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Kids and Class Collide in NYC's Gentrifying Chelsea

An HBO documentary follows the parallel lives of children in a fast-changing Manhattan neighborhood.

In the HBO documentary "Class Divide," kids growing up in public housing in Chelsea deal with the neighborhood's rising affluence. (HBO Films)

Ten-year-old Rosa lives on the intersection of West 26th Street and 10th Avenue in New York City. When she looks out of her window of her family’s small apartment in the Elliot-Chelsea public housing projects, she can see the Statue of Liberty in the distance. But nearby are the “rich buildings, where other people live,” she says. “My family is poor because we live in the projects,” she adds. “I don’t have what I want, necessarily, but I do have, like, people that I love.”

Class Divide, a new HBO documentary directed by Marc Levin, follows two groups of young people from the so-called opposite sides of the tracks in the hypergentrifying Chelsea neighborhood. On one hand are kids like Rosa, who live in public housing. On the other hand are the young students at Avenues, an elite private school across the street, with swanky gyms, state-of-the-art technology, and Mandarin Chinese classes. The Avenues students inhabit the same physical space as Rosa and her classmates, but they live in a parallel universe. “The gap is just becoming larger between the two [sides of the street],” Luke, a student at the school, points out in the film. “Even though you may see just an avenue between each block, it’s actually much larger than that.” Here’s a teaser:

Class Divide premieres tonights on HBO at 8 pm. CityLab caught up with filmmaker Marc Levin to chat about his new venture.

Can you talk about the changes happening in Chelsea?

I've lived in Chelsea for 40 years. I've gone through what you would call a cycle of urban life. In the beginning, I was an "urban pioneer," moving into the fringe of the Garment District in a loft with a bunch of buddies. We had no heat on the weekends. There was a factory above and below. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I started a family. When my wife's mom first came to visit us, she started crying because she couldn't believe her daughter would end up in a factory on 26th Street.

Then moved into what you would call the “creative class.” I moved four to five blocks west with my studio and expanded in the late 1990s to where I'm sitting right now in the Starrett-Lehigh Building. Now, 17 years later, I'm possibly looking at becoming one of the displaced. I may not be able to afford what it would cost to stay in this neighborhood for an independent film and media company.

After 9/11 and since 2004-2005, the zoning laws changed. Friends of the High Line started gaining momentum. This neighborhood went into hyperspeed. There were times I'd be away for a few weeks and come back, and a building had disappeared and another building was going up.

How did you decide to focus on this neighborhood versus others?

Many times I've thought about what's going on here. We had done two other films for HBO [Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags and Hard Times: Lost on Long Island] on how global economic forces are impacting real people. We were looking to complete the trilogy. We were sitting on the High Line—the filmmakers, the producer, and I. All those tourists are stopping at that spot on 26th Street, where there's this empty [billboard] frame. They were standing in front of the frame, taking pictures, talking in Chinese, French, and German. We're thinking: These pictures are going all over the world. Do they have any idea what's in that frame behind them? On the right is this private school. And behind that is the Elliot-Chelsea projects.

It was like, there it is—maybe the story is right here.

There’s research about the long-term effects of a neighborhood on children. It was interesting to me, in that sense, that you chose to tell the story of rapidly changing Chelsea through the eyes of kids living there.

We talked to some of the young people. When Sheila Nevins, the head of HBO documentaries saw [the tape], she was the one who said that, look, forget urbanists, political scientists, sociologists—you know, experts. Go with the kids. It's all right there.

On one hand you see the Avenues students, who are being molded to be the next drivers of global economic forces. And on the other, there are the Elliot-Chelsea kids, who bear the burden of how those forces are playing out in this neighborhood.

That's why it's so critical to have a conversation between the two sides of the street. And hopefully, the conversation leads to areas of collaboration. If [the Avenues] kids grow up to be the so-called drivers and they don't have any interaction in their lives with kids who don't have what they have, how the hell can you design education policy, housing policy, the economy—any of these things—that will work for those people?

As much as there is potential for conflict and reinforcing stereotypes when you have two different worlds so close together, there also is the potential to break down some of those barriers and bridge some of these gaps at a young age.

