Class Divide, a documentary about hyper-gentrification in Chelsea, the High Line, and the impact of stark inequality on both rich and poor, will be screening at IFC beginning this week.
I'm no movie reviewer. I'll just say that this thing had me in tears and you should go see it.
I talked with director Marc Levin and producer Daphne Pinkerson of Blowback Productions:
Q: The film is impressively even-handed. As a viewer, I felt empathy for both the rich kids of the Avenues School and the poor kids of the projects. Everyone seems caught in a system they have no control over. Did you go into making the film with a particular viewpoint? How did that change--or not--during the process?
A: We certainly knew that the gap between rich and poor was at Gilded Age levels and believed that was not good. Our last few films looked at the human consequences of this economic divide and we were searching for a way to continue covering this situation. We realized that the stark economic discrepancies were starting to close in around us in our own neighborhood of Chelsea where we live and work.
Every day there seemed to be a new luxury building going up, along with my monthly apartment maintenance. We thought we would focus on small businesses and tenants getting pushed out and the perspective of people as they were coming and going. But the point of view of this next generation of young people broke many stereotypes and changed our expectations, re-focusing the film.
Q: While at dramatically different levels, there yet exists some common themes between the two groups of young people, in terms of living with economic and social pressures. What do you see there?
First, the one area of common ground between the kids on both sides of the street is they are all anxious about where they fit into the future. The lower-income kids see the neighborhood changes compounded by political changes that have reduced social programs, like after-school, job training, and most importantly, funds for public housing. So they are legitimately concerned over not only their prospects, but what will happen to their parents and grandparents.
On the other side, the wealthy kids know they are no longer competing just against the kids from Dalton and Fieldston. Now they are also competing against kids from China, India, Korea, Russia, and Singapore. They know that today, no matter where they go to school, there is no guarantee that they will do better or even as well as their parents.
And that brings up the second important point, which I think the film reveals. This kind of income inequality and hyper-gentrification is BAD for everyone, not just the poor, working class, or middle class. There are no walls, fences, streets, or doormen that can protect even the wealthiest and most privileged kids from the reality of the world they inhabit. That exacts a real toll also.
photo: Marc Levin
Q: The parents of the NYCHA kids are very present in the film, but not so much the affluent parents, with the exception of one and we mostly see her selling real estate. What are your thoughts on their absence?
A: We got to know Rosa and Joel's parents better because they were always present to chaperone their children. There is a hedge fund manager in the film who lives on West 26th Street and sends his daughter to Avenues. He has lived in the neighborhood for quite some time and believes in the importance of mixed-income neighborhoods.
We did interview other parents from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds who were very articulate and thoughtful but the film became focused on the voices of the young people themselves. There were some Avenues parents, mostly husbands, who said nothing good could come of participating in a film comparing the rich and the poor. But they were wrong! Ha!
It would be interesting to do a film about how the super wealthy feel justified in using their resources to influence government policy and still claim to be living in a democracy. But I don't think telling that story through the parents of a liberal arts secondary school is going to happen.
Q: I read in Chelsea Now that the frame on the High Line at 26th Street was part of your inspiration for making the film. I've stood there myself and watched tourists pose in the frame with the NYCHA projects as backdrop. It always strikes me as a bizarre moment. Can you say more about the role this frame played in your making the film?
A: The frame became a sort of subtle leitmotif for us through the course of the film. What you see depends on the frame through which you look. What do the people in the projects see when they look across the street and visa versa? You see almost every subject in the film looking through window frames across the street.
What is it like to look through someone else's frame? How does it change your perspective? Luc really plumbs this idea speculating what the little boy in the elevator thinks of him and how that should influence how he responds. Deep.
photo: Marc Levin
Q: What's your verdict on the impact the High Line has had on the neighborhood?
A: The High Line was another metaphor for us as an example of what a community can do through activism. The activists fought the powerful real estate industry to preserve something for rich and poor alike. It is a beautiful public park for everyone. You see Rosa's joy there, and the mix of people at the Latin dance night. There are internships and planned activities for children in the community.
The irony, as Joe Restuccia from Community Board 4 says in the film, is that it has been almost completely commodified by the luxury real estate industry in terms of housing. Is there any mixed income housing on the High Line? And it is so crowded some days you can barely move! Maybe there needs to be crowd control and tickets like a regular museum?
Q: Another apt metaphor--as the hyper-gentrifying neighborhoods of the city become museums, to be looked at and consumed, largely by tourists, but not quite lived in. I'm thinking of how Restuccia says in the film: "This is not about a neighborhood or about New York. It's about: 'I want to take my money out of Singapore, out of Abu Dhabi, and invest and park it here,'" in those ultra-luxury condos along the High Line. In some ways, we're left at the end of the film wondering: Who is responsible for this? Or is it all just "natural market forces"?
A: First, what we are seeing here in Chelsea is a microcosm of a global phenomenon, where cities around the world, like New York, London, San Francisco, Hong Kong, etc., are becoming investment opportunities for the global elite, and where inequality is growing.
How to reform or transform the global consumer capitalist model so that it distributes wealth more equally is the great challenge now, especially for this next generation. The market is not an inanimate force of nature. It is very much a political, cultural, and social construct that was created by humans and can be remade by them. This is reflected in much of the recent populist politics we've witnessed, from Bernie Sanders, who will be holding a rally in Washington Square right before our film opens a block away on Wednesday, to Donald Trump.
Second, if there is any neighborhood in this city that can be a vanguard on how to create a thriving, mixed urban community in the 21st century, it is Chelsea.
So, from local to global, the message is the same. Organize. Remember how the High Line was saved and became a park in the first place. Become involved and informed, we need more citizen activists!
There will be four daily screenings of Class Divide from April 13 - 19. Visit the IFC Center to check ticket availability. All screening times will be posted by Monday evening. You can also follow the film on Facebook.