Netsanet Negussie is a fall 2016 intern with Production & Programming and Isaac Steinmetz is a fall 2016 intern with America ReFramed.
Housing and displacement are longstanding issues that have prompted exploration of how economic and racial divides continue to shape cities. Because it is a place where the extremes of housing are so readily apparent, New York City has been a focal point for this discussion. The way affordability crises pervade nearly every other aspect of the city’s culture has resulted in many films with distinct portrayals of this pressing topic.
Los Sures, directed by Diego Echeverria in 1984, is a seminal documentary on the intersections of class, race and housing. In his own neighborhood of South Williamsburg, Echeverria takes an honest, humanistic and intimate approach to center the diverse narratives of the Puerto Rican community preserving their culture and history as they face economic hardships, crime, and lack of resources. The film opens up to Tito and Marta’s narrative, young locals in their twenties struggling to make ends meet and support their family. As much as they appreciate their neighborhood, both Tito and Marta highlight the everyday struggles of raising their children on welfare and insufficient funds to pay for rent. Despite economic and social hardships, the film shows the vitality of the people of Los Sures as b-boys take to the streets dancing to hip hop tunes and the community celebrates a new couple’s matrimony. Stigmatized as one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City, Echeverria used cinéma vérité to tell a complex tale of survival and preservation, community and home in a compelling way that brought depth and dimension to the community of Los Sures.
Brick by Brick: A Civil Rights Story, directed by Bill Kavanagh, portrays a housing struggle that began around the time of Los Sures and dragged on for over two decades until the year of its own release in 2007. The film details the conflict that arose in the 1980’s from a plan to construct affordable housing in Yonkers, a community that sits just north of the Bronx. The plan created fierce opposition by breaking with the convention of concentrating this type of housing in West Yonkers, a historically black neighborhood, and proposing the placement of several hundred units in predominantly white East Yonkers. Interviews with housing advocates, residents from both sides of the city and local politicians reveal how a culture and policy of de facto segregation fueled the fight.
The new HBO documentary Class Divide takes us to the present day in Chelsea, a lower Manhattan neighborhood where property values are rising as much as ten times faster than the rest of the city. It explores both the cause of this “hyper-gentrification” – including the architectural one-upmanship created by the wildly popular High Line – and the fallout for existing residents. Director Marc Levin trains his eye on a single street corner that epitomizes the new extremes of Chelsea: the elite private school Avenues and the Chelsea-Elliott housing projects that sit across the street from each other. The film centers on dialogues between students from both sides of this divide, conveying how housing inequality extends into educational inequality while also giving insight on the incredibly poignant ways these issues are understood and digested by America’s youngest generation.
The latest entry into the canon of films about New York City’s housing crisis is part of the new EPIX documentary series America Divided from executive producers Common, Norman Lear and Shonda Rhimes. The series is made up of eight stories covering inequity in the United States through the lens of education, labor, healthcare, criminal justice, environmental justice, immigration, the political system, and in the episode “A House Divided,” housing. Created by veteran producer Solly Granatstein, America Divided takes on an interesting approach: each story is hosted by a celebrity-cum-activist including the likes of Rosario Dawson, Amy Poehler, and two of the executive producers, Common and Norman Lear.
In “A House Divided,” TV icon Norman Lear serves as a guide for navigating the factors that severely limit affordable housing options for New York City’s most disadvantaged residents. Lear discusses the affordable housing crisis with legal advocates from The Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC), housing activists and residents facing eviction. He also sits down with New York’s mayor Bill De Blasio to discuss his controversial fair housing bill.
The fight to end housing discrimination is a familiar chapter in the saga of the Civil Rights era, but Lear’s tour of New York reminds us this remains a contemporary problem. The climax of the episode comes when Lear himself is enlisted by the FHJC to pose as a potential renter for an apartment in the Bronx. The same landlord who offers him a one bedroom apartment denies the availability of this unit when an African-American activist visits.
By using Lear as a surrogate for the audience to confront the question of who gets to live in New York City today, “A House Divided” brings a new perspective to films on the city’s housing crisis. We got a chance to attend a screening of the episode and interviewed Granatstein about his series America Divided and what he hopes to achieve with it.
Netsanet Negussie & Isaac Steinmetz: America Divided focuses on many aspects of inequality – how did you choose housing as one of the topics in the series?
