As with so many Frederick Wiseman documentaries, we get color, character, sociology—and cinema.
By David D’Arcy
Jackson Heights is a neighborhood in Queens, New York, that once defined middle-class. Jewish and Irish families settled there in tidy homes and in apartment buildings designed around gardens. By the 1970s, the area’s then-cheap rents attracted immigrants from Colombia, India, Ecuador, and a hundred other countries. Think of the atmospheric shots as the theme song played at the opening of TV’s All in the Family. Then add reality.
Outsiders read about it in the tabloids when drug arrests were made and huge caches of cocaine were confiscated. Those same outsiders looked down at Jackson Heights—literally—from the elevated train that passed through on the way to Shea Stadium. They eventually dared to set foot there as culinary tourists: once restaurant critics “discovered” the neighborhood’s extraordinary and affordable food and restaurants.
Now the real estate of Jackson Heights seems affordable to those outsiders, affordable always being a relative term in New York City. The earlier waves of immigrants who made Jackson Heights their new home are feeling the homogenizing pressures of gentrification.
Frederick Wiseman explores this cultural and economic transition with a long look inside a place where the over-used term “diversity” really means something. His film In Jackson Heights devotes more than three hours to communities there and to the conflicts that trouble them and organize them. The documentary is long enough to ensure that, after a viewing, this place of foreign sounds and smells will be more than an exotic land visitable by subway. Yet even Wiseman can’t get all of this neighborhood onto the screen. Jackson Heights is even bigger and more complicated than this expansive Wiseman film.
That said, In Jackson Heights takes you to some of the many worlds inside Jackson Heights. As with so many Wiseman documentaries, we get color, character, sociology—and cinema.
We start with what New York’s marketers like to call “the gorgeous mosaic.” Singers from Colombia perform on the street, standing in front of stores that sell saris and poultry markets where butchers from Pakistan kill chickens and ducks. Fresh food means something special here.
At a local synagogue, an LGBT group for the elderly meets to discuss where it will meet permanently. Wiseman, the perennial watcher and listener, captures the warmhearted quirkiness of the group. Soon he’ll pivot to another LGBT meeting—Latino trans residents who complain of mistreatment at a local bar. It’s another visual and personalized evocation of the place, complete with reflections on inclusion and exclusion.
He also takes us to a Hindu temple with a huge statue of the elephant god Ganesh, and to restaurants packed with yellow-shirted Colombian soccer fans, screaming and blowing horns and swarming the streets as if they’re at the game on another continent.
At a citizenship class, students from India and China are asked by their teacher with a thick Queens accent why they want to become citizens. “Huh?” is the response. After little prodding, they are told that they should say that they want to vote.
Jackson Heights doesn’t lack for charm. Yet for all the hovering around camera-ready moments, Wiseman seems most interested in surveying activities built around preserving community. The mechanics of his film are like the concentric orbits of a clock. Long reflective shots survey the streets like the hour hand. Closer observation—the minute hand—brings you to places where groups interact. The second hand observes events as scenes in what seems like real time, in the real languages that groups speak among themselves—much of this American film is subtitled. The subject at this level is change, and the fear that comes along with it.
Half an hour from Grand Central Station, Jackson Heights is under siege from developers; merchants fear the prospect of being forced out of the neighborhood. A landlord with dozens of small business tenants has been given notice that their leases won’t be renewed. The business owners, in Spanish, talk of where they might go if Home Depot or some other corporate giant moves into their space. New York doesn’t offer many affordable sites. Nor, they say, do they have any recourse.
We barely see the new gentrifiers of the neighborhood—commercial or residential—although we see their effects.
At another meeting, young immigrants who don’t speak English tell of being cheated by bosses who pay for 40 hours of work, but demand 60. Some of those bosses don’t pay at all, they say. Then another stands up and tells a similar story—all in Spanish, of course.
We follow the local City Councilman, Danny Dromm, a graduate of local Catholic schools, who is gay. Dromm is decent and congenial, but is he effective? He learns after the fact that a homeless shelter has been placed in the neighborhood. Colombian business owners complain their Latino elected officials are too busy fighting scandal charges against them to ever stop by. “No le vemos,” says one, “We don’t see them.”
Like so many Wiseman films about a place—Belfast, Maine, comes to mind—this documentary is a lesson in politics, anthropology, and sociology. Businessmen who played by the rules and paid taxes learn that there are limits to what any government can do for them when property values rise and rich investors see an opportunity. A new Gap in a neighborhood where one had never been is a sign of what is to come. Residential rents are doubling—“a gringo is willing to pay $2,500,” one Colombian says. If cocaine didn’t destroy the neighborhood in the 1980s, money just might now.
Not all the news is bad. With 167 languages spoken in close proximity, Jackson Heights seems more tolerant than ever, a prophetic vision of multicultural amalgamation.
Of course, In Jackson Heights is a vivid snapshot of a place rather than an academic study, a series of fortuitous visits rather than an expositional lesson in the well-meaning but earnest PBS style. On most of its streets, Jackson Heights is more of a jumble than anything beautiful. Wiseman’s long patient shots help you appreciate its pleasures, most of which involve food.
Those same shots give voice to immigrants who tend to wash someone’s clothes or clean up construction sites. There’s plenty of emotion in the testimony from working people whose voices are ignored by the new metro-bourgeoisie. Or from those who are in the process of being forgotten. “What am I doing here?” asks a woman of 98 in a Jewish center who is blind and stuck in a wheelchair. “I could do without brains, if I could walk.” Welcome to the sad inevitability of aging—as eloquent as you see it in any drama.
Sometimes reaching moments like that is as simple as leaving the camera on, which allows quiet (or not-so-quiet) desperation to have a voice. Sometimes that same approach allows Wiseman to include scenes of random oddity, even poignancy.
After a meditative shot of a neighborhood street, the camera turns to a group of women from Alabama who seem to be on a religious mission to clean up the sidewalk. (Why they were in the relatively tidy Jackson Heights can be left to the short documentary that could be made about these odd evangelicals who were far from home.) A local woman stops them and asks if they could pray for her cancer-stricken father, and they do. They then part ways—one woman to her dying parent in the hospital, and the others to their clean-up chores. It’s an ode to pure serendipity.
And that’s Wiseman at his best—letting the camera watch long enough to glimpse people being themselves. It’s a step in the right direction after the disappointing At Berkeley (2013), where every other shot in the filmmaker’s probe of turbulent university politics seemed to be of a pretty student on the campus lawn.
In Jackson Heights takes us into the process of an urban village becoming a global village. Be prepared for scatological stand-up comedy in a scene where an instructor tries to give a class of aspiring Indian, Pakistani, and Nepalese cab drivers a sense of direction. As in every Wiseman film, civilization is always a work in progress.
David D’Arcy, who lives in New York, is a programmer for the Haifa International Film Festival in Israel. He reviews films for Screen International. His film blog, Outtakes, is at artinfo.com. He writes about art for many publications, including The Art Newspaper. He produced and co-wrote the documentary, Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a Nazi-looted painting found at The Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.