While now known as one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the nation, Jackson Heights in Queens was once a Hamptons-like escape for the upper middle class in New York City. In 1916 it was sold as a refuge off the Flushing Line by a public developer, the Queensboro Corporation. The buildings would allow enough room in their corridors for budding families, and there was enough greenery in the neighborhood for an exclusive, edenic atmosphere. Only a few families could actually afford the regal architecture, making this old Jackson Heights a precursor to China’s nouveau riche ghost cities. When the Great Depression hit New York, the funding well of the Queensboro Corporation dried up, leaving the neighborhood “garden city” maintenance to its tenants. With this homogenous vision no longer attainable, the Queensboro Corporation began construction on simpler buildings for lower rent costs, allowing immigrants access to the Flushing Line haven. Over the next few decades, a Jewish community center would pop up a few blocks from a halal meat shop; the sound of mariachi bands would play alongside the bass of the gay clubs; and radical political groups would eat shoulder-to-shoulder with the religious old guard. The exclusive Garden City had been removed and replaced with the mythic America.
Master documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s new film, In Jackson Heights, never alludes to the neighborhood’s past. Every frame shows a working “diversity”—one outside of that corporate and academic buzzword in the sense that the community couldn’t imagine it any other way. Yet, nearly every other sequence shows community members speaking in fear of the oncoming buy-outs of local businesses. The Gap moved in a few years ago and began a gradual collapse of local family retail stores. A Home Depot has been rumored to pay extra rent for a large mall, displacing the fifty businesses inside.
Like Wiseman’s forty-plus other films, each scene focuses on group conversation without titles, talking heads, intervention, voiceover, or any other typical flourishes. Instead, to depict a community as diverse and decentralized as Jackson Heights, Wiseman takes lengthy, emotional community action speeches and meetings and intersperses them with miniature portraits of the neighborhood. A scene like the former may last anywhere from five to twenty minutes, as when a small LGBT group discusses whether to remain in Jackson Heights when a member suddenly complains that they should meet outside of the synagogue—the usual meet-up spot for many community groups—and find their own building. Then, the film cuts to a small concert in a laundromat in which percussionists play with pots and pans, or a group of middle-aged Latino men propped in lawn chairs on the sidewalk watching a soccer game in a store window. These interstitial moments might last for just a minute or two, but they’re essential to the rhythm of a very musical film about a very musical neighborhood.
Amid this diversity of scenes, there are two constants throughout the film. The first is Council Member, Daniel Dromm, shown equally within the community and in his office. Dromm, an openly gay white man, stands in as the face of pride for his district’s culture and is the closest Wiseman offers to a protagonist. The very first scene in the movie shows Dromm speaking in the Jewish Community Center around the murdered Julio Rivera and the Queens Pride Parade in his honor. At the parade, Wiseman latches onto Dromm and mayor Bill de Blasio; Dromm thanks de Blasio for being the first mayor to march in the parade. However, any triumph in a Wiseman film must be accompanied by mountains of paperwork, bureaucracy, and the little annoying technical details of an institution’s life. In Jackson Heights is no different—Dromm’s vitality is dampened as his assistants listen to citizen complaints all day, and Dromm himself must deal with a call for redistricting. The elated figure of progress now slumps over a crowded desk and listens to corporate talk droning over the speakerphone. The real work in maintaining Jackson Heights lives in those little numbers of streets, zones, population, and funding.
The second constant is the looming, abstract antagonist of BID, the Business Improvement District. Two anti-gentrification activists go door-to-door to inform local businesses that they will have to pay additional taxes and higher rent in order to compensate for Jackson Heights’s improvement plans. The first of these scenes focuses on a local Mexican restaurant owner who learns that he’ll likely be driven out by the oncoming rent surge. Next, the BID activists visit the dying mall/prospective Home Depot to find a miniature ghost town. Finally, in what is probably the longest scene in the film, Wiseman watches the activists speak to a meeting of about twenty business owners in the district. This is the most explicit Wiseman allows the film to get: The activists are animated storytellers who fully explain that BID is one of the first steps toward complete gentrification. They lay out each step that BID representatives in neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Astoria took to displace local establishments and bring in corporate chains that can afford to pay the high rents and sell cheaper products. Then, Wiseman points his camera at the audience—an attentive but dreadfully small group.
The local businesses in those miniature vignettes are the very ones that will be displaced under BID acts. Though painting these cheerful scenes as doomed may seem defeatist, it’s not the complete picture. It’s equally a celebratory film that revels a truly unique community. The musical bits never show huge crowds; instead, they show tight-knit groups that seem interested in what their neighbors can do. Wiseman opens the film by showing Dromm bragging about how many Muslims use the Jewish Community Center. The film ends with fireworks. One scene, somehow unstaged, shows a Presbyterian volunteer group from Alabama cleaning and decorating the streets, interrupted by a woman who’s on her way to visit her dying father. She asks the group to pray for her father and her family, and they do. There’s no music, no crying, and definitely no ironic detachment. It comes into existence and dissipates as just another moment in the neighborhood.
But what’s in store for Jackson Heights? Will the garden city return as the BID prophets think? If so, will that fully displace the diverse residents in favor of a more opulent few? In Jackson Heights does not give a dialectical set of answers as other Wiseman films might. Its firm stand with the residents shows a sort of immediacy that’s new to Wiseman: don’t think, just act. These policies are happening now, and by the time the film comes out, it may already be too late. As Lionel Trilling once said of the American vision of novelist John Dos Passos: “Despair with its wits about it is very different from despair that is stupid; despair that is an abandonment of illusion is very different from despair which generates tender new cynicisms.” In Jackson Heights, though scattered with moments of hope,is Wiseman’s American vision of despair, all wits intact.
By the way, Home Depot didn’t take over that mall. Petco did.
In Jackson Heights premiered at Film Forum in November, and is now in theaters.
ZACH LEWIS is a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn.