Ed Morales’ Whose Barrio?- interview
THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE HOME
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
What do you think is the future of El
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
What is next for
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,