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How one woman harnessed people power to save old New York

New film tells story of Jane Jacobss battle’s against the wealthiest developers in the city.

She was a beaky, bespectacled architecture writer, hardly a figure likely to ignite protests that changed the shape of one of the worlds 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 Yorks powerful city planners from the 1950’s to 1970’s. 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 Manhattans 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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Little Italy, in New York, saved from demolition for a $1bn expressway. Photograph: Maremagnum/Getty Images

Jacobs warned of the dangers of mixing big business and government, and called them monstrous hybrids. She warned, too, that huge housing projects favoured by developers from the school of Le Corbusier would only bring social dislocation to the poor while making developers wealthy.

Jacobs’s method of prevarication, says Citizen Jane director Matt Tyrnauer, wrote the manual for activism. Speaking truth to power was her great strength, and she was fearless, but she was also a great strategist and analysed how to get to politicians and threaten them in ways that were going to be effective.

Robert Hammond, who produced Citizen Jane and co-founded the High Line, a significant renewal project along Manhattan’s west side that turned an elevated rail track into a garden and walkway, says key to her protest was targeting lower-tier elected officials because they depend on you for their jobs and they know it. She understood that fighting government is a slog, and no matter how powerful you think people are, things can be changed the value of individuals coming together and working as an organism, which today we call crowdsourcing.

Those lessons, in particular Jacobs’s later studies of economics, helped shape The Indivisible Project, an umbrella organisation for thousands of protest groups that have sprung up in the US in the aftermath of the presidential election.

Tyrnauer, who previously directed Valentino: The Last Emperor, considers that Indivisible’s activism, which includes berating local officials and challenging congressional leaders at town hall meetings, is cut from the Jacobs playbook. Late last year the group’s founders, four congressional aides moved to act by the election of Donald Trump, published suggestions that have become central to democratic resistance. Six thousand groups have registered so far, seeking to follow Indivisible’s basic, Jacobs-esque credo: localised defensive advocacy; recognition that elected representatives think primarily about re-election and how to use that; efforts to build constituent power through organically formed, locally led groups; and a focus on congressional representatives via town hall meetings, district office visits and mass phone calls.

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Jane Jacobs won many victories over her nemesis Robert Moses, the powerful master builder. Photograph: Library of Congress/Sundance Selects

In her academic and personal life, Jacobs looked at the power individuals have in their own communities, says co-founder and executive director Ezra Levin. Indivisible is fundamentally about constituent power, and we recommend that people assert that power on their own turf, in their own communities. But the connection runs deeper. Jacobs maintained cities are best left to be self-organising. Too much control and they become lifeless. She believed they should be messy something old, something new and warned of the concentration of money and too little diversity. Crucial to Indivisible’s success is an individual group’s basic autonomy. “It’s crucial that this is not a franchise operation. We’ve created a platform but the decisions these groups are taking, or their exact form is fundamentally driven at a local level.”

Jacobs, who died in 2006 and whose centennial falls this year, used to tell an anti-authoritarian story about a preacher who warns children: In hell, there will be wailing and weeping and gnashing of teeth.

“What if you don’t have teeth?” one of the children asks.

Then teeth will be provided.

“That’s it the spirit of the designed city: teeth will be provided for you,” she told the New Yorker in 2004.

In Citizen Jane, the documentarians seek to apply the lessons of Manhattan in the 50’s to the urbanisation of China and India. The results are inconclusive.

Many of the challenges cities now face, at least in the west, are reversals of the clearances that affected cities in the last century. “The suburbs are where the poor people are moved to, and they’re becoming more impractical than cities to live in,” says Hammond.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/apr/22/jane-jacobs-people-power-saved-old-new-york-architecture-grassroots

Richard Adams obituary

Author of the classic 1970’s novel Watership Down, the allegorical tale of a colony of rabbits.

Richard Adams, who has died aged 96, was the author of one of the most successful books of the 1970s. Published in 1972, Watership Down, Adams’ story about a colony of rabbits travelling across the country in search of a better home in the Berkshire Downs when their burrow is destroyed, became a cult novel, with a crossover readership.

Despite being published as an adult book, Watership Down won the two most distinguished childrens book prizes, the Carnegie medal and the Guardian childrens book prize, and sold more than 100,000 copies in Britain in its first year of publication. Unlike some such instant successes, Watership Down was not just a book of its time; it is now firmly established as a classic and has sold more than 50m copies worldwide.

The story of the publication of Watership Down is an example of the quirky nature of publishing. As a manuscript of more than 200,000 words, it was turned down by all of the major publishers and many of the smaller ones, before Rex Collings, a small independent company, picked it up. From the moment of publication, it was widely hailed as an exceptional title and almost instantly became a bestseller. At one point, it held the record for the highest sum paid for paperback rights. Its mass success and cult status was furthered by its subsequent adaptation in 1978 to animated cartoon film, with a soundtrack that included the hit single Bright Eyes.

The origins of Watership Down lay in stories Adams wrote down to entertain his daughters on long car journeys, based on his observation of rabbits from the train window on his daily commute to work. However, Adams himself did not categorise it as a childrens book. Once published, its evocation of the English countryside (the Downs near Adamss home), combined with its detailed descriptions of rabbit society much taken from RM Lockleys The Private Life of the Rabbit (1964) which includes a sharply observed study of leadership through the characters of Fiver, Bigwig and Hazel, made it as much a political allegory as a simple adventure story.

