Writers and Filmmakers Take on Gentrification

Photo by Tim Hettler | CC by 2.0

Writers and filmmakers have created art about gentrification in many cities across the country.  Renee Watson, who grew up in Portland, Oregon, but then moved to New York City, has seen gentrification in both cities. Watson had written a young adult novel This Side of Home about two African-American sisters entering their final year of high school in Portland, Oregon, dealing with changes in their neighborhood when wealthy whites move in. One sister welcomes the change while the other sister dislikes it.

In  Harlem Watson saw that many buildings important in black history have been destroyed:  famous nightclubs likes Small’s Paradise and Lennox Lounge; the Renaissance, where Duke Ellington performed; and the Childs Memorial Temple Church of God in Christ, where Malcolm X’s funeral was held.  Watson fights against displacement by trying to save Langston Hughes’ brownstone at 20 East 127th Street in Harlem. She’s trying to raise  $150,000 for rent and renovations in order to make Hughes’s home  a pace to nurture new literary voices and have the history of the black community saved:  “creating [space for]  our people to put on record their own history and dreams is a powerful thing. “

Renee Watson is of one of many writers and filmmakers trying to record history of a community that is being erased through gentrification. In East Harlem young filmmaker Andrew Padilla made a 30-minute documentary film “El Barrio Tours” on East Harlem as an act of homage to his grandfather Jose Antonio Padilla Sr., who arrived in El Barrio from Sabana Grande in Puerto Rico. The film looks at the changes in East Harlem through the eyes of Jose Padilla Sr., who was a Korean War veteran. In the 1950s, he found a union job that provided healthcare, found an apartment in public housing in El Barrio, and found “a good life for his family.” The film also looks at the last couple years in El Barrio with new condos, new restaurants, old businesses that served “El Barrio” being forced to close, and the white population increasing by 5,700 while the Hispanic population declined by 2,500. .

“El Barrio Tours” won best short documentary at the Puerto Rico International Film Festival and had its New York premiere April 5, 2013. “Hopefully this will be the beginning of a series of dialogues about gentrification that will give a voice to people being threatened because of displacement in East Harlem,” said Marina Ortiz, founder of East Harlem Preservation, which is co-sponsoring the April 5 screening. “We want to come away from the event with a plan and people who want to work on that plan.” The April 5 East Harlem debut is like a “homecoming,” Padilla said.  “Gentrification seems like it happens quickly but it takes years. Hopefully I can inspire people to stake a claim and decide the neighborhood they want to live in and not have it dictated for them.”

Writer Brandon Harris, a young independent black filmmaker and writer, entered the debate over gentrification with his essays and his book Making Rent in Bed-Stuy. Harris published in Lithub this essay “The Lies We Tell Ourselves about Gentrification” with the subtitle “On a Decade of Magical Thinking in Bed-Stuy” about his living in the gentrified neighborhood from 2004 to 2015 with a lot of young whites on the make in the city. Harris criticizes himself, who was from a middle class black family, and his white peers for being “cowards somewhere in our souls” and he was complicit in the lies as was his white girlfriend or trust funded roommate that “the displacement of people less fortunate as a natural occurrence, a small price to pay to make our cities dynamic and exciting and cultural suited for us.” 

In his memoir Harris, who grew up in the Midwest, describes real estate people saying his new apartment was in “Clinton Hill,” not in Bedford Stuyvesant as if to erase the existence of Bed-Stuy.  Harris gives a history of Bed-Stuy going back to the 1830s when it was the first neighborhood for free blacks in the U.S. and then developing after World War II into the largest black neighborhood in New York. Harris describes whites at rooftop parties around 2003 seeing Brooklyn as “a place to be changed, to be ‘settled’ and ‘colonized.’” He repeatedly calls gentrification done by people “carrying out a class war, block by block boutique by boutique… displacing people they would never personally evict or have to look in the eyes ….” After his memoir, which includes history of Bed-Stuy, came out, Harris worked with two cinemas– the Metrograph in Manhatten and the Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn—where he helped introduce six films about the African-Americans Bed-Stuy, another way of sharing its history.

