Saturday, September 25, 2010

Documentary Filmmakers Put 'The Vanishing City' and New York's Urban Renewal in Spotlight by Joe Neumaier - NY Daily News


Global trends in major cities around the world have changed rapidly in the last several decades. As cities become more interconnected, and less dependent on localized economic models, domestic issues of increased class inequality and sustainability have emerged as central components to city planning debates. These trends are perhaps best exemplified in the city of New York.
Told through the eyes of tenants, city planners, business owners, scholars, and politicians, The Vanishing City exposes the real politic behind the alarming disappearance of New York’s beloved neighborhoods, the truth about its finance-dominated economy, and the myth of “inevitable change.” Artfully documented through interviews, hearings, demonstrations, and archival footage, the film takes a sober look at the city’s “luxury” policies and high-end development, the power role of the elite, and accusations of corruption surrounding land use and rezoning. The film also links New York trends to other global cities where multinational corporations continue to victimize the middle and working classes. 

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Signs of urban renewal are everywhere in New York. Yet in "The Vanishing City," a gripping new documentary, filmmakers Fiore DeRosa and Jen Senko reveal ominous trends that could forever change the city's neighborhoods and communities, and not for the better.

The film, which screened earlier this week at the Harlem International Film Festival, will be shown Saturday, Sept. 25, at 10 p.m. in Brooklyn at The Knitting Factory (361 Metropolitan Ave.) as part of the Williamsburg Film Festival, which ends Sunday Sept. 26.
"At first, we wanted to document the changes in the city, coming at it really from a nostalgic point of view," says Senko. "But the more questions we asked, the film became more of a journalistic expose, a detective story.
"Essentially, we found that the city was using taxpayers' money to more and more finance luxury housing, pushing out people and businesses that had been there for generations. These developers got huge subsidies and tax breaks, while taxes on small landlords and co-ops were going up nearly 40 percent.

Jen Senko and Fiore Derosa, directors of the new documentary called Vanishing City, pose outside of Katz's Deli on Houston Street. Rosier/News

"The result is changing the whole culture of Manhattan, and the film took on that focus."
"In short, New York is losing communities, a vital part of what makes it special," add DeRosa. "People and families who've lived here for 20 or 30 years -- and small mom-and pop-stores that had existed for decades -- face steep hikes in rent. The small businesses can't afford to stay here, and middle-class people are getting priced out."
The directors have experienced several sides of New York since each moved here separately from New Jersey in the late 1970s and early '80s. DeRosa has supported himself as a construction worker while pursuing acting and directing in off-Broadway theater; Senko has worked as a presentation artist with financial companies. "The Vanishing City," exec-produced by Oscar-winner Ericka Hampson and narrated by actress Kathryn Erbe ("Law & Order; Criminal Intent"), reflects a love of the entire city and their mutual concern about local government's unspoken policy of what the film terms "luxurification."
"If you have these types of high-rent-only structures and pricey commercial locations that only flagship stores can occupy, you don't get to know your neighbors, and you don't have small businesses that have a stake in your community," says DeRosa. "We're not against development – a healthy city evolves, of course. What we're against is using taxpayer dollars to only subsidize luxury housing, and the rezoning of neighborhoods."
The prospect of rezoning, the pair say, afflicts every neighborhood, in every borough.
"The Lower East Side and Williamsburg are really under threat from rezoning," says Senko. "And developers are really trying to focus on Chinatown -- people often talk about the ‘malling' of the city, and if it continues to happen there, it could be revamped and there may be a handful of small shops, but it won't be Chinatown."
There is, however, one upside to the changes shown in "The Vanishing City": The potential for communities and neighborhoods to unite in ways they haven't done in decades.
"In the movie, you see communities getting together, calling on the Bloomberg administration to rezone things so they won't get pushed out. That's an ongoing phenomenon," says Senko. "People are coming together to bring changes to their neighborhoods, and fighting for things like height caps on new buildings on the Lower East Side and in the East Village. Certain buildings are even being landmarked before developers can get hip to the real estate."
"The Harlem Tenants Association has fought back and got some concessions," adds DeRosa. "Greenwich Village has fought back successfully, and the West Village, too. They have no protections there, and they're trying to get landmark status for certain areas. The area around the Bowery has been really fighting hard as well."
"A lot of damage has been done, but we can regroup, and stop it from getting worse," says Senko. "And maybe we can turn it around. I love this city. I'm not going to give up on New York."