April 15, 2014
(Kathryn Pyle is a documentary filmmaker and a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. Click here to read part one of this two-part series.)
In my previous post, I wrote about a handful of documentary films that explore the phenomenon of gentrification. In this post, I'll consider urban redevelopment in a broader sense – with the pressure coming not only from private developers but from city government and, in some cases, endowed institutions with agendas of their own.
Over the past decade, the Scribe Video Center in Philadelphia has offered a variety of programs designed to build the media skills of community activists. Through its Precious Places project, for instance, Scribe has provided video production support to nearly seventy organizations looking to record the stories neighborhood residents have to tell about the buildings, public spaces, parks, landmarks, and other sites that define where they live. The series has been broadcast on WHYY and screened in film festivals and community settings around the country.
A number of Precious Places films focus on the eroding sense of community in urban neighborhoods. Two of those short films address the value of green space and community-based arts and, in the process, challenge public policy assumptions about "redevelopment."
Featuring sixty local gardeners and other residents. La Mott Community Garden (2011) tells the story of a two-acre community garden located just outside the city line adjacent to La Mott, the oldest historically black community in Pennsylvania. Part of a larger twelve-acre parcel deeded to Temple University in 1939, the garden has served the community for more than eighty years. At some point along the way, Temple built the Tyler School of Art on part of the property, leaving the garden intact. But when a new facility was constructed for Tyler on Temple's main campus in 2009, the entire parcel was put up for sale. With support from Cheltenham Township and the Conservancy of Montgomery County, the La Mott Community Garden Group is attempting to save the garden and has requested that Temple donate the garden to the community under a land trust agreement or set a fair market price for the property so it can be purchased by the community. Both options have been rejected by the university, and negotiations are at a standstill as gardening season approaches.
I Come From A Place (2007) captures the responses of Asian Arts Initiative staff to a city order to vacate their offices in the heart of Philadelphia's Chinatown district. Founded in 1993 to help diffuse racial tensions in schools attended by Asian youths, AAI became a creative center for the city's Asian immigrants and Asian-Americans, as well as the general public. In 2006, AAI got notice of the city's plan to raze the Gilbert Building, where it was renting space, in order to make way for an expansion of the Pennsylvania Convention Center – for many, an unsettling reminder of an early sixties proposal by the city to demolish the neighborhood to make way for the Vine Street Expressway. Back then, the community protested the plan and managed to preserve a six-square-block area. A number of subsequent redevelopment plans were halted or mitigated through similar negotiations. In the video, AAI staff pause to consider, as they pack up their things, who sets development priorities in the city.
Roko Kawai, a founding board member, puts it this way in the film: "How can you value someone coming in for a one time convention, with so little connection and chance to interact with a place, and they leave. How do you compare the value of that to generations and generations of immigrants and families who live here and work here."
Directed by Kelly Anderson and Allison Lirish Dean, My Brooklyn (2013) focuses on the Fulton Mall, a largely African-American and Caribbean business district in downtown Brooklyn that, despite being the third most profitable shopping area in the city, was shuttered by Brooklyn politicians in collusion with developers. With backing from community advocacy organizations, the film digs into those relationships and shows that what, at first blush, looked like the inevitable byproduct of Brooklyn’s new status as the “hot” borough was in fact a methodically constructed land grab to make way for a high-end mall.
The Precious Places' version of this increasingly familiar story is a video called The Taking of South Central...Philadelphia (2005), which looks at a neighborhood west of Broad Street along the South Street corridor where rising commercial rents have forced many long-established stores out of business and the neighborhood's changing demographics threaten the future of the neighborhood's annual African street festival, Odunde.
These films are representative of a much larger body of work by filmmakers and community groups across the country that are taking up cameras in defense of their neighborhoods and shared pasts. What's often missing, however, is the backstory – a chronology of how development plans get made and the process from idea to negotiation to implementation.
Holding Ground (1996), by Mark Lipman and Leah Mahan, is that kind of story. Filmed over a period of five years starting in 1990, and utilizing news footage and contemporary interviews with key players, the film tells what happened when an urban redevelopment plan for a low-income neighborhood in Boston was rejected by the community.
The story begins with the Mabel Louise Riley Foundation, which, in partnership with several local nonprofits, initiated a planning process in 1984 to redevelop the blighted Roxbury-Dorchester neighborhood. But the public meeting where the plan was presented to the community for its endorsement went off-course when someone in the audience asked who among the plan's designers actually lived in the neighborhood.
"We had misjudged: How could we put a neighborhood initiative together without including the residents?" Robert Holmes, Jr., a trustee of the Riley Foundation, says in the film. "It was a rather incredible mistake."
The planning process ground to a halt, and eventually leaders from the community’s African-American, Latino, Cape Verdean, and European-American populations got together and formed the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. To it’s credit, the Riley Foundation stayed involved, continuing to support DSNI over the following decades as it evolved. DSNI hired a strategic planning firm, and in 1987 a new development plan was completed and adopted by city government as the official blueprint for the neighborhood. DSNI pushed ahead with the plan and succeeded in reviving the area, in part by enforcing anti-dumping laws, creating affordable housing, and pioneering the community-based exercise of eminent domain – until then the exclusive tool of municipal government.
Holding Ground followed DSNI as it guided the process and created the kind of development the community wanted. And, with support from a number of foundations, the film itself became a wonderful example of how documentary film can be used as an audience engagement tool, not to mention a beacon for communities seeking more equitable models of change.
Leah Mahan, reflecting on the impact of the film, reports that outreach funding from a handful of supporters, including the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Ford Foundation, Riley Foundation, LEF Foundation and Lotus Philanthropy Program, enabled the producers to devote more than a year to a national educational campaign prior to the public television broadcast in 1997. National press coverage; screenings for a multitude of government agencies, policy makers, and community organizations; recognition by then-President Clinton and other leaders; and wide dissemination of educational materials and use of social media continue to bring the film's message to many audiences and arenas.
The careful documentation of neighborhood-based development in Holding Ground; the Precious Places videos of viable neighborhoods struggling to preserve the things that make them a community; the first-hand accounts of the effects of gentrification – all these, in different ways, advocate for an approach to negotiating urban change that gives equal weight to the needs and priorities of neighborhoods and communities targeted for development, while exploring the fundamental question of who gets to decide how our neighborhoods are valued – and what we want our cities to be. As housing costs and commercial rents in many cities climb to dizzying heights, forcing longtime businesses and residents out, it's a story that needs to be told and shared as widely as possible.
-- Kathryn Smith Pyle