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courtesy of HBO Films:
The thought-provoking documentary Class Divide is a timely look at the widening divide between the “haves” and “have nots.” Young people on both sides of the gap offer unique and honest insights that challenge common perceptions about inequality today.
In the final part of their trilogy about economic forces affecting ordinary people, director Marc Levin and producer Daphne Pinkerson (HBO’s Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags and Hard Times: Lost on Long Island) explore the effects of hyper-gentrification and rising economic disparity in one New York City neighborhood, which can be seen as a microcosm of the socioeconomic imbalances across the country, and the world. The film bears witness to the profound effects of gentrification and stagnant class mobility on young people who share a West Chelsea community — yet live in very different worlds — as they try to navigate this rapidly changing landscape.
At the intersection of West 26th Street and 10th Avenue in New York City, two communities are separated by much more than a boulevard. On one side are Avenues: The World School, an elite, state-of-the art private school with a $40,000-plus annual price tag, and multimillion-dollar luxury condos. On the other are the Elliott-Chelsea public-housing projects, home to thousands of underemployed and underserved residents mostly living below the poverty line.
Eight-year-old Rosa looks out from the housing projects to the other side of the street, where the children of privilege question how they landed on top. “My family is poor because we live in the projects,” she says. “I don’t have what I want, necessarily, but I do have people that I love.”
The for-profit Avenues: The World School, which opened in 2012, aims “to prepare children for international life.” This private school attracts children from New York’s 1% at an annual cost of more than $40,000. “In this neighborhood, I don’t think I can name five people who make over $40,000,” says Elliott-Chelsea resident Hyisheem. For a community with an unemployment rate of 50%, where an average family of four’s yearly income is roughly half the school’s tuition for a single student, living across from Avenues can be “like a tease and a smack in the face.”
Avenues is just one example of the way the neighborhood has been dramatically transformed. The High Line, a once-abandoned elevated railroad track, was reborn and turned into a wildly popular public park in 2009. Attracting five million people a year, The High Line has transformed a once-gritty area into the hottest neighborhood in NYC’s high-end real-estate market. “Every building is trying to outdo each other,” explains Community Board Committee co-chair Joe Restuccia.
However, many buyers in this current wave of gentrification seem to have no desire to integrate into the established lower-income community. Almost 40% of high-end residences have been sold to foreign or anonymous clients, and the average rent for Chelsea apartments has risen almost ten times faster than Manhattan as a whole, ousting many who can’t afford to keep up. “I just don’t understand why the old can’t be with the new,” says Yasmin Rodriguez, a lifelong West Chelsea resident and parent who is rapidly being priced out of her own neighborhood. “I have so much history here.”
Young people on both sides of the street struggle with the juxtaposition of “haves” and “have nots” and what those designations mean for their uncertain futures. On one side, the kids who live in Elliott-Chelsea housing bear witness to rising inequality, and the complex and intersecting issues of public education, affordable housing, immigration and employment opportunities that affect their lives.
While Avenues students seem to have it made, some worry they will never match their parents’ achievements, while being acutely aware that their status wasn’t earned. Avenues student Yasemin says, “Most people work hard,” but also acknowledges the obvious, asking, “Did you have that privilege awarded at birth, or did you not?” Across the street, many feel that Avenues is excluding the community by failing to accept scholarship students from public housing. “It’s not racism, it’s classism,” argues Hyisheem. “It’s the fact that you don’t have what they have.”
After meeting Elliott-Chelsea resident Juwan, Yasemin is inspired to create “115 Steps,” a photo and audio project featuring kids from both sides of the street. When Avenues opens its doors to Rosa and others for a tour, the hope in their faces is undeniable. The school’s decision to accept its first student from Elliott-Chelsea public housing speaks to a willingness to confront the imbalance between rich and poor in their own backyard, and is a hopeful sign that with continued conversation between students and community leaders, change can be embraced, yet managed in a way that preserves what makes New York City so unique: a mix of all kinds of humanity.
