In Jackson Heights is a more hopeful film than what I expected from the director of High School, Welfare, and of course, the groundbreaking Titicut Follies. Where Frederick Wiseman often exposes the weaknesses of large institutions, this time he celebrates a unique community in Queens, New York, in his portrait of a neighborhood I know well, Jackson Heights. And while his portrait is not all-inclusive – no documentary can or should pretend to be – it does encapsulate everything I have felt and seen about New York City since I left in 2000.
We enter the world of Jackson Heights through its LGBT community, including the city councilman Daniel Drom. It is an interesting choice to begin with this one of the hundreds of different minority groups in Jackson Heights. One of the reasons, perhaps even the main reason, Jackson Heights is my favorite New York City neighborhood, is because of its remarkable ethnic diversity. As someone in the film says, there are 167 languages spoken in the less than one-half a square mile of streets that make up Jackson Heights. But while I knew the Queens Gay Pride parade took place in Jackson Heights, I was never aware there was a gay community there. And while the gay community has often been associated (rightly or wrongly) with gentrification of working-class neighborhoods, here they are not simplified into that kind of battle between hardworking ethnic minorities and well-heeled gay interlopers. In true Wiseman fashion, the complexity of the neighborhood and of the relationships between the different groups of which it is comprised, comes through in his careful editing, which is almost invisible. More noticeable is the beautiful camera work by John Davey, which captures the grit of Queens, as well as its vibrancy and color. But it is the editing that makes the 3 hour and 15 minutes slice of life a triumph of direct cinema (a.k.a. fly on the wall).
While the variety of ethnicities reveal their presence at all times (whether someone from Colombia talks about their heritage directly or by what is captured on screen in the background: everything from a Uruguayan cafe to a Malaysian restaurant and an eyebrow braiding salon for the Indian and Bangladeshi population), the focus of the film is on how these communities are coping with attempts to gentrify, changes to immigration policy, and in some cases, the dying off of their members (as in the small Jewish Community there).
I grew up in New York in the late 1970s and 1980s, and with the exception of a few years in Boston, lived there through the 1990s. After moving to Cape Cod in 2000, I have returned to visit several times a year, and what I have seen has been quite disheartening. There’s a scene in In Jackson Heights where a Colombian community organizer lays it all out for his compatriots, explaining how beautification and BIDs (Business Improvement Districts) sound wonderful but end up destroying communities. He cites most, if not all, of Brooklyn, Long Island City, and Astoria, as examples of how this works to push out everything that made those places great and replaces it with a wealthy elite and an onslaught of big box and chain stores that wipe out the uniqueness of each neighborhood.
New York once was a city of neighborhoods, but increasingly, when I return, I see each neighborhood folding into an abyss of GAP stores, Starbucks, and campaigns that push out ethnic diversity in favor of generic concepts of “beautification.” It is becoming a giant shopping mall for wealthy real estate developers, Wall Street bankers, and the white-collar workers and others who continue to live there in memory of what that great city once was.
While In Jackson Heights is of course about a very specific place, it speaks to a larger tendency in America, one that New York City may have been a last hold out against. And that is something that holds meaning everywhere, including here, even if you will not likely see this film shown anywhere on Cape Cod.