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Notable Filmmaker Turns His Lens on Life in Jackson Heights

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Frederick Wiseman's 40th documentary film, a portrait of Jackson Heights, Queens, is screening at the Film Forum this week. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.

Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, examining a new film about Jackson Heights.

Jackson Heights, Queens, is one of the most diverse communities in the world, with 167 languages spoken and immigrants from nearly every Asian and American nation. Frederick Wiseman, at 85 years old, is one of the most accomplished filmmakers alive, with 40 masterful documentaries created over the past 50 years. In Jackson Heights, which opens this week at the Film Forum, is the result of these two unique forces meeting, and is an exhilarating portrait of the future of America, created by an artist at the peak of his talents. "I was interested in doing a movie about the new immigrants to America, and Jackson Heights is an intense example of that kind of community," said Wiseman, during a recent conversation at the Film Forum. "What's going on in Jackson Heights is going on, in some form or another, in all the major American cities. And it's going on in all the cities in the West."

To create this neighborhood portrait, Wiseman filmed non-stop for nine weeks, 12 hours a day, and he shapes his observational film around visits to the small businesses and community organizations that make up the fabric of Jackson Heights. His camera roams freely into local synagogues, temples, and churches, and through halal butcher shops, belly dancing classes, late night tattoo parlors, and gay Latino go-go bars, as a contemporary soundscape of Mexican folk ballads, 2 Chainz club bangers, and screeching trains echoes through the crowded streets. The major themes of In Jackson Heights are the struggles of new immigrants in America, social acceptance of gay and transgendered individuals, the plight of small businesses facing off against powerful corporations, and the looming threat of gentrification. The film could not be more timely or relevant, both for New Yorkers living in a city increasingly divided along class lines and for the American electorate.

At this point in his career, it's clear that Frederick Wiseman is America's greatest documentary filmmaker. His growing collection of nonfiction films, made over the course of six decades, have captured the full spectrum of modern life in the United States. Perhaps his only peer in the non-fiction world is John McPhee, the prolific 84-year-old author and New Yorker contributor who has written almost 30 books about the American experience. Midway through his eighth decade, Wiseman is not showing any signs of slowing down, although he does pause to contemplate what will happen to his work when he is gone. The filmmaker is currently in talks with the Library of Congress, who he hopes will agree to archive his film collection, including eight million feet of additional film outtakes. "You know, there may be greater interest in my movies 40 or 50 years from now, because people will be curious about the past," said Wiseman. "If mine and other people's documentaries endure a hundred years from now, it will give people an idea of the way we lived."

With his latest film, Wiseman has also emerged as one of New York's greatest documentarians, tracing the evolution of the city from the 1960s to the present day. A recent series at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, titled "Frederick Wiseman's New York," presented a rare opportunity to view many of those films together, but the filmmaker confesses he did not initially make a conscious decision to focus on the city. "I didn't deliberately set out to do a New York series, I sort of drifted into it," said Wiseman. "Then I woke up one day and I had made eight or nine movies in New York." Reflecting back on this body of work today, Wiseman sees a dramatic transformation in the urban landscape. "There have been fantastic changes," said the filmmaker, who now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "I walk down the West Side Highway and I see all these new skyscrapers and glass buildings….Harlem has certainly changed a lot, West Harlem. Just driving around in a taxi, you see enormous changes."

A still from Wiseman's 1969 film Hospital.

Frederick Wiseman first began to explore New York City in 1961, while living for two years in a small apartment on the Upper West Side. In 1969, he completed his first New York film, Hospital, an intense portrait of East Harlem during the Lindsay Administration, which follows a team of doctors, nurses, and psychiatrists at the Metropolitan Hospital Center as they respond to an influx of patients from a community being ripped apart by violence, drugs, and poverty. "Last week, they shot an old man in the same hallway," an elderly African American patient tells a young doctor in the film. "They thought they was getting me. Now where will I go? This is a tough country, boy." In 1975, Wiseman followed up with Welfare, a bleak journey through the mind-warping red-tape of a welfare office on 14th Street, which tracks a dizzyingly diverse mix of ethnicities and ages through an overburdened social services system. Both works are distinguished by starkly beautiful black and white cinematography, and by their compassion for the plight of ordinary New York citizens facing implacable institutions and social inequality.

By the end of the 1980s, Wiseman's New York films would begin to investigate a changing city, as communities began to recover from the devastation of those earlier eras. His 1989 portrait of Central Park chronicles the tensions between classes as neighborhood residents struggle to reclaim their public spaces for recreation, rallies, and weddings during the height of Manhattan's homelessness epidemic. This lively film features appearances by many of the local luminaries who fought to bring New York back to life, including Mayor Ed Koch, Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, and Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, the founding president of Central Park Conservancy. "You would not have liked to have come here five years ago. It was a little bit sinister feeling," says Rogers in the film, addressing a picnic lunch of wealthy donors at the park's Great Hill. "Now, it's safe, it's comfortable, and it's a wonderful place to come."

A still from Wiseman's 1989 film Central Park.

