For many, the idea of a Puerto Rican community in South Williamsburg is little more than a faint memory. While it was once the center of Puerto Rican life in the borough, Williamsburg has been at the vanguard of gentrification for over ten years, becoming virtually synonymous with everything hipster and allowing rapacious real estate barons to remake the neighborhood in their image of white-washed perfection.
Yet, amidst the high end boutiques, vintage clothing stores and trendy bars, echoes of the once-formidable Puerto Rican community of Los Sures persist, and three filmmaker-activists took it upon themselves to give these forgotten longtime residents a voice.
Their film, “Voces de Fillmore”, sheds light on the experience of a people often relegated to ‘local color’ by new wave gentrifiers and reclaims the neighborhood as a space of history and tradition. Coming off of a recent crowd-funding campaign for post-production expenses, I took the opportunity to talk to the filmmakers. Co-directors Ariana Allensworth and Regina Eaton were interviewed with the third collaborator, Teresa Basilio.
ASV: To start off, could you talk a little bit your backgrounds and your personal relationship to this particular issue?
Ariana: I’m a Brooklyn-based artist, educator and youth worker. My passion for urban storytelling began during my time at Fordham University where I functioned as an intern for the Bronx African-American History project where I archived the oral history narratives of Bronx residents of African descent. The aim of the project was to preserve the narratives of African and African-American residents whose stories were not otherwise included in the historical canons of New York City. This inspired the framework of my senior thesis. I began exploring issues of displacement and dispossession in my home city, San Francisco, and researched the impact of redevelopment and gentrification in the Western Addition district through interviews with long-time African-American residents. My multimedia work, and connection to Voces de Fillmore, stems from my interest in documenting and celebrating underrepresented communities.
Regina: I am a native New Yorker; born and raised in Jamaica, Queens. I work in the public policy arena and I have served as an advocate, policy wonk and occasionally as a political operative. I am also an amateur photographer and I have recently entered the world of filmmaking. As an advocate, I have often advised activists that the best way to engage policymakers is through personal stories. While one-on-one communication is best, that is not always possible, so we need to have tools and film is a powerful tool. I am involved in this project, because we are at a pivotal point in the life of my city. Neighborhoods are changing at an unnaturally rapid pace. Policies that support and encourage gentrification have pushed long time residents out the neighborhoods and in some cases the city that they have called home for generations. Right now there is new leadership in the city; leadership that might be sensitive to the importance of preserving the range of diverse communities that make New York unique. I hope this film, and the soon to be developed website, will act as a tool and catalyst for similarly situated communities in New York and other cities that are experiencing that same type of transformation.
ASV: How did the three of you come to work together and what was the genesis of this project?
The three of us met at a production fellowship for filmmakers of color through Third World Newsreel in 2011. As part of the fellowship we were tasked with working on a collective project. One of us had a friend who lived on Fillmore Place in South Williamsburg and so were familiar with the block and knew that many long term residents were from Puerto Rican families. The three of us are community activists and educators who were interested in getting film production skills to serve our communities. After the program ended, we continued to meet on weekends and after work to develop, film and edit the film. The resulting documentary, Voces de Fillmore is currently in post-production.
ASV: Going into production, did you already have a clear idea of the story you wanted to tell? How did your ideas change or evolve over the course of filming?
We knew we wanted to look at the impact of gentrification on long-term working class residents and we were interested in highlighting their stories and analysis rather than focusing on “experts”; i.e. policymakers, politicians or academics who we feel have traditionally been over-represented in these narratives. We wanted to hear from folks directly impacted and highlight the resilience of communities in the face of displacement and dispossession. We had not explicitly set out to focus on Puerto Rican residents who actually own their properties (a historically small minority – less than ten percent – of the overall percentage of Puerto Rican families in the neighborhood) but by doing so, a very different and unique experience emerged that challenged the narrative of home ownership in the American Dream as the great ‘equalizer’. Through our ongoing research, we started to see how even for those marginalized communities who were able to purchase homes face ongoing structural and institutional barriers to be able to remain in their homes.
ASV: Do you view this documentary as an extension of your activism? If so, what impact would you like it to have?
For us, this film represents our collective effort to honor and uplift communities, to engage in ongoing dialogues about the impact of gentrification and to activate grassroots solutions to these issues. We are thankful and fortunate to live in a city with a very vibrant community organizing history and activism and believe in the power of all of us to create a more just city not just for the Puerto Rican community but for all. We believe in the power of film to challenge dominant narratives and be a tool to educate and advocate for our social justice goals. We want to use the film to create spaces for dialogue, connection and celebration of the vibrancy of the people and communities that are being displaced, ignored and dispossessed and we want to support grassroots organizing by these communities.
ASV: What do you think is the future for the Puerto Rican community in South Williamsburg and New York City as a whole?
In the past decade, the South Side’s Latino population has steadily decreased from seventy to forty-five percent of the neighborhood. Voces de Fillmore focuses on families who have lived and raised families in the South Side for several decades, some going as far back as the ‘50’s. Their stories speak to the struggle of many New Yorkers, and their fight to maintain their homes, culture, and community in a rapidly transforming city. The story of the Puerto Ricans in N.Y.C. is still being written and we believe that building our collective power through organizing; both culturally and politically, is the only way we can reverse the trend of displacement.