Issue #132, November/December 2003


What the Movies Miss About Community Development


Movies discussed in this essay:

Duplex, directed by David Brooks. 2003.

Sunshine State, directed by John Sayles. 2002.

Pacific Heights, directed by John Schlesinger. 1990.

Wolfen, directed by Michael Wadleigh. 1981.

After a recent viewing of the movie Duplex I was reminded of how little the popular cinema helps us understand urban and housing issues, gentrification, rent control and the forces that make up what we call community development.

Duplex takes place in a Brooklyn neighborhood soon to go through the real estate class and race upheaval that goes by the euphemism gentrification: the process where young professionals rescue the “slums” from poorer people and turn the neighborhood into a paradise for those David Brooks calls “Bobos” – the bourgeois bohemians. A young novelist played, by Ben Stiller, and a successful magazine layout designer, Drew Barrymore, leave their cramped living quarters in Manhattan and purchase their American dream, an affordable brownstone duplex in Brooklyn. The only problem is that, in addition to its four working fireplaces, stained glass windows and enough hardwood to pave Madison Square Garden, there is an elderly Irish widow who lives in the rent-controlled apartment on the duplex’s upper floor. She pays $88 a month and cannot be relocated against her will.

If you think the movie might give you some insight about how gentrification can cause wealth for some and pain for others, forget about it. Might it hint at the importance of rent control to stabilize communities? Not that either. This is another Danny DeVito murderous revenge dark comedy in the tradition of Throw Momma From the Train, The War of the Roses and Death to Smoochy. To the extent it says anything about these issues, it’s the lengths that people will go for a rent-controlled apartment in New York. Most big cities at some point are faced with a boom that leads to escalating property values and rents. Minority, low-income and working-class neighborhoods, usually quite viable, become the targets of gentrification. Families get displaced for the construction of pricey condos. Rent control is one of the few policies that local government can use to stop rent gouging and evictions and slow down the gentrification process.

An earlier film, Pacific Heights (1990), starring Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffin and directed by John Schlesinger, is about a yuppie middle class couple who lie on their financial statement in order to buy an old Victorian house in San Francisco, so they can renovate it, rent it and make some money. Unfortunately they rent to the tenant from hell (Michael Keaton), a psychotic real estate bargain hunter who plans to drive the couple into foreclosure and buy the house cheap. He refuses to pay his rent, drives out another tenant by hammering and sawing all night and then releases a surge of cockroaches. And that’s just the beginning. The movie suggests wrongly that it’s impossible to evict bad tenants. (In its review, the New York Times said it was “perhaps the first eviction thriller.”)

It’s a rare movie that looks at how communities gradually organized anti-displacement protests. The closest I can think of is Wolfen, made in 1981. It’s a cautionary metaphor about real estate speculation, urban gentrification, homeless displacement and all the disturbing human-caused destruction that threatens people’s communities and the ecosystems we all share.

The wolves – read Native Americans, poor people of color, squatters, endangered animal species – have taken over abandoned buildings in the Bronx and are threatened by a rapacious Wall Street real estate developer and his political allies who are seeking to demolish and redevelop them. The wolves, usually the bad guys in the typical wolf-kills-man film, are the good guys. They are “organizing” to protect themselves from yet another attempt by the real savages bent on uprooting the less powerful from their homes and community. Wolves were wiped out about the same time that Native Americans were. The movie suggests that the wolf and Indian had similar cultures and habits, and learned to live together in harmony. The movie also references the history of urban redevelopment that destroyed low-income working class neighborhoods. This is the rare movie that says beware: don’t exploit the poor and less powerful. They may organize using their indigenous strength and start winning and defeat the exploiters.

A more recent and straightforward movie, Sunshine State (2002), directed by John Sayles, stands out not only as a quality comedy/drama, but also a study in the complex issues of race, class, gentrification and politics in America today. In the film, class and racial disruption comes to a Florida seacoast town in the form of a plan by speculators to build luxury hotels, malls and boardwalks to beautify the shorelines. Sayles shows how these developers are welcomed by a few ambitious residents, hated by some and viewed ambivalently by others. Small business owners are pressured to sell, and the town council is in the pocket of the big corporate real estate operation promising new revenue. One section of town used to be a hot vacation spot for African-Americans during the era of segregation in the 1940s and 1950s. Ironically, the civil rights movement and desegregation, by enabling African-Americans to patronize white establishments, contributed to the area’s demise. Now its remaining residents are being conned into selling their property by a rapacious real estate developer. It’s notable that all of the characters are shown in a largely sympathetic way; even the decision by one family not to sell out is portrayed in simple, dignified terms, not with heroic fanfare. In so doing, Sayles manages to capture the complexity of gentrification.

But Sayles is an exception. Intelligent movies about housing and communities are few and far between, even though these are topics that touch the lives of most people. Who hasn’t worried about rundown housing, rising rents and changing neighborhoods? We need more directors like Sayles who know how to entertain and challenge audiences to consider a range of viewpoints about community development.

John Atlas is president of the National Housing Institute board of directors and a Revson Fellow at Columbia University.