The High Line is a “place where everybody, regardless of background, regardless of income, can come together,” explains its co-founder, Joshua David. For kids on both sides of the street, this philosophy will be tested in a neighborhood where hyper-gentrification has brought two communities into close proximity, but with greater disparity than ever before.
Class Divide was directed by Marc Levin; producers, Daphne Pinkerson and Marc Levin; co-producers, Kara Rozansky and Ema Ryan Yamazaki. For HBO: senior producer, Nancy Abraham; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.
courtesy of HBO Films:
HBO: Why did this feel like an appropriate topic for the third part of your documentary trilogy?
Marc Levin: My documentary film partner, Daphne Pinkerson, and I had made Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags on the rise and fall of the garment industry and then Hard Times: Lost on Long Island about the crash of 2008, and we were looking for the next subject. Schmatta profiled a generation of city factory workers who finally made enough money to send their children to college to become white-collar professionals and Hard Times followed this next generation to the suburbs. So the final film would show how only a small percentage of them would thrive in a world of growing inequality.
We were contemplating this one day while sitting on the High Line [in Chelsea, New York City] at the lookout point over 26th Street and 10th Avenue, where the architects had preserved an old billboard frame as an art installation. We were looking through the empty frame, and realized on one side was the renovated building housing the city’s newest elite private school; “Avenues: the World School” and on the other side were the projects — two sides of the street, two totally different worlds. Meanwhile, tourists were snapping photos, posing in the frame and waving to families and friends in Beijing, Rio, Paris and Sidney. Did they have any idea what was behind them? Then it hit us, what you see is all in how it’s framed. After all our searching we realized this was our starting point, right here in our own neighborhood.
HBO: What was it like filming there?
Marc Levin: I have lived in Chelsea for 40 years, so in a way I am one of the so-called “urban pioneers” who started to change this neighborhood from a manufacturing and flower district to a residential neighborhood. I have also had a studio on West 26th Street for 17 years. That building is part of the gentrification that has pushed rents to such exorbitant levels that, when my lease ends in two years, I honestly don’t know if I can still afford to keep my company in Chelsea. The point is, we see what’s happening, the hyper development, the gentrification, the displacement of long time businesses and residents, the income inequality — we see it from multiple perspectives. Looking out my window, I see an army of cranes, like huge mechanical insects reaching for the sky, as they begin construction of the largest private urban development project in U.S. history, Hudson Yards. Depending on the frame, you see the good, the bad and the ugly.
HBO: Does this story go beyond New York City?
Marc Levin: This film is a microcosm of what’s happening in cities across this country, and for that matter, across the globe. Major metropolitan areas all over the world are becoming gilded cages and investment opportunities for the global elite. The human mix, which is the fundamental ingredient in a vibrant city’s energy and magic, is being threatened.
HBO: What were the major challenges of making the film?
Marc Levin: It’s always a challenge to make a film about a major global trend in a new way that no one has ever done before. We researched a number of cities and towns all across the United States: We looked at the housing crash in Florida and the rapid gentrification by techies in San Francisco. But once we settled on the location, it was a great experience to dig so deeply into our own neighborhood. Everyone in Chelsea was feeling the effects of gentrification so it wasn’t difficult to start the conversation. Of course, there were some higher income parents who felt nothing good could come of looking at the rich and poor in the same film, and they declined to participate. But in the end, everyone involved felt they had become part of a movement to close the gap.
HBO: Why did you decide to tell the story through children?
Marc Levin: We didn’t start out with the focus on young people. Their perspectives emerged as the most refreshing and surprising way into the story. We told Sheila Nevins and Nancy Abraham at HBO Documentary Films what we were discovering, and that is when Sheila said to make them the focus of the film. It was fascinating to get a glimpse into the thinking of the next generation, and how they are grappling with these major trends.
HBO: What surprised you most about the kids?