In Jackson Heights chronicles a much more stable era in New York's history, though the familiar problems of poverty and social injustice are still present. When considered in the larger context of Frederick Wiseman's entire oeuvre, the film also mines some of the same subjects he has been exploring for the past 50 years, including community organizing, local governance, police conflicts, gay rights celebrations, ritual animal slaughter, and erotic dance. "There are a lot of references to the other films in Jackson Heights," said Wiseman, who does the sound and editing for all of his films, but he admits that he rarely goes back to review his earlier works. "I never look at them. I mean, what's the point? I remember them, so there is no need to look at them….I can recite the dialogue from most of the films by heart." The filmmaker is currently in production on his 41st documentary, which will also be shot in New York, adding to his series about the city.

On a recent walk through Jackson Heights, during the neighborhood's spirited Halloween and Día de los Muertos festivities, many of the film's subjects, locations and themes were visible, making the tight-knit community feel even more like a small town. City Council Member Daniel Dromm, a community leader featured in the film, was out on the street, giving away candy at the annual children's parade, surrounded by thousands of his neighbors. "I've been here in the neighborhood for over 20 years," said Dromm, who saw a sneak preview of the film at a special community event funded by the Ford Foundation. "I thought it was a great slice of the diversity of Jackson Heights." The councilman plans to go to several of the screenings at the Film Forum this week, and to buy DVDs of the film to give to friends, neighbors, and constituents. "Every time I watch that film, I see something different. It's a great film. I really love it."

At the recent Jackson Heights Children's Halloween Parade, Council Member Daniel Dromm and other politicians were on hand to give out candy. "It really shows what we do from a different angle," said Dromm of Wiseman's film. "People don't know the nitty gritty of what happens at our office."

"That's what I love about this neighborhood—it's so open and accepting," said Dromm, who was filmed by Wiseman during a different parade organized by Queens Pride, a Jackson Heights event Dromm started over 20 years ago. "Where else can I walk down the street in a pink feather boa and get away with it?"

The halloween parade, which has taken place for the past 25 years, is organized by the Jackson Heights Beautification Group, founded in 1988, one of the many community organizations that lend the neighborhood a small-town feel. Several other local groups marched in the parade.

After the parade, children flooded the sidewalks, visiting the hundreds of small businesses that line neighborhood'avenues. "We had over 2,000 kids so far," said one shopkeeper, an immigrant from China. "It's like the United Nations. So many different people."

Trick-or-treaters visited bodegas, bars, nail salons, restaurants. Nearly every business had candy on hand. "That's what makes this neighborhood what it is—those small businesses, the mom and pop shops, the diversity," said Dromm.

The colorful array of businesses is also one of the things that drew Frederick Wiseman to Jackson Heights. "Visually, it's quite interesting, because you walk down Roosevelt Avenue and you see all these colors, and on the side streets. Reds and yellows and greens," he said.

"There is a great street life there," said Wiseman. "It's much more colorful then the usual sedate middle class neighborhoods."

"I had read a lot and seen a lot of photographs about what the Lower East Side looked like at the turn of the century," said Wiseman, who grew up experiencing anti-Semitism in Boston as the child of a Russian immigrant, "and so I was curious to have a look at what was going on among new immigrants."

"I didn't know before I started filming that Jackson Heights had one of the big gay, lesbian, and transgender communities," he said. He visited many of the local bars, clubs, and neighborhood groups serving this part of the community during his shoot.

Despite its vibrant street life, empty storefronts can be seen throughout the neighborhood, as larger chains move in and rents increase, a subject explored in the film. "Manhattan is already packed," says one business owner in the film. "Wealthy people are coming to Jackson Heights, a place they wouldn't have looked at before."

As the film makes clear, gentrification is threatening Jackson Heights' diversity and small businesses, fueled by the neighborhood's quick subway commute to Manhattan. "They want to take our area, our community," another business owner says in the film, during an organizing event. "They'll destroy it. That's what they want to do."

Off of the major shopping avenues, a variety of different housing types exist, something not extensively explored by Wiseman. "It didn't go into the architectural history or the history of the neighborhood," said Richard Vagge, a resident of the neighborhood who was at the film's sneak preview. "He focused more on the diversity."

"There are problems in the neighborhood, like any neighborhood going through gentrification. There are displacement issues," said Vagge, who has lived in Jackson Heights for 35 years. "It was more blue collar, but now you are seeing more yuppies."

Another hidden aspect of what makes Jackson Heights a unique neighborhood is its system of communal gardens, shared by those living in certain older apartment blocks. Hidden inside these blocks are green oases, which feel far away from the bustling shopping areas. Several were included in the documentary.

"Every year, we have a garden party," said Ramona Parnell, the former co-op president of Dunolly Gardens, where six apartment buildings and 360 apartments take up an entire city block, with a large green space at the core. "We've had bands play here, there's the children's garden."

Even these quiet garden apartments are in danger of becoming increasingly exclusive, as property values increase throughout the neighborhood and a new set of residents moves in. "They are migrating from Manhattan," said Parnell. "It was more middle class." For now, however, a diverse mix of residents from around the world still call them home.

"I'm no futurologist about urban life, but it will inevitably change, as the Lower East Side changed," said Wiseman, when asked what might happen to Jackson Heights in the coming decades. And when the inevitable changes do occur, In Jackson Heights will become, like all of Wiseman's New York films, an important record of life in a vanished city.

· Nathan Kensinger [Official]
· Camera Obscura archive [Curbed]
· Jackson Heights coverage [Curbed]