Moses, who grabbed immense power in a decades-long career, had already remade much of New York City, building bridges and new highways and tearing down vibrant neighborhoods he saw as "cancerous" slums.
A main advocate of 1950s and 1960s "urban renewal" schemes, Moses leveled Harlem communities, replacing them with identical high-rise towers in which poor blacks were segregated. He devastated the vibrant Bronx with his Cross-Bronx Expressway, one of the projects "Citizen Jane" examines in some depth.
His road-building accommodated the car culture and rise of the suburbs in the 1950s. I was struck with the irony that the film was funded by the Rockefeller and Ford foundations, whose backers got wealthy from the auto age, the center of the Moses-Jacobs conflict.
Jacobs, whose influential 1961 book "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" decried the urban policies represented by Moses, lived in Greenwich Village, upon which Moses trained his sights in the 1960s. She led efforts to defeat three major Moses initiatives, the first battles he lost in a 40-year career.
First, he wanted to extend Fifth Avenue through Washington Square Park. Jacobs rallied local mothers and village residents who enjoyed the park to defeat the plan. Second, he sought to build an expressway across lower Manhattan. The documentary shows Jacobs leading the charge against that devastating initiative, especially opposed by residents of Little Italy. The third Jacobs win was getting the West Village removed as an "urban renewal" project.
The documentary shows clips of Moses, the epitome of male arrogance and condescension in mid-20th century America, dismissing protests of working class residents displaced by his projects and disdaining Jacobs as a "housewife" although she was a professional journalist. Jacobs is also shown in action, leading protests, appearing on radio talk shows and panels, and speaking at meetings.
Clogged with too many talking heads, the film builds dramatic tension when it stays focused on the Moses-Jacobs battle. For some reason, Robert Caro's massive classic biography of Moses, "The Power Broker," is not mentioned, nor is Caro among the urban planners and authors who continually comment.
Tyrnauer also looks at rapid international urbanization, using the last portion of the film to examine China's creation of sudden mega cities in recent years. One expert who appears predicts economic doom for China in following Moses' policies "on steroids."
Ignored is the gentrification of New York and other American cities. Jacobs' policies led to the revival of New York neighborhoods, but her beloved village has been overtaken by pricey retailers and expensive housing. Her vision of a mix of working-class, artistic and middle-class residents and small creative businesses is disappearing.
The 1960s lower Manhattan communities glimpsed in the documentary's black and white images are as endangered today as they were when Moses planned to slice through them with highways.