The most shocking thing for me was that on both sides of the street, these kids have this anxiety. They see the world changing so fast right in front of their faces, and neither side knows where they fit in. We've had 25 years of market fundamentalism, and these kids are now growing up and beginning to question that—to realize that that doesn't solve everything.

Two sides of the same street: On the left is Rosa, who lives in the projects; on the right is Yasemin, who attends private school. (Class Divide)

So how does one battle these global forces at a local level?

These political economies are created by human beings. They're managed by human beings and the rules of the game are set by human beings. And even on a local level, you can make deals. If you're going to allow real estate to build 60-story buildings, a certain percent should be affordable housing. You can put money aside for legal aid so that people who are being displaced, or driven out by landlords can get free representation. You can make community board deals where if you're going to make a new school like Avenues, you expect some give-back—scholarships and community involvement.

Through the course of the film, the two groups of kids start talking to each other. Yasemin, an Avenues student who’s from a family of wealthy Turkish immigrants, starts a photography project called 115 steps. She documents how kids from both sides of the street perceive each other and the gentrification around them. How optimistic are you that these conversations will work?

I think that tensions will always be there. I think the challenge is, and it's an ongoing challenge—how do you ride it? How do you make it work best for the most people? How do you keep some of the soul of a community, of a neighborhood? Because change is inevitable.

The key is understanding that this generation is maybe able to change the mindset that it's a zero-sum game—that's the resentment we see playing out politically now. The truth is that equality is good for everybody. It is good for your sons and daughters, Mr. Billionaire! They don't want to live in a gilded cage you're building.

Could you talk about the role of the High Line in bringing these kids together in the same space, but also in worsening the economic disparities between them?

I think the High Line is a mixed blessing. The greatest irony is that the real estate industry wanted to destroy it. When it was an old railroad, it was seen as this debris that was retarding development on the West Side. It ended up being this catalyst for this unbelievable real-estate gold rush. It's the unintended consequence.

People from all over the country are now coming to study what worked and what didn't work on the High Line. One of the lessons is to include the community from the very beginning—make them stakeholders. The other thing is how to make sure that, if it is successful there's some payback.

The last thing anybody ever thought was that all of a sudden you'd have these multi-million-dollar condos that are going to be bought up by the Russians and the Saudis from 14th Street all the way up to 30th Street. That said, it's a great meeting place for people of different backgrounds.

Rosa and Joel, both from the Elliot-Chelsea projects, play on the High Line. (Class Divide)

At one point in the film, Hyisheem, a young African-American resident of the Elliot-Chelsea projects, describes how he thinks wealthier Chelsea residents perceive him. He says, “It’s not racism, it’s classism.” But in America, race is inextricably linked to class, no?

There's no disentangling race and class. These kids, they're certainly aware of race. But living in Chelsea, in the middle of Manhattan, it's so cosmopolitan. You see successful black and Hispanic and Asians—everybody. That's why Hyisheem says that if he ran into a successful African-American doctor or lawyer, they'd look at him as “a kid from the projects.”

But in many other communities that are not as cosmopolitan, I think the overlap between race and class would be much more pronounced.

What’s your vision for the future of these kids?

These kids, they have a lot going for them. They're a lot more plugged in to what's happening to the world. They're a lot more open to the world, and less provincial. The Darwinian philosophy—it's a jungle, get whatever you can—that is being questioned. That, to me, is healthy.

This [movie] is a freeze frame. My dream would be to do what Michael Apted did in “7 Up,” the series where he followed these kids from different classes in Great Britain over their life. I would love to follow a community, a neighborhood, a street corner like that. Where is it at in 10 years? Where's Rosa at 18 or 19? How does it look once Hudson Yards is built? How will look in 20 years? Are the projects even going to be there?

And what about Chelsea?

I will continue living in the neighborhood. As far as running my studio, it’s going to be difficult. I haven't really figured out where I'm going or how I may be able to stay around. The bottom line is if this just turned into a neighborhood for the wealthy, it would lose what made it so magical in the first place. It would lose the energy. It would lose the mix. If you lose the mix, then you wonder, “What am I doing here? It doesn't have what brought me here in the first place.”

You could say that for New York as a whole. If the island of Manhattan just turns into a gated community, it's lost the magnetism that brings to it people from all over the world.

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra
    Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.