With the current election cycle, we see Democratic primary battlers Bernie Sanders and Hillary Rodham Clinton arguing how they are the champion of everyday Americans, primed to battle the snowballing inequality between the haves and the haves-not. Despite some difference in the particulars of their positions, they both back raising the minimum wage, making college more reasonably priced, and investing in infrastructure to create job opportunity. The Republican candidates have, of course, basically contended that the poor should just work harder and want it more.
I don’t know what amount of work would allow those who live in the public housing on one side of the intersection of Manhattan’s 10th Avenue and 26th Street to gain access to the other side, where The Avenues: The World School, a $40,000 private school, is located. This study in geographic contrast is the heart of West Chelsea, which has seen a real estate hyper-boom recently due to the High Line. West Chelsea is being hurriedly redesigned as a home for the wealthy, despite the public housing that has existed there for decades. Marc Levin and Daphne Pinkerson’s CLASS DIVIDE explores this issue with an equanimity that impressed me upon viewing, as the film’s particulars mostly made me disheartened and exasperated.
CLASS DIVIDE is pleasingly produced, no doubt on a limited budget; one of the virtues of modern documentary filmmaking is the increased access to drones (which provide several provocative views of the West Chelsea cityscape that are neither street level or eye-from-the-sky) and snazzy animations that definitely jazz-up the inescapable collection of talking heads. CLASS DIVIDE’s subject matter itself supplies the most arresting visual: The Avenues itself, a mere “115 steps” (as defined by one of the more-mature Avenues students who does a photographic study of the locals) from NYC Public Housing. The school, built where once a slaughterhouse was, is filled with (largely sympathetic and agreeable) “children of privilege” who are both fascinated by and apprehensive about their juxtaposition to the working poor.
The film unveils compelling interview subjects, including a buoyant 8-year old Latina girl who seems a tad too understanding of her bleak situation in life yet is still hopeful she can get into the Avenues on a scholarship; a high-strung young Avenues student who expects to go into Sports Marketing; a woman searching for a high-end apartment who too easily sets herself up as the villain of the piece due to her unease around the public-housing occupants who reside across the street from an eleven-million dollar apartment that she is eyeing. It is clear that the public housing is on insecure footing. If developers could, they would happily repurpose the space for the world’s wealthy looking to occupy New York, if not actually live here (the film relates that 40% of high-end real estate is bought to “park wealth” from all over the world – the owners don’t necessarily inhabit the apartments they have paid huge amounts for).
While Levene and Pinkerson understandably create empathy for the struggling underclass featured in the film, they deserved kudos for their efforts not to portray the well-off students at the Avenues as clueless, self-involved monsters. Most sympathetic is the young photographer who is the first Avenues student to substantially reach out to the adjacent community, (in her “115 Steps” photo-essay), and most troubling is a wealthy young student who proves highly fragile in one of the film’s most touching and disconcerting developments. The juxtaposition of a public-housing dweller who lost his mother early with a young girl at the Avenues who likewise lost hers sensitively reminds the viewer that no one’s journey is without worry, although the affluent children continually reminding us that their parents worked hard (at jobs such as “currency trader”) are sure to make some less fortunate New York hard workers’ teeth grind.
CLASS DIVIDE ends with an AMERICAN GRAFITTI “Where are They Now” scroll that has its issues – we are told of developments concerning people featured in the film without ample context – we learn the director of the Avenues has stepped down since production ended, but aren’t told why. The film does leave viewers wondering if the High Line, intended to create a communal public space out of abandoned elevated railroad tracks, has proven too successful, drawing, like ants to a picnic, the rich, who, as ever, can throw money at problems to make them go away (one of the public housing dwellers, ruminating at a local basketball court, tosses off the line “It’s America. And it Sucks”). CLASS DIVIDE doesn’t give one much optimism for the poor who seem at best “local color” for the incoming wealthy, and an irritant they’d like to pretend wasn’t there at worst. Someone once said all history has been a history of class struggles, and CLASS DIVIDE captures that history in a bottle that, especially in this primary season, feels primed to shatter.
CLASS DIVIDE is currently playing at the IFC Center in Manhattan and at various festivals, and will eventually make its way to HBO.