that this is for the best for people, for affordability, for the environment.  And similar attacks on those citizens who dare to question that conventional wisdom. Some of my colleagues in the architecture, planning and development professions seem to think that if they just sprinkle some mixed use and some street cars at the base, the failed old model will work after all.  Well, watch the film, and I think you can see a pretty powerful critique of that kind of thinking.

One of the aspects of Jacobs’ work that is not so much covered in the film is the emphasis on grass-roots governance at many levels, and most importantly down to specific places, specific neighborhoods.  And I quote from her great book The Death and Life of Great American Cities:

“The principal coordination needed comes down to coordination among different services within localized places…  The invention required is not a device for coordination at the generalized top, but in specific and unique localities.”

In Portland we have a fundamental problem with this kind of localized governance.  We have an at-large system of council elections, which leaves many parts of the city unrepresented.  We have a commissioner system of bureau management, which tends to encourage top-down bureaucracy without bottom-up responsiveness and accountability. And we have a neighborhood association system that is therefore all the more important, but – and here I will speak frankly – that is moribund, and in dire need of reform and revitalization.  And yet at this moment, the bureau in charge of it seems to be moving in a very different direction.

The film concludes by observing that the kind of city-making that Jacobs fought against is now growing faster than ever before all around the world – freeways, superblocks, horizontal sprawl, vertical sprawl if you will. One of the speakers calls it “Robert Moses on steroids.” I think we have to face the global consequences of this destructive kind of city-making for the great challenges of the future – for resource depletion, ecological destruction, toxic emissions and climate change.   And I think it’s a systems challenge too, a social challenge, and a governance challenge.  Portland is seen as a leader on these issues for many other cities, for better or worse, and so I think it’s all the more important that we get it right here.  So in that sense, I do think Jacobs and her ideas couldn’t be more relevant for us here today.

So!  We have lots to discuss, and lots to think about!  Thank you, and we hope you enjoy the film.