Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Q&A with Whose Barrio's Ed Morales


Ed Morales and Laura Rivera are both journalists who were inspired to do the “Whose Barrio?" documentary, which focuses on the gentrification or the selling of NYC’s Spanish Harlem, El Barrio.
East Harlem is one of the hardest hit Latino strongholds in the city impacted. Many Latinos have fallen victim to raising rents, new buildings not suitable for the working class, and small businesses forced to close or relocate. In this documentary, you will hear from activists, artists, elected officials, and groups who are combating this sensitive issue and get a picture of the rapidly changing barrio.
Q: Why East Harlem? What was it about the community that got you into doing the movie?
A: First of all, my parents came to New York from Puerto Rico and they met while living in East Harlem. I have had several relatives who have lived there, and I still have an aunt who lives there. In 2002, I wrote a story for the New York Times about gentrification of East Harlem because I’d heard from some friends who were living there and were upset about it. I also consulted with Arlene Dávila, who was in the process of writing a book about gentrification of East Harlem. The story interested me because I had lived through gentrification of the East Village (Loisaida) in the ‘80s and ‘90s and I was frankly surprised that the same thing could happen in El Barrio. In 2007, while a Revson Fellow at Columbia University, I took a course on making a documentary and I asked Laura Rivera, who was writing a Master’s thesis on gentrification in El Barrio to be a co-director and co-producer.
Q: This documentary is it mainly about gentrification or the daily lives of people dealing with this issue?
A: The story focuses on a few different situations. One is the contrast between Jose Rivera, a long-time resident of El Barrio who feels like gentrification will price him out, and James Garcia, who is relatively new to New York and moved to the neighborhood from Battery Park City because he felt like it offered “more space for less dollar.” The film also focuses on Movement for Justice in El Barrio, Hope Community, and the debate over the East 125th Street development project, which was approved in October 2008.
Q: I noticed in the earlier previews of the film hardly didn’t get a chance to interview some of the white tenants coming into the community/buying property. Did you want to interview them or did they refuse?
A: We interviewed one white tenant briefly on camera. We felt we wanted to avoid an emphasis on race, so we focused on James Garcia to represent the point of view of the “gentrifier.” In this way, we could show that gentrification is first and foremost a class issue, even though race is clearly involved.
Q: While doing the film, did you get a chance to interview business owners and tenants about what is going on?
A: We did interview several tenants but not as many business owners. We tried to focus on dramatic situations to make the film a little more exciting. Not everyone that we interviewed wound up getting into the movie.
Q: What was the whole budget for the film?
A: We did almost all the work on the film ourselves, except for some camerawork and some sound editing, for which we brought in some outside people. Taking into account our labor and the equipment we bought, as well as tape stock, I would estimate that the budget of the film was about $35,000.
Q: Were you able to several well-known people born/raised in the area?
A: People who appear in the film include Aurora Flores and Dylcia Pagán, who grew up in El Barrio, Mariposa and Vagabond, who are artists that have done a lot of work in the neighborhood over the years, and Melissa Mark-Viverito, the City Councilwoman who represents El Barrio. U.S. Representative José Serrano and Taller Boricua co-founder Fernando Salicrup make brief appearances. Several of James De La Vega’s murals appear.
Q: Some people who are moving in are calling the area SP-HA and many longtime residents are not happy about that. What’s do you think about this?
A: I agree that it’s an irritating name. I resented when real estate developers called Loisaida “Alphabet City” in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Names like that are created to erase the memory of communities that already existed and don’t fit into the cool, exclusive gentrified area developers want to create. It’s dismaying that so many elite types move into a neighborhood like El Barrio and say when they moved in there was “nothing” there, ignoring the thousands around them who have created a living, vibrant community that has survived years of marginalization and poverty.
"Whose Barrio?" made its World Premiere at the New York International Latino Film Festival earlier this summer. The documentary has also been screened at several colleges and other institutions.
"Whose Barrio?" is currently available for screening at universities, community organizations, and cultural institutions. The co-directors are also available for speaking engagements related to the film or on other subjects for a fee.
For more information on institutional copies for sale to any universities and other institutions, e-mail whosebarrio (at) edmorales.net to inquire.
“Whose Barrio” is planned for a screening at the East Harlem Café this September, but the date hasn't been confirmed. The documentary is also entered at various film festivals around the country.
To view the trailer for "Whose Barrio?," go to:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-N9IhwXsvDI
-- Ismael Nunez

Ismael Nunez is a contributing writer to Puerto Rico Sun.


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