Marc Levin on Filming in His Own Backyard

HBO: Why did this feel like an appropriate topic for the third part of your documentary trilogy?

Marc Levin: My documentary film partner, Daphne Pinkerson, and I had made Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags on the rise and fall of the garment industry and then Hard Times: Lost on Long Island about the crash of 2008, and we were looking for the next subject. Schmatta profiled a generation of city factory workers who finally made enough money to send their children to college to become white-collar professionals and Hard Times followed this next generation to the suburbs. So the final film would show how only a small percentage of them would thrive in a world of growing inequality.

We were contemplating this one day while sitting on the High Line [in Chelsea, New York City] at the lookout point over 26th Street and 10th Avenue, where the architects had preserved an old billboard frame as an art installation. We were looking through the empty frame, and realized on one side was the renovated building housing the city’s newest elite private school; “Avenues: the World School” and on the other side were the projects -- two sides of the street, two totally different worlds. Meanwhile, tourists were snapping photos, posing in the frame and waving to families and friends in Beijing, Rio, Paris and Sidney. Did they have any idea what was behind them? Then it hit us, what you see is all in how it’s framed. After all our searching we realized this was our starting point, right here in our own neighborhood.

HBO: What was it like filming there?

Marc Levin: I have lived in Chelsea for 40 years, so in a way I am one of the so-called “urban pioneers” who started to change this neighborhood from a manufacturing and flower district to a residential neighborhood. I have also had a studio on West 26th Street for 17 years. That building is part of the gentrification that has pushed rents to such exorbitant levels that, when my lease ends in two years, I honestly don't know if I can still afford to keep my company in Chelsea. The point is, we see what's happening, the hyper development, the gentrification, the displacement of long time businesses and residents, the income inequality -- we see it from multiple perspectives. Looking out my window, I see an army of cranes, like huge mechanical insects reaching for the sky, as they begin construction of the largest private urban development project in U.S. history, Hudson Yards. Depending on the frame, you see the good, the bad and the ugly.

HBO: Does this story go beyond New York City?

Marc Levin: This film is a microcosm of what’s happening in cities across this country, and for that matter, across the globe. Major metropolitan areas all over the world are becoming gilded cages and investment opportunities for the global elite. The human mix, which is the fundamental ingredient in a vibrant city’s energy and magic, is being threatened.

HBO: What were the major challenges of making the film?

Marc Levin: It’s always a challenge to make a film about a major global trend in a new way that no one has ever done before. We researched a number of cities and towns all across the United States: We looked at the housing crash in Florida and the rapid gentrification by techies in San Francisco. But once we settled on the location, it was a great experience to dig so deeply into our own neighborhood. Everyone in Chelsea was feeling the effects of gentrification so it wasn’t difficult to start the conversation. Of course, there were some higher income parents who felt nothing good could come of looking at the rich and poor in the same film, and they declined to participate. But in the end, everyone involved felt they had become part of a movement to close the gap.

HBO: Why did you decide to tell the story through children?

Marc Levin: We didn’t start out with the focus on young people. Their perspectives emerged as the most refreshing and surprising way into the story. We told Sheila Nevins and Nancy Abraham at HBO Documentary Films what we were discovering, and that is when Sheila said to make them the focus of the film. It was fascinating to get a glimpse into the thinking of the next generation, and how they are grappling with these major trends.

HBO: What surprised you most about the kids?

Marc Levin: I think what was most surprising -- especially to the young people themselves on both sides of the street -- is that they had far more in common than not.

HBO: What do you think will be their major struggle growing up? What does the film tells us about the future?

Marc Levin: If we keep on this track there will be no middle class in the future. The kids in this neighborhood, no matter which side of the street they’re on, see and feel the rapid change all around them. How or if they choose to keep pace will be their major challenge.

What is the tone of the film?

Marc Levin: The film reveals the anxiety about the future on both sides of the street. And the final quote is certainly a cautionary statement. But I would say that the film is ultimately optimistic about our capacity to shift course, and revelatory about how to do it.