In San Francisco Latino writer Alejandro Murguia, Poet Laureate of San Francisco, focused on the violence of gentrification in his short story “The Other Barrio” in the San Francisco Noir anthology published in 2015. Murguia, who has been [i] a leading writer from the Mission, San Francisco’s vibrant Latino neighborhood that has suffered gentrification for decades, focuses his story on the actual arson fire in the Mission’s Gartland Hotel in 1975 which caused 12 deaths but he puts the fire after 2010 with seven dead. His hero Housing Inspector Bob Morales investigates the arson fire in this updated noir tale.

At one point the hero Morales goes to the Havana Social club where the walls are covered by photos of poets, many of whom are dead. The hero thinks now seven more have checked into “the other barrio” or death:  “The dead were all around me, urging me to keep on living to keep their memory alive.”  At the end of the story Morales was unable to stop the city from approving plans for a “glass shit monstrosity” being built on the site of the burnt out hotel, but Morales says that the neighborhood thinks “the new building is haunted by the animas, the souls of the seven who died that night.” Murguia’s story is similar in theme to New York writers Watson’s and Padilla’s attempts to keep memory of their neighborhoods alive.

After “The Other Barrio” was adapted into a full-length film, leading Latino artists worked to make the film:  Richard Montoya, who started the Chicano performance group Culture Class, was lead actor and co-producer; poet Guillermo Gomez-Pena has his spoken-word piece in the film; and Murguia has a brief appearance in the film.

Latinos and noir writers began to speak out in 2017 in other cities besides San Francisco. On April 17, 2017, in Austin, Texas, Café Libro had a literary event sponsored by Red Salmon Arts:  “Ghettos, Barrios, Gentrification, and Writing Our Existence in Resistance” featuring Adela Mancias, Rocio Villalobos, Kellee Coleman, Manuel G Galaviz, and Jose Rodriguez. Red Salmon Arts is a Native American, Chican@/Latin@-based cultural arts organization that works within indigenous communities in Austin since 1983.

Also Los Angeles in 2017 had a literary slam titled “Write to the City:  LA’s First Writers Slam on Gentrification” featuring a multi-racial crew of some of the city’s leading noir and mystery writers who traded stories with inner-city activists. Fittingly this literary event had two sponsors:  PM Press and Society for a Just Economy. Los Angeles like San Francisco has a long, celebrated history of noir literary fiction starting with largely white male voices in the 1930s but now women, African-American, Asian-American, and Chicano authors write noir fiction.

“Write to the City” had three women writers:  Denise Hamilton, a leading Los Angeles crime novelist; Sara Paretsky, author of the V.I. Warshawski detective novels set in Chicago; and Nina Revoyr, author of a stunning novel Southland set in Southcentral LA. Also two African-American writers participated:  Jervey Trevalon, author of the Lita DuChamp novel; and emcee was Gary Phillip, author of the Ivan Monk crime novels. Chicano writer Luis Rodriguez, Poet Laureate of Los Angeles, and other writers also read.

Besides noir, writers have used science fiction to write about gentrification. In 2016 the anthology City of Weird:  30 Otherworldly Portland Tales was published. The Wilamette Weekly describes this authors in this anthology who often wrote about the price of rent, the fear of alien residents next door, and the feeling of ‘Portland’ is something passing into the mist.”  Jonathan Hill’s comic tale “How Do You Say Gentrification in Martian” is a short graphic story about hipsters’ biking and sipping coffee. They are interrupted by Martians arriving in their space ships that speak a strange language and destroy the city gentrifying at gunpoint. Stefaine Freele’s “A Sky So Blue” tells how Cindy “stole the blue out of the sky on a rare Oregon clear day.” Her partner worries about her fate as citizens galvanize “to restore the blue.” In Justin Hocking’s story “Vampire” the vampire laments that he didn’t buy a house in 1986 Portland when they were affordable.

Colin Dickey in his brilliant essay “The Literal Hell of McMansions” in Slate in 2016 is similar to Murguia in thinking the ghosts of the past still haunt the huge McMansion structures built today. Dickey is author of Ghostland:  An American History of Haunted Places, but he also refers to architect Kate’s blog “McMansion Hell” which describes cotemporary McMansions, those engines of gentrification across the country, as “violations of order, harmony, and symmetry.”  Dickey likens contemporary McMansions to 19th century ostentatious house monstrosities of the nouveau riche described in classic U.S. fiction.

