Right to the City #3: Screenings tonight!

Still from Lewis Jacobs and Leo Seltzer’s For the Living (1949).

Last week we had a great time at the second installment of Red Channels’ excellent Right to the City film series. Tonight is the third and final screening. Don’t miss it.

To refresh your memories, the first screening showcased some beautiful and rarely seen city symphonies from the dawn of urban cinema, including turn-of-the-(20th)-century actualities from Edison Labs and one of the best films ever made about any city: Jay Leyda’s 1931 masterpiece A Bronx Morning. The beauty of Leyda’s film belies its politics: it was one of the only city symphonies that captured the attention of Sergei Eisenstein, the revolutionary Soviet Russian filmmaker whose films and writings on montage have influenced every film made since the 1920s. And befitting the Brecht Forum’s proud tradition of programming around issues of social justice and the legacy of Marxist thought, each film in the series, in its own way, interrogates the city’s shifting cultures of class stratification and public investment in social goods.

The second screening played to a packed house. The films were arranged around the theme of transit, but the emphasis was definitely on New York’s subway system. After the screenings, the audience all joined in a spirited conversation that touched on such historical notes as the destruction of the Third Avenue El and such political debates as the MTA’s capital spending priorities (one vociferous commentator found a way to link fare hikes to the Iraq War. Yowza).

The third program (tonight!) is about the promise of public housing, the use of public parks, and the function of public plazas. According to Red Channels:

The three films span four decades, and present realities of public vs. private property, and individuals vs. institutionalized structures, almost inconceivable to us in 2009. Just as inconceivable, perhaps, as the explosive development and gentrification we saw in the last 15 years being now replaced by a collapsed real estate industry; empty luxury office and apartment buildings; and deserted construction sites. A city unfinished, indeed.

The first film, For the Living, makes a passionate case for urban renewal and affordable housing and offers contemporary viewers a fine example of municipally-produced propaganda in support of a particular urban reform agenda (Check out a sneak preview here). As such, it references the techniques of the epic, scripted documentaries of the New Deal- such as The Plow that Broke the Plains or The River – that argue for regional planning. The final film, William H. Whyte’s the Social Life of Small Public Spaces, also makes a passionate case for a sea-change in urban design priorities. It does so, convincingly, by relying on the visual evidence time-lapse photography can provide as to how we use and inhabit public space.

Whyte may be a slightly less famous urbanist than Jane Jacobs, but his influence is no less enduring: not only was he the editor of Fortune magazine that first commissioned Jacobs’ 1957 article “Downtown is for People” that eventually grew into The Death and Life of Great American Cities; but he is also cited as a mentor to Project for Public Spaces founder Fred Kent and current City Planning Director and City Planning Commission Chair Amanda Burden.

See you tonight at the Brecht Forum. Discussion participants will include JH Crawford, author of Carfree Cities (International, 2000), and Carfree Design Manual (International, 2009); Garrett Ramirez from Two Coves Community Garden; Ben Totushek of the Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification; and Teri Tynes of Walking Off the Big Apple.

Brecht Forum
451 West Street, New York, NY 10014
$6/$10/$15 sliding scale suggested donation

For the Living – Lewis Jacobs & Leo Seltzer, 1949, 21 minutes
Sunday – Dan Drasin, 1961, 17 minutes
The Social Life of Small Public Spaces – William H. Whyte, 1988, 58 minutes
TOTAL RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes | Digital Projection

Cassim Shepard served as the founding editor of Urban Omnibus from its inception to 2014.