The High Line is a beautiful, bustling elevated park built on a former railway. Planted with native grasses, flowers, and trees, it slices through the most valuable real estate in Chelsea, a neighborhood on Manhattan’s west side. Over 20 million people have visited the park since it opened in 2009, making it one of the most popular tourist destinations–and economic catalysts–in the city. Elsewhere in the country, municipalities are eager to build their own “X” lines. It’s tough to imagine that 20 years ago, developers wanted to demolish the railway. Now they’re clamoring to build luxury condos, restaurants, boutiques, and galleries on the lots adjacent to it.
Director Marc Levin recalls a grittier era. He moved to Chelsea four decades ago and has witnessed first-hand the gradual, then gratuitous, pace of gentrification in the neighborhood. Income inequality in Chelsea is now extreme. His documentary, Class Divide–airing on HBO–pits the story of kids and families living in the Chelsea-Elliot Houses, a public housing development where median household income is less than $30,000 per year, against the experience of students in a private school across the street where annual tuition is over $40,000 per year. We spoke to the director about this microcosm in the city, the doubled-edged sword of the High Line effect, and what the park can teach us about the right and wrong ways to approach urban revitalization.
Co.Design: You’ve lived in Chelsea for many years and have witnessed the neighborhood’s evolution firsthand. How did your personal experience influence they way you shot the film?
Marc Levin: I’ve lived in this neighborhood–and hate to admit how long–for 40 years. I’ve seen a lot of changes and joked a lot of times that when my wife’s mother came to visit us the first time, she cried because she couldn’t believe that her daughter ended up in a garment factory on 26th Street. Our kids went to Hudson Guild [a school and community center featured in the documentary]. Seventeen years ago, I got a space in 601 26th street, in the Starett Lehigh Building, and I’ve made that walk on 26th Street from 6th Avenue to the Hudson River for years. I never expected the High Line to catalyze what it did. My memories are of dodging the pigeon droppings under it. Another time, my son was arrested up there for doing graffiti.
The biggest changes started in 2004 with the zoning changes under Mayor Bloomberg. Things went into hyper speed. I would leave to film for a few weeks and something would be new when I returned. I look out my window right now and I’m literally seeing Hudson Yards go up as we speak. I thought a long time about how I might kind of tell this story.
The film focuses on the extreme income disparity at the intersection of 26th Street and 10th Avenue. On the east side are the Chelsea-Elliot Houses, a public housing development operated by the NYC Housing Authority, and on the west side is Avenues, an elite private school. How did you decided to tell the story of gentrification in that specific location?
Originally I thought about the walk on 26th Street I take daily. There are talk-show studios on 26th between 7th and 8th avenues, which speak to this history of the street during the 1910s when it was a film studio. Between 8th and 9th Avenues tells the history of Chelsea as a garment center. Then on the next block, 10th Avenue, you hit elite Chelsea.
The film’s producer sat on the High Line on the spur at 26th street and 10th Avenue where there’s bleacher seating in front of an illuminated frame. Everyone stands in front of it and takes pictures. When we were there, we heard so many different languages and saw so many different tourists snapping photos. We thought, “These pictures are going all over the world and people are coming here from all over. Do they know what’s in the frame behind them?” You see Avenues and you see the projects. Maybe the story’s right here.
The children in the neighborhood are confronted with the effects of income inequality day in and day out. Why focus on their experience? What was the most surprising part of your interviews?
One of the common-ground areas between two sides is an anxiety over where they fit into this world they see changing so rapidly. I was struck by that. I see the challenge for low-income kids about anxiety around money. They sense the abandonment of a social safety net. The idea of public housing seems archaic. Do they get a fair shot? There’s insecurity and anxiety there.
With the privileged kids, I was surprised there in that they realized that they’re not just competing with other students from Fieldstone and Spence [two elite private schools in New York]; they’re competing against Russia and China and there’s this pressure and this rapid change and globalization happening. There isn’t a guarantee that they’ll be as successful as their parents. Aside from the contrast–which is so stack–I think there is a genuine desire to bridge that gap. There is a real sense that there’s an opportunity there and it’s part of growing up in New York City. Then you have the stereotypes on both sides. Street kids who don’t fit into the world of Avenues; kids from Avenues worrying about being harassed. But there is this sense of “where can we meet and where can we get to know each other?”
