Saturday, November 29, 2008

Saturday Morning in Williamsburg: Christine Noschese's Documentary "Metropolitan Avenue"

Whenever we attend a meeting at the Swinging 60s Senior Center, as we did on Monday night for the transportation town hall, we're reminded of a scene in Christine Noschese's terrific 1986 documentary Metropolitan Avenue, which details the struggles of Williamsburg and Greenpoint to survive in the difficult times of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In the scene, set in the senior center, members of various neighborhood groups are called upon to stand as the groups' names are called. Our beloved landlord and his late wife and mother-in-law, whom we miss every day that we live in the house where "Granny Agnes" grew up a century ago and where her daughter spent her entire life, proudly get to their feet with others from the Conselyea Street Block Association.

Unable to sleep this morning, we found our VHS tape of Metropolitan Avenue, bought at a Broward County Public Library sale of old library items some time in the late 1990s and watched it for the umpteenth time. Our landlord, "Uncle Phil," is featured in several scenes, for he was a community activist back in the day, but Noschese's film centers on the working-class women of all ethnic groups who spearheaded the Northside's refusal to die as a neighborhood.

Not many of the newer residents have seen Metropolitan Avenue, and we think that's a shame.

Julie Salamon, in a brief notice in the Wall Street Journal on May 15, 1986, wrote:
"Metropolitan Avenue" is Christine Noschese's memorial to her childhood in an ethnic enclave where clotheslines still flap outside tenements and feisty inhabitants worry about bus service instead of the latest in brie. The picture is an unpolished, pleasurable piece of sociology.

David Robinson, reviewing a string of film documentaries in The Times of London on October 30, 1985, noted in passing:
A more determinedly optimistic film from America, Christine Noschese's tough but cheerful Metropolitan Avenue, showed the people of a multi-racial Brooklyn neighbourhood aggressively conscious of the need to conserve community life, and fiercely engaged to combat the efforts of the city to sacrifice them to civic cut-backs or the predations of property developers.

Walter Goodman, writing in the New York Times on May 16, 1986, did criticize some of the film's weaknesses:
In taking her camera to Metropolitan Avenue in the Williamsburg and Greenpoint sections of Brooklyn, Christine Noschese was onto something. It's a neighborhood, we learn, in which Italians settled nearly a century ago, Poles about 60 years ago, blacks after World War II. It has been sliced up by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and beaten up by all the common depredations of urban life, yet it remains home to a lot of people. Miss Noschese, who grew up in Brooklyn, set out to celebrate the efforts of some of the people to hold onto and improve their communities.

That's the chief pleasure and the chief problem of "Metropolitan Avenue," which opens today at Film Forum 2. Miss Noschese's documentary, her first professional effort, leaves no doubt about her affection for the women who have been rallying their neighbors in behalf of such amenities as street lights, bus service and police protection. They are immensely likable, and the movie succeeds in bringing out similar feelings for home and family from the Polish woman who had her house bulldozed to make way for a factory, the Italian woman who sends her child down to the store secure in the knowledge that there are always people around keeping an eye on the neighborhood's kids, the black woman who grows tearful trying to express her affection for the public-housing project where she has brought up her children.

The problem is that Miss Noschese has come to praise not probe. Her periodic intrusions have all the weight of a composition for a 10th-grade civics course: "Meeting these women reinforced my pride in my background." Too much of the hour is taken up with ceremonial occasions and the women cheering one another on - "Even though you don't know big words, you shouldn't be afraid to talk."

We learn little about how the black and Hispanic tenants of the Cooper Park Houses get along with the Poles and Italians a few blocks away or how the people make their living or whether young folk are staying in the neighborhood. The celebration of "people power" gets between the audience and the people along "Metropolitan Avenue."

But here's Richard F. Shepard's praise in the August 16, 1988 New York Times, when the film appeared on television:
If a definition of a good story is that it dwells on an individual and emerges with a universal, then "Metropolitan Avenue," a Brooklyn neighborhood story to be seen tonight at 11:30 on Channel 13, fills the bill.

This hourlong documentary, part of the "P.O.V.," for point of view, series, probably touches on every problem that every urban neighborhood has either gone through or will face. But do not think for a moment that you are in for another one of those shows in which troubles and stridence are heaped on your head and the fade-out is some sort of solemn question about whither goest.