Son of Evelyn Adams, a country doctor, and his wife, Lilian (nee Button), Richard was born in Newbury, and brought up in Berkshire. He was educated at Bradfield college, Berkshire, and Worcester College, Oxford, where he studied history for two years until he was called up in 1940. He served in the Royal Army Service Corps in Palestine, Europe and the far east before returning to Oxford in 1946 to finish his studies. Adams then joined the civil service, where he worked in the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and in the Department of the Environment, before becoming a full-time writer in 1974 after the success of his first book.

Subsequent books followed quickly, including Shardik (1974), the story of a hunter and a giant bear, which was particularly poorly received by readers wanting more Watership Down; The Tyger Voyage (1976), a picture book in verse with illustrations by Nicola Bayley; and The Plague Dogs (1977). None had the same success as the tale about rabbits.

Adams was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1975 and held posts as writer in residence at both the University of Florida (1975) and Hollins University in Virginia (1976). He continued to write for both adults and children. He revisited Watership Down in Tales from Watership Down (1996) and contributed a short story to Gentle Footprints: A Collection of Animal Stories, which was published to raise funds for the Born Free Foundation in 2010, just before his 90th birthday.

For almost all his writing, Adams drew on his deep affection for the countryside and the wildlife that lives in it that was formed during his childhood. In his autobiography, The Day Gone By (1990), he describes how, as a child, he lost his heart twice, once to the River Kennet and once to the Downs, of which he writes: I cant remember ever to have done anything anything at all more delightful than walking on the crest of the Downs, looking away to the purple, heat-rimmed edge of the horizon.

Adams was invited to become president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1980, having been a lifelong campaigner for animal welfare and an active member of the society, including taking part in a lecture tour in Canada in 1977 to drum up opposition to the hunting of baby seals. In a subsequent RSPCA members watchdog publication Adams was described as giving a stirring and inspiring speech as president elect, , but his time at the RSPCA was short lived.

Already going through a turbulent time internally, as traditionalists and modernisers fought and tried to put right the 1m deficit that had accrued, the RSPCA council voted to shorten Adamss term of office as president and he resigned in protest. He later commented angrily that senior members of the council were more interested in their own careers than in the welfare of animals.

He continued to be honoured for his work throughout his life, and was the recipient of the inaugural Whitchurch arts award in 2010, given by the Hampshire town in which he lived in later years. Earlier this year, it was announced that the BBC planned a new adaptation of Watership Down for release in 2017.

Adams married Elizabeth Acland in 1949, and they had two daughters, Juliet and Rosamond. They all survive him.

Richard George Adams, writer, born 9 May 1920; died 24 December 2016

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/dec/27/richard-adams-obituary

Una review Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn child abuse drama is stagey disappointment

A two-hander about a confrontation between a woman and the man who sexually abused her as a child fails to deliver on its intriguing promise.

The challenge with transforming a stage production into a movie is the need to provide enough of a justification as to why the move was necessary. The differences between the two mediums and the benefits and restrictions they both provide mean that an adaptation, either way, can be fraught with difficulty. Its even tougher when youre dealing with a two-hander, a common theatrical construct that can feel less at home on the big screen.

David Harrowers play Blackbird, most recently performed on stage by Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams, is a tightly focused drama essentially based in just one room. Its big screen incarnation, from first-time director Benedict Andrews, is an attempt to expand upon this claustrophobic set-up and initially at least, it succeeds.

Una (Rooney Mara) is a young woman living in suburban middle England with her mother, haunted by a mysterious past that sees her drinking and having casual sex with strangers. Shes transfixed by a photograph of a figure from her past and it leads her to a factory where she tracks down Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), except that hes now called Peter. Hes alarmed, angry and even frightened by the unannounced visit and we soon learn why: he sexually abused her when she was 13 and shes convinced that theyre in love.

Aware of the inherent staginess of the material, Andrews throws in flashbacks and some nice visual flourishes to give the story a more cinematic feel and the slow-burn drama works nicely for a while. Mara and Mendelsohn have a compellingly toxic chemistry together and their initial confrontation is intriguingly tense. But once were locked into the meat of the story, the film has nowhere else to go, at least anywhere thats of interest and the pace becomes laborious as their discussions turn repetitive.

Mara is as always, a self-assured and fascinating presence, but a distracting, off-key British accent jars and while she gives herself to the film, the film gives her little in return. Theres an interesting and daring conceit here, of a woman who believes that the man who sexually abused her might also be her soulmate. But the subversive victim narrative, explored with far more bite in Paul Verhoevens new thriller Elle, ultimately fizzles out and investment in what happens to the pair becomes increasingly difficult with attempts to de-stage the story bordering on desperate. A convoluted business sub-plot and a sorely underwritten role for the talented Riz Ahmed eventually lead to an underwhelming ending that toys with tired psycho-thriller conventions as Maras character becomes just another crazy woman.

There are two undeniably talented actors here and theyre matched with an initially interesting set-up but its not one that feels suited to the big screen, at least in this iteration. Una is a character and a story that fails to engage and the argument for its existence as a film is a sadly unsuccessful one.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/sep/03/una-review-rooney-mara-and-ben-mendelsohn-child-abuse-drama-is-stagey-disappointment

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