Documentary Film and Gentrification
April 07, 2014
(Kathryn Pyle is a documentary filmmaker and a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In her previous post, she wrote about the promise and failure of humanitarian aid in Haiti.)
But the term describes only the most visible and disturbing face of urban change: the crowding out of lower-income residents from a suddenly "hot" neighborhood by more affluent newcomers. At a time of growing income inequality in the U.S., it's an image that has captured the attention of the media and, increasingly, is sparking public indignation.
Writing in the New York Times ("Cities Helping Residents Resist the New Gentry"), Timothy Williams observes that "the arrival of newcomers to formerly working-class areas…is distinct from previous influxes over the past thirty years" because new arrivals tend to want to live in newer housing, and the condos and loft spaces built to satisfy that demand not only are too expensive for long-time residents but also add to the density of a neighborhood while reducing the ratio of older residents to new arrivals. Williams' article goes on to discuss measures that have been adopted by cities to mitigate the impact of gentrification on longtime homeowners, while a Times article ("Gentrifying Into the Shelters") by Ginia Bellafante notes that creating and maintaining affordable housing for low-income renters in gentrifying neighborhoods requires an altogether different set of measures.
The topic hasn't escaped the notice of documentary filmmakers. Told in different styles and about different places, films such as Gut Renovation (2012), Third Ward TX (2007), and We Will Not Be Moved (1980) identify common elements in the gentrification process -- foremost among them real estate speculation and private housing development, in many cases encouraged by tax breaks and rezoning policies.
Su Friedrich's Gut Renovation is a very personal account of that process as it unfolded in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, and how that process is displacing the local artist community – of which she is a member. It begins, in 2005, when Friedrich notices the first high-rise condo going up down the street and ends, five years later, with her own building's demolition to make way for the umpteenth luxe condo project in the neighborhood. Needless to say, the redevelopment of Williamsburg continues unabated, affecting the neighborhood’s long-term population of Poles, Italians, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans and irrevocably changing the very thing that attracted artists to the neighborhood in the first place.
A generation ago, Community Media Productions, an activist media collective in Dayton, Ohio, raised many of these same issues in the film We Will Not Be Moved. Composed of still photographs and audio interviews with residents of Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, the film is a moving document of the loss of the neighborhood’s African American and Appalachian heritage as gentrification set in and eventually displaced those residents.
Tony Heriza, lead filmmaker on the project, also helped organize, in partnership with Shelterforce Magazine and the Hunter College School of Social Work, the first National Housing Film Festival in the mid-1980s in New York City. "We Will Not Be Moved was one of about twenty films in the festival," he says today. "These were films documenting the housing activism of the previous decade and meant to be used by community organizers as tools to support low-income communities struggling for decent housing and against displacement."
Community Media Productions continues to work on these issues; it received a grant last year from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for Reinvention Stories, an "interactive film experience" which aims to capture "personal stories that reveal the many ways in which a post-industrial city [like Dayton] faces and responds to profound and often undesired economic change."
That's also the subject of Third Ward TX, a film by Andrew Garrison that introduces the African-American artists and community activists who are breathing new life into Houston's historically black Third Ward -- and, in the process, preserving an island of affordability in what has become a rapidly gentrifying area of the city. Begun in 1990 with seed money from the Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, Project Row Houses, the nonprofit arts organization behind the effort, was inspired by the late John Biggers, an African-American painter whose motto was "Art will save your life." When local developers, partly attracted by the energy and accomplishments of the group, began building higher-income townhouses nearby, Project Row Houses added its own affordable housing component, helping to preserve a 35-block area of the Third Ward. Says the organization’s founder, Rick Lowe: "I don't feel threatened by gentrification because we're live participants in the neighborhood's development and growth."
It’s an admirable, if somewhat fatalistic, attitude. Change is the future, and one can resist it, or engage with and shape it so that it benefits everyone equally. In my next post, I'll look at a number of documentaries that consider urban change in a broader context. In the meantime, we'd love to hear about your experiences with gentrification. Have you or someone you know been displaced by an urban redevelopment project? What was your response? Anger? Relief? Resignation? And what, if anything, should be done to reverse the tide of gentrification in cities across the country? Use the comments section below to share your thoughts….
– Kathryn Smith Pyle