Granatstein: Housing is where it all begins. Where you live determines everything from where you shop for food, to how safe your neighborhood is, to your kids’ school, to whether you’re exposed to toxic chemicals on a daily basis. And as a New Yorker, I found it impossible not to notice and be bothered by the huge number of homeless people in the city, as well as by the segregation and gentrification that’s all around you.
Negussie & Steinmetz: Were there any prior works that served as inspiration for “A House Divided”? How did you want to document the housing crisis in New York City differently?
Granatstein: Michael Moore’s first big film Roger & Me has an extremely powerful scene in which a family in Flint, Michigan is evicted right around Christmas. That was an inspiration to me to document the stories of people living on the edge as they’re happening. Also, the Nikole Hannah-Jones This American Life story “House Rules” introduced me to “housing tests” and inspired me to mount a hidden camera on Norman Lear and have him take part in a test in which he and a black actor inquired about apartments at the same Bronx building and received very different answers. My aim in “A House Divided” was to explore the urgent challenges of housing inequity in New York through the eyes of Norman Lear.
Negussie & Steinmetz: How were the celebrity activists chosen in relation to the issue? What impression did Norman Lear make on the tenants and housing advocates?
Granatstein: Norman spent important chunks of his early life in New York City, and his sitcoms — All In The Family, Good Times, The Jeffersons — were all built around families living out their triumphs and sorrows in their homes. So, housing in New York seemed to fit Norman. In addition, his shows confronted all kinds of social issues — racial separation and prejudice being foremost among them. The Evans of Good Times were the first black family to be the focus of a primetime American TV show. A lot of the people we came across in filming were familiar with the role Norman played in catalyzing important national conversations about race. They seemed grateful to him for trying to move the needle.
Negussie & Steinmetz: In what ways have you seen the housing crisis intersect with issues of race and class?
Granatstein: Housing in New York City has become too expensive for many average wage earners, let alone people with marginal incomes, who find themselves displaced to far-flung neighborhoods or to the streets. Racist discrimination in housing, which has been around for decades and follows centuries of slavery, has exacerbated the housing affordability crisis for people of color. Exclusion of blacks from the benefits of the G.I. Bill led to a racial wealth gap where the household wealth of the average white family is more than 10 times what it is for the average black family. So race and class reinforce one another in housing. Our America Divided story, “A House Divided,” shows that racist discrimination in housing is alive and well in the Big Apple today.
Negussie & Steinmetz: Has making the series influenced your own understanding of inequality in its many forms?
Granatstein: I’m more attuned than ever to the proliferation of groups that are working for justice and equality. They’re all over the country.
Negussie & Steinmetz: What sort of impact have you seen or do you hope to see “A House Divided” spark in the U.S.?
Granatstein: We want the people who watch “A House Divided” and other stories in our America Divided series to realize that there are structures that reinforce inequality and inequity, and that our job as good people is to work together to dismantle those structures. We’re hoping that viewers will see what they have in common with other Americans, have empathy and become more united.
Negussie & Steinmetz: In what ways do you think communities can work towards housing reform and justice?
Granatstein: People need to get involved in their neighborhood groups and the many housing reform groups that are out there. We need to hold our elected officials accountable and push them to create legislation that protects tenants and keeps people in their homes. Our governments — local, state and federal — also need to allocate resources to enforce the fair housing laws that are already on the books. The US Justice Department used to carry out housing tests. Now this vital work is left to small nonprofit groups that don’t lack for passion or brilliance, but which simply don’t have the resources needed to enforce the law on a wide basis.
Additional readings and viewings:
Dirty Old Boston: Four Decades of a City in Transition (2014) by Jim Botticelli
Portrayal of the city’s transformation between WWII and 1987 – a period to which the term “gentrification” was first applied – through personal testimonies and the fight for affordable housing.
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016) by Matthew Desmond
Part long form narrative, part ethnology that illuminates the eviction epidemic and the affordable housing crisis through the personal experiences of eight Wisconsin families.
Show Me A Hero (1999) by Lisa Belkin
A retelling of the Yonkers housing crisis focusing on residents and central figures including embattled mayor Nick Wasicsko. The book is the basis for the HBO mini-series of the same name created by The Wire‘s David Simon.
In Jackson Heights (2015) directed by Frederick Wiseman
An observational study of the changes being experienced in Jackson Heights, a Queens neighborhood struggling to hold on to the characteristics that make it one of the country’s most ethnically diverse enclaves.
Battle for Brooklyn (2011) directed by Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley
Follows the grassroots campaign protesting the massive development project that eventually became Brooklyn’s Barclays Center through the journey of community activist Daniel Goldstein.
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