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Ed Morales’ Whose Barrio?- interview

 

THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE HOME

 

picture - Whose Barrio?Film Interview

by William Gooch

published August 21, 2009

 

An interview with Ed Morales, co-director of Whose Barrio?

 

Home can be a place that connects us to smells, sounds, smiles, first beginnings, and sad endings.  For those folks for whom the American dream is not easily attainable, home can be the one place where culture and customs give a sense of identity and perspective.  El Barrio is just that place. The documentary Whose Barrio? gives voice to the residents of El Barrio (East Harlem) as they walk the precarious tightrope of urban renewal and gentrification.

 

East Harlem, one of the last Manhattan holdouts for affordable housing, and long the province of Latinos—particularly Puerto Ricans, who came in droves to East Harlem in the 1940s—in the past ten years has seen the encroachment of luxury condominiums, a tremendous spike in rents, the disappearance of mom-and-pop bodegas, and an uncomfortable infusion of downtown Manhattanites who have no connection or interest in the culture of El Barrio.

 

In Whose Barrio?, directors Ed Morales and Laura Rivera brilliantly highlight how cultural and economic forces are bumping heads and rubbing shoulders, transforming El Barrio both in positive ways and in ways that create resentment and exclusion. One long-time resident laments that recently-built residential spaces “should have a button that says, not for us,” while some new arrivals see gentrification as bringing much needed class diversity into a neighborhood whose medium income levels have long been barely above the poverty line.

 

Still, for many, El Barrio will always be culturally identified as home.  The food, the music, and the smiles on brown faces confirm that. And the good thing is you don’t have to click the heels of ruby slippers three times to go back there.

 

I talked with co-director Ed Morales after the screening of Whose Barrio? at the International Latino Film Festival about his documentary, his love of writing and all things Latin.

 

Could you tell me a little about your background?

 

Ed Morales: I was born in the Bronx and I’ve been a journalist since 1987. I worked at The [Village] Voice for some years, first as a copyeditor and later as a staff writer. I later worked at Rolling Stone and Spin and at one point I had a Latin music column at Newsday.

 

In the early 90s I was involved with the Nuyorican Poet’s Café. I have also written two books, The Latin Beat and Living in Spanglish.

 

Your parents met in Spanish Harlem and you would go back there to visit friends and relatives as a child. Did you always feel a connection to El Barrio?

 

Ed Morales: Yeah, I always felt I had a connection because it is the place for me where culture is borne. There was a period in the 1990s where I was coming back a lot because I knew a bunch of younger folks who had started moving back to East Harlem because a Puerto Rican Studies professor was buying some buildings and renting out to young students who wanted to reconnect with the community. There was a time when Puerto Ricans wanted to move out of El Barrio to show that they were moving up in the world. But in the 1990s, many young Puerto Ricans who were a part of the hip-hop generation didn’t feel that living away from your community signified upward mobility.

 

You have done other documentaries before?

 

Ed Morales: No, this is my first documentary. I had fooled around with video before, but I had never done anything substantial until this documentary.

 

Why this film about gentrification in East Harlem?

 

Ed Morales: I had done a piece in The Voice in 1998 about this internal spat in the Puerto Rican independence movement. I talked to a lot of young activists who were involved in writing political graffiti on this wall at 106th and Fifth Avenue. I decided to do a photo shoot with these young Puerto Rican independence movement activists and the graffiti wall. So, I was introduced to the gentrification issues because of these young activists. In 2003, because I had written Living in Spanglish and it had appeared in the New York Times City Section, I followed the book with a piece about the encroaching gentrification in East Harlem.  I think it was one of the best pieces I’ve ever written. This essay ended up being in this anthology called Best in City Section.

 

In 2006, I was one of the recipients of the Revson Fellowship at Columbia University. It was a program for mid-career people, usually from non-profit organizations, journalism and the arts. While I was involved in this fellowship, I took a documentary-making course with June Cross. One of the requirements of this course is to pitch an idea for a documentary. I pitched an idea based on my essay about gentrification, and that is how Whose Barrio? came to fruition.

 

How much did it cost to make this film?

 

Ed Morales: The budget for this documentary was about $35,000. That takes in to account labor, equipment, software, crew, and rentals. The entire cost came out of my pocket.

 

How long did it take to make this documentary?

 

Ed Morales: It started in Spring 2007 with me completing a half-hour version for the class. The principal photography and what see now was completed in October 2008.

 

East Harlem City Councilwoman Melissa Mark Viverito and East Harlem townhall meetings are featured prominently in this documentary. How did that come about, and did you get any resistance from Melissa Mark Viverito about being in this film?

 

Ed Morales: I didn’t get any resistance from them. I don’t think they realized the scope of what we were doing when we were shooting the documentary. And the townhall meetings that we used in the film were open forums anyway. Melissa was very helpful and helped us find James Garcia, who is also featured in the film. She suggested we film the townhall meetings.

 

In your documentary, City Councilwoman Viverito comes across as a conflicted public official. Was it your intention to portray her that way?

 

Ed Morales: No, that wasn’t my intention. She is involved in a process where she has to compromise because that is the nature of politics. We really wanted to show what she is up against when it comes to the gentrification process.

 

What do you think is the future of El Barrio?

 

Ed Morales: The way things were going up until the recession, rents were going to increase and affordable housing was going to be hard to find. Now that we are in this economic downturn, gentrification has slowed, but it is not going away. East Harlem or El Barrio is very convenient to midtown and downtown Manhattan, and is still cheaper than most Manhattan neighborhoods. And the influx of more chain stores, like Costco, to the neighborhood will probably speed that process and attract more middle-class people. I lived through the gentrification of the Lower East Side and it was shocking to see how fast the neighborhood gentrified and changed. People have always said that, because there is such a proliferation of housing projects in East Harlem, gentrification was slow to come to El Barrio. That may be true, but now, if you notice, luxury housing is built right across from public housing developments.

 

What is next for you?

 

Ed Morales: We have a couple of ideas in the works. We are thinking about doing a documentary about urban culture in the suburbs. We are also considering doing a Puerto Rican transnational documentary about Puerto Ricans who were not born in Puerto Rico but move there later in life.

 

williamgooch @ stageandcinema.com

 

Whose Barrio? was screened at the 10th International Latino Festival in New York City, which ran from July 27 to August 2, 2009.

 

 
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