Dickey uses as his first example Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables. In this novel Colonel Pyncheon accused his neighbor Matthew Hill of witchcraft to get hold of Hill’s land. After Colonel Pyncheon wins the land, he builds on it the monstrous House of Seven Gables whose outward ugliness is symbolic of its owner Pyncheon’s inner evil. Dickey’s second example is Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “House of Usher” in which the narrator describes the ancient house as so ugly and bleak that it inspires terror. The house’s exterior mirrors its degenerate aristocratic owner’s inner viciousness. Finally, Dickey discussed Shirley Jackson’s story “The Haunting of Hill House” about a proto-McMansion “built without form or reason.”  Jackson’s haunted house was so permeated with evil ghosts that even exorcism would never work there.

Gentrification and haunted houses have also appeared for decades in films.  Hal Ashby’s The Landlord is a 1970 comedy written by African-American screenwriter/director Bill Gunn. The hero, a wealthy young white heir played by Beau Bridges, buys a tenement building in Park Slope, Brooklyn, wanting to evict the black tenants and remodel to make a luxury house for himself. New York Times film critic Mike Hale wrote about the film in 2007 that it was a critical moment in both American film and New York real estate. Ashby’s film debut The Landlord helped kick started the films of 1970s American film mavericks Scorsese, George Lucas et al. and also predicted the gentrification of Brooklyn.

The young heir falls in love with one black woman tenant played by Diana Sands who educates him in “love, prejudice, and economics.” And the film is indeed a comedy. Gunn is a very funny screenwriter showing how one can turn the sadness into humor with lines like “You whites scream about miscegenation and you done watered down every race you ever hated.” The film has a fine score featuring the Staples Singers and a wonderful group of black actors including Pearl Bailey, Louis Gossett Jr., and Diana Sands.

Another film that uses a haunted house as a metaphor for gentrification is Wes Craven’s 1991 horror film The People under the Stairs with its stunning camerawork. In the film Poindexter “Fool” Williams and his family, living in a Los Angeles ghetto, are evicted from their apartment by their landlords the Robesons, who say they are married and have a daughter named Alice. The landlord’s family move into the house, but Fool and two friends break into it, discovering cannibalistic children looked in a basement under the stairs. The film, which was # 1 in box office, combines blood, gore, and humor.

Colin Dickey also discusses a horror film Paranormal Activity (2007) in which a contemporary McMansion is haunted. The film starts with a couple Katie and Micah moving in their oversized dream house:  they seem to wallow around in their four-bedroom, 2 1/2 –bath McMansion in the San Diego suburbs.  Dickey describes the haunted house in this film as the McMansion next door. The heroine Kate has a demon that used to follow her around for years and turns up again in her McMansion to haunt her in this very scary film.

In contrast, Jeff Becker has created a poetic, unconventional theater piece Sea of Common Catastrophe describing gentrification in New Orleans as a sea sweeping through the town with its main characters struggling to keep their heads above water.  Becker’s Sea of Common Catastrophe seemed to the critic in Paste Magazine who saw it in Atlanta to defy categorization.  Becker was inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short story “Sea of Lost Time” for his own work. He doesn’t see his piece “Sea” as theater but as a performance combining poetry, painting, dance, and a dream.

In New Orleans the audience walked through the strange set of “Sea” but in Atlanta the audience just sat very near the two-story set which at different times serves as a “wall of cardboard boxes, a dance floor, a house and a coffee shop …. [with] Becker’s own illustrations of turtles, fishing oats, sea grass,….” The audience, faced with this bizarre world of the set, soon deals with displacement and the need for navigation through it.

The main character Clara emerges from the sea, and water as a metaphor for gentrification. Clara and her friends Perpetua and Tobias deal with hard times, packing and unpacking, but are interrupted by Mr. Herbert, the gentrifier. Perpetua sells her home to Mr. Herbert, who seems to want to turn it into a coffee shop in a scene both whimsical and painful. Then Clara, Perpetua, and Tobias struggle to do a ballet on top of “floating” boxes trying to survive in the fierce sea while Mr. Herbert watches and never helps them.

Sea of Common Catastrophe holds up a mirror to artists, to gentrifiers, and to the audience:  “when we watch Sea, are we Clara and her friends, helping one another to stay afloat? Or are we Mr. Herbert, watching from a distance, concerned but immobile?” Writers and filmmakers make art trying to navigate their way through the sea of common catastrophe of gentrification. They construct histories of the past, exorcise the demons of the present, and even sometimes find humor.