Rosa [a 10-year-old who lives in the Elliot-Chelsea Houses] wants to move on and have opportunities to break out of the stereotypes. And the Avenues kids don’t want to live in a gilded cage. There’s such a class divide in Brazil that the wealthy have to live in fortresses and that’s not what the kids want. Income equality is about a fairer shake. It’s not just giving to those who have less; it gives something to everyone.
Is there anything that can be done to help the income inequality problem in the neighborhood?
On the micro level, if you’re part of Community Board 4 or part of the city, there are definitely things that can be done. The revised zoning laws changed what’s happening in Chelsea, and that’s local. Then there are global forces, like the money coming on from the global elite. In the past 20 years, the global elite has made global cities. You also see this in London and Hong Kong where the cities are becoming investment opportunities. It’s not about living there—it’s about owning real estate and protecting your wealth. That’s more difficult to control from the local level.
Over in Hudson Yards, you can build higher than ever before, and if you do, you’ll have to give 20% to 30% of residential units at market or below market rate. And there are debates on what’s low income and what’s middle income and is there a “poor door.” I think there are definitely things that can be done and should be done on the local level, especially if you want to have a city that contains a mix of incomes, classes, and races.
What’s the magic of New York? It’s in the mix. The energy in parks and subways and on the street. We lose that if it becomes a sanitized, homogenized gated community. That would be a tragedy. This is the challenge for these kids.
Every generation’s got its struggle. I came of age in the 1960s and it was civil rights, the beginning of environmental movement, the sexual revolution, and the LGBT movement. It was a cultural revolution. Now it’s about environmental justice and economic justice.
Global capitalism has been an engine of wealth and innovation, but it gets dangerous when the gap between haves and have-nots is so great that it destabilizes culture and destroys the environment. This is a huge challenge and is for every part of society, from the block on 26th and 10th right up to the global level. It’s not the kind of thing that’s solved in one election cycle. This is the next 30, 40 years.
Do you see Class Divide as a cautionary tale about urban revitalization projects?
I see it as a story about progress and change. I wouldn’t say it’s a cautionary tale, but it’s doubled edged. The High Line is great, but it’s certainly true that the blowback was not anticipated. There are definite lessons to be learned.
Washington, D.C., is trying to do a similar park across the Anacostia River and is consulting with Friends of the High Line [the grassroots group that came up with the idea to turn the High Line into a park], among other groups. One of the major lessons is getting buy in from the start from the community—getting the community involved right at the beginning so they feel it’s theirs, they feel ownership, and they feel they have every opportunity to participate. The other is to give back. How do you take the success of the High Line and make sure the benefits flow to people who live and work around there? That can be programs for kids, jobs, and education.
What do you hope people take away from the film?
There is a hugely complex problem of how you manage change in the most productive, creative, and compassionate way. No one has a simple answer. If you just look at this neighborhood, we saw the good, bad, and ugly. My friends and I were the urban pioneers—there was no heat on the weekends in the factories where we lived. In the ’80s and ’90s, I had a family and the neighborhood was changing them, too. I was part of the creative class, the “gentrifiers.” As I sit here, I don’t know if I’ll be able to afford my studio once my long-term lease is up.
My point is that all of those things are part of my experience, and it’s part of the cycle of a neighborhood’s life. It’s complicated. I wanted to send my kids to P.S. 33, a public school, but my wife refused. She probably made the right decision—it was an “F” school in the 1980s. Now it’s a gifted school. Now public safety has changed. It’s nothing like the crack era. We had to escort interns from our building when they left because it wasn’t safe. The trade-off is displacement–the people you knew and delis you used to hang out in aren’t there anymore.
We went into the project with the sense that we lived this cycle. We’re not here to make fun of you, caricature you–we want to document this sweet spot where there is a balance of people in the neighborhood, but to take the snapshot of how it looks through the eyes of kids who are living it now.
The neighborhood is a character. That’s what I ruminate on when I walk home each night now.
[All Photos (unless otherwise noted): HB]