Marc Levin: I think what was most surprising — especially to the young people themselves on both sides of the street — is that they had far more in common than not.
HBO: What do you think will be their major struggle growing up? What does the film tells us about the future?
Marc Levin: If we keep on this track there will be no middle class in the future. The kids in this neighborhood, no matter which side of the street they’re on, see and feel the rapid change all around them. How or if they choose to keep pace will be their major challenge.
HBO: What is the tone of the film?
Marc Levin: The film reveals the anxiety about the future on both sides of the street. And the final quote is certainly a cautionary statement. But I would say that the film is ultimately optimistic about our capacity to shift course, and revelatory about how to do it.
“There is always reason to hope. These kids embody that hope. Along with climate change, economic justice and inequality will be their generation’s great challenge.”
courtesy of Blowback Productions:
Marc Levin is an award winning independent filmmaker who brings narrative and verite techniques together in his feature films, television series and documentaries. Among the many honors for his work, he has won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, the Camera D’Or at Cannes Film Festival, three National Emmys and four duPont-Columbia Awards.
His dramatic feature film, Slam, received international recognition for its seamless blending of the real world with a narrative flow. Hollywood Reporter wrote, “Brace yourself for a slam-dunk of a movie, in an in-your-face cinema verite-style that makes Godard’s Breathless seem like a cartoon.” Slam won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and the Camera D’Or at Cannes in 1998.
Levin’s “Brick City”, a groundbreaking docu-series about the city of Newark, followed Mayor Cory Booker and the people on the frontlines of a city struggling to change. Executive produced with long-time colleague Mark Benjamin and Academy Award-winner Forest Whitaker, the five-hour series aired its first season on the Sundance Channel in September 2009. It won the 2010 Peabody Award and was nominated for an Emmy for Exceptional Merit in Nonfiction Filmmaking, as well as a 2010 Golden Eagle Cine Award and an NAACP Image Award. The second season premiered on January 30, 2011. TV Guide wrote, “’Brick City’ plays like a verité version of ‘The Wire’, one of TV’s finest series ever. It is the ultimate reality show.”
“Street Time”, a television series produced by Columbia / Tristar for Showtime, received critical acclaim for its authenticity and verite style. Levin executive produced the series and directed ten episodes. The show stars Rob Morrow, Scott Cohen, Erica Alexander and Terrence Howard. The Los Angeles Times called it “some of the most seductive television ever: vivid, distinctive, explosive storytelling . . .”
Levin’s documentary feature, Godfathers and Sons, was part of the highly regarded Martin Scorsese PBS series, “The Blues”. Scorsese recruited an international team of directors with both feature and documentary experience: Charles Burnett, Clint Eastwood, Mike Figgis, Richard Pierce and Wim Wenders. Variety called Levin’s show “the crown jewel in the Scorsese series.”
In the late nineties, Levin created a hip-hop trilogy beginning with Slam, a searing prison drama, which starred Saul Williams, Sonja Sohn and Bonz Malone. Whiteboys, a black comedy about white kids who want to be black rappers, starred Danny Hoch, Dash Mihok, Mark Webber and Piper Perabo. Brooklyn Babylon, a fable inspired by the “Song of Songs,” starred Tariq Trotter and Bonz Malone, and featured music by the legendary Grammy winners The Roots.
In Twilight Los Angeles, an adaptation of Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman show, Levin fused a Broadway play with a documentary look at the LA riots. Twilight Los Angeles premiered at the Sundance 2000 Film Festival and was selected as the opening film of the International Human Rights Film Festival at Lincoln Center.
In 1992 Levin directed Oscar nominee Robert Downey, Jr. in The Last Party, a gonzo look at the Presidential campaign, weaving together the personal and the political fortunes of Downey and Bill Clinton.