This program is all about solutions and, in the world of media, where troubles emerge only after the pot has boiled over, it is upbeat. The people of this part of Greenpoint and Williamsburgh have not achieved utopia by any means, but they have started down the track toward civilized, harmonious living.

Christine Noschese, the show's producer and director and a former Brooklynite who delivers the narration, expresses a point of view, focusing on the women of the diverse ethnic communities. She documents, through interviews, their strength, individually and collectively, and their persistence.

The neighborhood's problems are almost textbookish in their content. In the 1950's, the elevated highway split it in half. In the 1960's, a new housing project brought 900 families, most of them black, into a community long settled by Italian-Americans who lived in neat private houses. In other situations, a manufacturer of boxes receives the go-ahead to demolish homes to make way for its new plant, and the local police station is threatened with closing.

It was these sorts of problems that injected a previously unknown sense of activism into the lives of the people of the neighborhood. Anger at decisions made by faraway forces grips the residents and bridges are built between black and white. Surprising and beneficial results ensue.

Ms. Noschese obviously loves these people and she presents them to us as demonstrators, as passionate participants in meetings and, less formally, looking back at the days when the Dodgers played at Ebbets Field, when parents worked hard and were happy to be where they were. Even now, the camera gives us a neighborhood like a small town, with Manhattan's mighty towers looming in the background, a mighty engine that runs because people from neighborhoods like this go downtown to make it go.

What has happened goes far beyond community good deeds, and it is noted that the problems and the racial divisions remain. But a start has been made, and the people, through the action, have a better sense of individual worth.

"Yes, I am a somebody," says a white woman.

"This community made a woman out of me," says a black resident who was originally from Georgia. "It is like part of me, it is me. My community is my heaven."

That is something worth hearing in times when the presence of microphones and cameras so often inspires only bombast from those exposed to them.

Writing for an academic audience in the December 1986 issue of American Anthropologist, Alice Reich reviewed the film:
...there are six or seven women who feature prominently in the film. These women, through caring for their children's safety, caring about the quality of their lives, and nurturing "a place where people care for each other," move smoothly from "traditional" roles into political activism. We go with them through their activities, their lives, their neighborhood. Mildred Johnson shows us the Senior Citizens Center: "This we had to fight for, it was very hard to get, so this is one of our masterpieces that we've done." The making of structures that support everyday life is more than the struggles with indifferent officials and institutions; it is art. We hear about the difficulties of integrating what had been largely a White ethnic neighborhood: "We still have some racial problems. As long as we have a community, we'll have struggles. But the barriers are tumbling, we understand each other -- we need each other."

The film does not ignore losses to the community, from the departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers to the tearing down of homes and the threatened withdrawal of municipal services. A rally opposing the closing of a police precinct headquarters shows us the coalitions of community organizations in action. But it is this action that makes it primarily a hopeful film, focusing on the energies of people. We see people active and involved, fighting and winning if not always the direct object of their struggle, at least a way of being human (Pat McGinnis tells us that she never thought she would have the courage to fight city hall when she was being evicted. "I am a somebody," she says, "and if it hadn't been for all this, I wouldn't know it."), fighting to keep their politicians and city bureaucrats attentive to their needs, fighting to reproduce their culture in a meaningful way. As we hear of an expressway that split the community in half and destroyed 200 homes and the Catholic church, we see the procession from the new Catholic church winding its way under the expressway.

It is a hopeful film, but its hope is not naive optimism. The hope comes in the way that these women live their lives and the lessons they learn in the living. Noschese's last comment is, "These people never gave up and I hope they never do." We hope along with her.

It is a splendid film and would be useful to courses on women, community. and urban anthropology, politics, even social movements, and should generate good discussion on a wide range of issues.

And Sheila Benson wrote in the Los Angeles Times on August 9, 1988:
"Metropolitan Avenue" is Christine Noschese's first film, a study of her back-fence neighbors in Brooklyn who unexpectedly found themselves dealing with that hydra-headed monster, politics, when all they wanted was not to let the neighborhood go down the tubes. What plain people, with no more experience than you or I, can do when pressed, makes this a pungent and renewing portrait, and these terrific women, frank, salty, unafraid, become its undeniable stars.

Christine Noschese received an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Individual Achievement for her film, which took five years to complete and won the John Grierson Award for best social documentary film by a new film maker at the 1985 American Film Festival.

We heartily recommend watching Metropolitan Avenue. Umpteen times.

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