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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.)

Urban_gentrificationThe phenomenon of gentrification – how it gets started, who benefits, and who loses – is a longstanding concern in cities across the country.

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.

These days, the debate about the future of Williamsburg centers around a plan to reconfigure the local Domino Sugar refinery, a project that has generated its own film, The Domino Effect (2012). As the film notes, one of the points of contention between the project’s developer and a local community advocacy group is the number of affordable units to be included in the final plan – a common point of negotiation in these kinds of redevelopment projects. With the election of Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York City, however, the debate, according to a recent article in the Times, has a new twist: "Domino Sugar has become a test of  the [new] mayor’s resolve to ‘reset’ the city’s relationship with developers and extract more concessions from them, with a goal of building or preserving 200,000 units of affordable housing."

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

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Posted by Stephanie McBrayer, AICP  |   April 08, 2014 at 10:35 AM

My family lived in Pacific Grove, CA for 5 generations. PG was a working class town of long-standing residents who had a very strong sense of community, looked out for each other, helped raise each other's kids. The uber rich discovered our sweet little town, drove up all the housing prices to REDICULOUS levels and pushed out "the local riff raff" (their words, not mine). 30 years later there are no more children in that town, and no more workers. 3 of the 4 elementary schools are closed, workers must commute from many miles away and my once-caring community has become a bunch of nasty rich folks fighting with each other over trivial issues. So very, very sad.

Posted by Kathryn Pyle  |   April 08, 2014 at 05:56 PM

Thanks for sharing your experience, Stephanie. It's so important to understand what happens over succeeding generations when a community is replaced, particularly when the demographics change so dramatically. I wonder if this is the community the Pacific Grove policy makers had in mind when they encouraged that change. And even whether the wealthier residents have been an economic plus or minus in the town's budget.

Posted by Michael Seltzer  |   April 09, 2014 at 01:17 PM

Thank you, Kaye for introducing these documentaries to PHILANTOPIC readers. In my new career as a professor at the Baruch College School of Public Affairs, this is a hot topic in our urban and community development courses. And the films will be great teaching tools.

A related issue is the displacement of community-based organizations who are generally renters, and are having difficulty finding affordable service and office space once their leases expire. We are seeing this phenomenon currently in neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn in particular.

Posted by Andrew Garrison  |   April 09, 2014 at 06:15 PM

In a documentary course I founded and teach at U.T. Austin, East Austin Stories (EastAustinStories.org), students make short documentaries in and about the people, organizations, businesses and events in East Austin. Students started to make a piece about a small "urban farm," one of four in Austin. But the farm is getting a lot of heat because some people are saying it is a kind of spearpoint for gentrification. From the farm owners' perspective, they are providing well-paid jobs (far better than minimum wage) to their workers, making a healthy product, and being a good neighbor. To some residents, they have taken what could have been land for low-income housing and are running a business that does not serve the neighborhood as clients. Change and gentrification are not synonymous. Can a neighborhood benefit form change? It gets murky very quickly.

Posted by Kathryn Pyle  |   April 10, 2014 at 09:41 AM

Thanks for your comment, Michael. I'm glad you see these kinds of films as added value to your courses. Please let me know what your experience is and how the students respond.

Also, do check back to see the second part that will be posted later this week: one of the films is about a community-based organization pushed out of their base to make room for a city project.

Posted by Kathryn Pyle  |   April 10, 2014 at 09:47 AM

Thanks, Andrew, for adding to the description of Third Ward TX with information about how your students continue to be involved in the neighborhood. Have the community organizations used the films in any way as well?

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