Levin and his documentary film partner, Daphne Pinkerson, have a twenty-year working relationship with HBO. Their most recent film, Hard Times: Lost on Long Island, about white-collar professionals hit by the Great Recession, premiered on HBO in July 2012. It won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Film at the Hamptons International Film Festival and was nominated for a News and Documentary Emmy for Outstanding Business and Economic Reporting – Long Form. The Baltimore Sun wrote, “One of the most important hours of TV that the medium will offer this year.”
TRIANGLE: Remembering the Fire, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Triangle shirtwaist fire of 1911, won a dupont-Columbia Award in 2011. SCHMATTA: Rags to Riches to Rags, a feature documentary exploring the rise and fall of New York’s fabled Garment Center as a microcosm for the economic shocks that have changed our lives, aired in October 2009. Heir to an Execution, a documentary feature following Ivy Meeropol’s journey on the 50th anniversary of the execution of her grandparents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, was in competition at the Sundance film festival and aired on HBO in 2004. During the 1990’s, they produced a number of films for HBO’s “AMERICA UNDERCOVER” series, including Mob Stories, Prisoners of the War on Drugs, Execution Machine: Texas Death Row, Soldiers in the Army of God, and Gladiator Days. Thug Life in D.C. won the 1999 National Emmy for Outstanding Non-Fiction Special. Gang War: Bangin’ in Little Rock won theCableACE Award for Best Documentary Special of 1994. The sequel, Back in the Hood, premiered on HBO ten years later.
For HBO Sports, Levin produced and directed “Prayer for a Perfect Season”, on the top high school basketball team in the country. It premiered in the Fall of 2011.
In 1997, Levin was awarded the duPont-Columbia award for CIA: America’s Secret Warriors, a three-part series that aired on the Discovery Channel.
Levin has also produced and directed a number of television specials for one of America’s most respected journalists, Bill Moyers. In 1988 he won a national Emmy award as a producer/editor of Moyers’ Secret Government – The Constitution in Crisis. The Home Front with Bill Moyers, which he produced and directed, was honored with the duPont-Columbia Gold Baton Award.
He and his father, Al Levin, teamed up on Portrait of an American Zealot, which was made part of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent film collection.
Levin made his on-camera debut in Protocols of Zion, his street-level look at the rise of anti-Semitism since 9/11 and the renewed popularity of the anti-Semitic text, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was released theatrically in the fall of 2005 and on HBO the spring of 2006.
Mr. Untouchable, the story of the original Black Godfather, Harlem heroin kingpin, Nicky Barnes, was released in theatres in 2007. It tells the true-life story of a real American Gangster from the point of view of law enforcement, associates, and Nicky Barnes, appearing for the first time in over a quarter century.”It makes American Gangster look like a fairy tale,” declared E!.
Levin has also assumed the role of Executive Producer on a number of projects. In 2008 he was Executive Producer alongside Beyoncé Knowles on Cadillac Records, the Chess Records story starring Jeffrey Wright, Adrian Brody, and Beyoncé. In the same year he Exec Produced the indie feature documentary Captured, the story of artist activist Clayton Patterson, the man who video-taped the 1988 Tompkins Square Park riot and who has dedicated his life to documenting the final era of raw creativity and lawlessness in New York City’s Lower East Side, a neighborhood famed for art, music and revolutionary minds. Levin Exec Produced a follow-up feature in 2010, Dirty Old Town, directed by his son, Daniel B. Levin, and Jenner Furst.
Levin and Benjamin have partnered in Brick City TV to continue their docu-series work this year with three projects. BET’s Second Coming? Will Black America Decide 2012 was part of the Network’s election campaign coverage and won the 2013 Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Television Political Journalism.
“Jersey Strong”, a 10-part docu-soap set in Newark, New Jersey, premiered September 2013 on Participant Media’s new cable network, Pivot.
Most recently, they have partnered with Robert Redford to make CHICAGOLAND, an 8-hour docu-series for CNN, which is currently in production.
Levin also periodically directed episodes of the classic TV series, “Law and Order”.
photo by Buck Ennis
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