When Marc Levin first moved into the Chelsea District in New York during the 1970s, he considered himself “an urban pioneer.”
“There was a garment factory above me and below me and no heat on the weekends,” laughs Levin, who has based his Blowback Productions out of the Starrett-Lehigh Building on West 26th Street for nearly the past two decades. “I lived with a bunch of buddies. It was like an international crash pad, but when my wife moved in and started domesticating me and when her mother first came to visit us, she started crying. She couldn’t believe her daughter ended up in a garment factory on 26th Street!”
Surely, Levin’s mother-in-law would feel differently now with the eye-popping real estate prices in the neighborhood, fueled by the wild success of the High Line, the abandoned elevated railway that was repurposed by canny city planners to become one of the best ways to look out over the Big Apple between Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District to 34th Street. But the filmmaker is wondering whether he’ll still be able to work in Chelsea after his lease ends in a few years, with the redevelopment of the nearby Hudson Yards bringing in even more wealthy residents, and this personal concern is far secondary to what’s happening to the community in general, as he eloquently relays in his latest film, “Class Divide.”
Told over the course of a school year, Levin looks at opposite sides of his own street – 26th – where Avenues, a private prepatory steeped in the most contemporary educational methodology, ridding classrooms of desks in favor of circular communal tables and giving kindergartners an option between Spanish and Chinese to speak besides English, sits just across from the Elliott-Chelsea Projects, a place where any education is considered a luxury. Still, in favoring the kids’ perspective over their parents, Levin finds new insights into the ongoing debates over gentrification, globalization and economic inequality. Speaking to the likes of Rosa DeSantiago, a nine-year-old spark plug from the projects, and Yasmin Rodriguez, a contemplative teen from Avenues, among others, there’s a consciousness of class and privilege that suggests completely new attitudes towards social responsibility than just a generation ago.
Though it illustrates the stark differences between those just moving into Chelsea and those whose families have lived there for years, with the ground rapidly shifting beneath all of their feet, “Class Divide” is eye-opening in both the hopes and fears of the unknown that everyone in the community shares. With the film premiering on HBO this evening after premiering last fall at DOC NYC, Levin reflected on how his longtime partnership with HBO Documentary Films President Sheila Nevins help shape “Class Divide” after two previous films on New York’s ever-changing culture, being energized by the perspectives of the next generation, and seeing a different world now in the place he calls home.
How did you get interested in this subject?
I’ve lived in this neighborhood for almost 40 years and worked in the office I’m sitting in right now for 17, which is down the street from the corner that we shot the film on, so I’ve seen it all. Certainly, just walking down 26th Street toward the Hudson River for the past 15 years, I’ve marveled at how the landscape is changing like a high-speed film and I’ve been thinking of how could I tell this story of what’s happening to my neighborhood. I’ve had this great relationship with HBO over the last 20 years and we’ve done these two other films recently [where] this became the end of this [unofficial] trilogy of films about how the world global economy is changing and actually impacting real people’s lives. It started with “Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags” on the rise and fall of the garment district, which I’m right on the periphery of. Then we did “Hard Times: Lost on Long Island,” a followup on the fallout of the great recession, especially amongst middle-class professionals who were devastated and never [quite] regained their footing.
So we were looking for the third part of this trilogy, and I actually went out to San Francisco where the tech industry is expanding into the Bay Area and gentrification is a big issue, and to Florida where the housing crash was devastating. But [my producer] Daphne Pinkerson and I were actually sitting on the spur of the High Line on 26th Street where there’s this frame, which you see in the movie, just marveling at all the tourists coming in, standing in the frame and taking photos. [They were] speaking in Japanese and Portuguese and Spanish and French – every language — and [we thought], my God, these photographs are going all over the world and do they have any idea of what’s in the frame? On that right-hand side is Avenues, this new elite private prep school and right across the street is the Elliott-Chelsea Projects. We just looked at each other and it was like maybe this is it, right in our own neighborhood, with the unintended consequence of resurrecting this dilapdated old railroad turned into a catalyst for a real estate gold rush with the High Line as the spine.
We shot some of the kids that we knew and showed it to Sheila Nevins, the head of HBO Documentaries. To her credit, Sheila said, “You know something? You don’t need any sociologists, urbanologists or city planners, politicians, political scientists — just do it through the eyes of these kids, and make this corner a microcosm for what’s happening in this neighborhood, and really all over this country and the world.” Because this is a global phenomenon — this displacement of people who have lived in these cities for years by a global elite who now see these cities as a safety deposit box for their wealth. So that’s how it started.
It’s immediately striking to see the consciousness of class from everyone you talk to, no matter what their age or social standing is. Did that actually take you aback as well?
It did and the self-awareness and sophistication of these kids is stunning. Obviously being a city kid, you’re exposed to so much, but just when I think of myself as a 10- or 15-year-old kid at school, their self-awareness of what’s happening around them is quite remarkable. Part of the reason we did it is because they’re witnessing [what I did on] my walk to work. They’re seeing the landscape change literally in high-speed. Some have called it hyper-gentrification, and when you’re coming to school and you see these architects building these incredible buildings where people are paying $70, $80 million for a penthouse, you can’t help but start to become aware that something’s going on. Each generation has a struggle and I think [this generation] realizes that climate change and the sustainability of the planet [is one], but connected to that is how can this global consumer capitalist economy work better? Because either it’ll destroy the planet, democratic society or both. And I think these kids intuit that.
