There's a heartbreaking but also heartwarming serial documentary playing this week on the Sundance Channel called BRICK CITY.
(Thanks to Jaina for hipping me to it.)
It's co-directed by two of the producers (Mark Levin and Mark Benjamin—Forest Whitaker is a producer as well) and follows several city residents, officials and others over the course of last summer, 2008, in Newark, New Jersey.
Newark is a city I have a lot of personal history with. My mother came from there and her parents still lived there when I was born. I had many cousins on my father's side who lived there as I was growing up. It was our "downtown"—where we went to shop for new school clothes and Easter outfits (the famous-to-us Bamburger's Department Store).
It's where we often went to the movies, the arcades, to concerts of popular, jazz and rock'roll bands and singers. I played music in bars and clubs there as a young man, after going to a boy's Catholic Prep day school there, St. Benedict's that at that time catered mostly to the two largest immigrant groups in the area—Italians and Irish—as a means for getting their boys into college and hopefully into a profession (now the main ethnic group there is African-Americans, and the school is much bigger and better and more varied in its approaches to learning than the strict place I attended, thanks to an alumni that is said to be second in this country only to Notre Dame's).
I dated many girls who lived In Newark, including those from other than Irish Catholic families which meant me being an interloper in neighborhoods that weren't necessarily so welcoming to an Irish Catholic boy (including Italian-American girls and African-American girls, at a time when that was not just frowned on but could lead to much trouble and even physical harm from all sides), and so on.
This was all before what most people in this area who are old enough call "the riots"—but some call "the rebellion" or "uprising" etc. that occurred during the 1960s, mainly on two separate occasions but the last of which in 1967 caused permanent damage to what was beginning to be called "the ghetto" as it was almost completely burned down (the results of which are still in evidence in empty fenced in lots where wooden row houses went up like tinder and have still not been replaced or where government financed brick townhouses have risen in the now landscaped ruins, or where single brick or cement buildings remain standing from my boyhood days there).
But even before that, there was a campaign whose aim was to build a "New Newark" as the then city hall called it. Yet here we are almost a half century later and parts of Newark still reflect what happened in the 1960s. It's known as BRICK CITY partly because it has a lot of structures built of bricks, and once was a city that made a lot of bricks, but mostly these days because it's seen as such a hard place to live, and you have to be hard to survive in it.
This documentary follows mayor Cory Booker on his rounds, especially with meetings of his top police command, but also with possible investors (in a meeting with some Chinese officials he and his staff get across the reality that Newark has a huge international airport, closer to New York City than any of New York's airports ironically, a huge port, one of the biggest in the world I think they claim, and yet it's a lot cheaper than New York or New Orleans etc., one Chinese official nods and says something like "New Jersey cheap, yes, okay, that's good, New Jersey cheap") and ex-cons and students and the array of his constituency.
It also follows some individual citizens, most fascinatingly, a young, pregnant, female member of the Bloods named Jayda who is both troubled and in trouble, but is also articulate and a charismatic screen presence (in fact, it's interesting to note that almost all the people in the film who are struggling just to survive and/or come from "the streets" as they say [including the police chief and some other city and school officials], are natural movie stars—i.e. you can't stop watching them and want to see more—whereas the people with the power and the money come across mostly, not entirely, as almost lifeless in comparison).
It's well worth watching if you can get it, or when it comes out on DVD. People have been bugging me for years to watch THE WIRE and THE SOPRANOS and other shows about deep seated urban—and their nearby suburban—crime and other problems. I checked them out and saw what everybody was digging in these shows, the grittiness of a reality shaped by great storytelling and acting. But BRICK CITY is the antidote to that fictionalized reality. It's the real thing.