The biggest surprise for me was that the common ground between the kids on two different sides of the streets, coming from such different worlds. They share this anxiety over where they’re going to fit in in the future — even the wealthy kids sensed that they’re not just competing against [private schools such as] Fieldston, Riverdale and Spence, but the Chinese, the Koreans, the Russians, and the Indians. It’s a global game now and they are well aware that in order to do as well as their parents in life, there’s tremendous pressure. Then the kids from the projects are [obviously] lower-income, but they have a sense of [how] public housing is almost an alien concept in our political dialogue now and our commitment as a society to a social safety net that can give low-income families more of an even playing field. They realize that commitment is frayed and fading, so what’s going to happen to their families? So you have this anxiety that was surprising and yet this sense that this is the challenge that they have to meet.
They want to break out of the stereotypes, and reach out and cross the gap – talk to each other and start to learn about each other. Yasmin is really representative of it [in the film], and obviously, that’s just a first step, but we live in such a hyper-partisan world where everybody is in their own worlds and it’s hard to break on through. These kids did reach out to each other and the institutions followed, which was interesting. I was born in New York and what makes this the world’s city is that there’s every different type of person [here] and that mix is just what stokes the creativity and really the magic of what New York is about. That incredible mix of humanity that really you see walking around the city and on the streets of this city is really its soul and if you lose that, if it just becomes a sterile gated community for the super wealthy and I think kids on both sides of the street don’t want that world. What’s great, and to Sheila [Nevins]’ credit and intuition, is they come to it with new eyes. They don’t carry the weight of all the arguments of the past and it allows us [in the film to] catalyze conversations that can maybe be more open and not as locked in to the classic left-right [predilections].
Rosa, a nine-year-old from the Elliott-Chelsea Projects, is extraordinarily perceptive. How did you find her?
Daphne really did. She was hanging out with some of the young men you saw in there and asked if there are any younger kids – 8, 9, 10 – and they said, “Yeah, we’ve got a superstar for you.” And she laughed and said, “Great. Have her come over and meet Marc and we’ll shoot a little casting reel.” That casting reel turned out to be one of the primary interviews [in the film]. The first time I met Rosa was in that conversation you saw where she said, “Well, who’s your favorite singer?” And I said “Billie Holliday.” And she said, “Who’s he?” I was immediately blown away and met with her mom, her brothers and her father and got to know them.
Again, part of the story here is I lived in this neighborhood and Daphne also lives in London Terrace, so we were able to present ourselves to people on both sides of the street as neighbors and as people who have seen this from all perspectives. It was a door opener to being able to represent to all of families, especially to Avenues and to the administration there and some of the families, that we’ve seen it through multiple perspectives and different frames and we’re not here just to say you’re bad or you’re good. We know it’s complicated. There are trade-offs and contradictions and we’ve been in those places.
There’s a suicide towards the end of the school year at Avenues that likely altered how you approached this film going into the editing room. Did it dramatically change things?
It was obviously such a shock and we were as shocked as the kids in the film. He was such a good guy, and when we met [him], I remember Daphne and I went out to lunch afterwards and we were just amazed at how perceptive he was and how he was saying for the first time, it was all coming to him – it just stayed with us. It was like my God, all these things we had been talking about and thinking about theoretically, he seems to be so aware of it. Obviously, when this happened, there was quite a debate and discussion about whether this should be included in the film.
I felt strongly that it had to be in the film because this was real and this experience is going to stay with these kids for their life. This was sadly one of the most basic learning experiences of coming of age. I can say that from my own experience of having lost somebody that was a close buddy of mine allegedly to suicide and I say “allegedly” because here I am all these years later haunted by [whether] it was really suicide or did something else happen? So I just felt there was no way we could leave this out or have a card at the end that says this tragedy happened. We had to find a way to integrate it. That presented a challenge because I understood the concerns that you don’t want it to be exploitative and from the filmmaking perspective, it was tricky to have something so shocking that doesn’t blow the whole film up.
Emma Miyazaki, the editor, did a tremendous job, but we had to experiment with a number of ways of how can this be real and just not totally sabotage everything else that’s happening. I was relieved finally when we premiered the film that [the person’s] mother came – we offered her a private screening, but she insisted she wanted to see it with an audience. She came with a support group and there was a reception afterwards and she came up to me and just took my hand and said, “Thank you for immortalizing my son.” So I’m glad that it is part of the film. It is painful, but just as the kids on the other side of the street lost a buddy that was shot in a gang incident, this is what the kids at Avenues that were friends of [this kid’s], it’s just going to be part of their coming-of-age experience.
You handled it so sensitively. A year removed from making this, have you felt the film has helped facilitate a conversation between the kids from both sides of the street?
There were seeds [before and during the production] and students like Yasmin, who’s at Vassar now, and Isabella, who’s the editor of the school paper, the High Liner, have been more empowered. I went to the fundraiser for Hudson Guild, which they have every year, and for the first time, I saw Avenues families at two of the tables helping out, so I think there is a much more robust integration effort now from the Avenues perspective to be part of what’s happening in the neighborhood. That was part of what they had promised and it was something that was on their to-do list, but I think this may have accelerated that a little. [laughs]
Chelsea has always been a mixed area of ethnicities, class, sexualities… it’s now the center of the art world, which has migrated from Soho to 24th Street, and I feel like we captured a sweet spot in the Chelsea moment. It’s galloping forward. Hudson Yards is right out my window — I go away for three weeks and there’s a new building popping up. This isn’t just something that a local community board can control or even our country. These forces are global – this moving of money and wealth and what people feel is a safe investment. You know [Michael Apted’s] series “Seven Up”? It would be [interesting to] come back here in 10 years, look at the neighborhood, not just where the different kids are at — where Rosa’s at when she’s 19 or 20 — but would the [Elliott-Chelsea] Projects even be standing there? Or what would be standing? Would Avenues even be a school or would they have campuses all over the globe? Is Hudson Yards the new Rockefeller Center — the new center of New York? I don’t know. But those are the questions that percolate still as I walk to and from work up and down 26th Street.