If baseball is America’s national pastime, what about a national obsession? Guns? Religion? Nascar? A poorly concealed appreciation for contraband? An argument could be made for each, but in the USA, the birthplace of the modern auto industry and manifest destiny, Yankee Stadium or a tent revival cannot compete with our love of progress. Search youtube for footage of a building imploding, then ask yourself how many months or years it took to build.
Razing a ten story housing project can take seconds. Tracking the erosion of a neighborhood is a bit trickier, a speed bump that filmmaker D.W. Young may have discovered too little, too late shooting A Hole in a Fence, his brief-but-compelling glance into a threatened urban sanctuary.
Red Hook, New York is Brooklyn’s forgotten harbor. A fallen industrial zone where the map has not been the territory for decades. Derelict factories, warehouses, and barge docks have crumbled into piles of driftwood and sheet metal. Hastily bolted fences conceal miles of standing concrete walls and decommissioned shipping containers, a haven for transients and taggers. As the title implies, director Young’s discovery of the abandoned place inspired him to grab a camera and start asking questions.
Trespassing is a compelling start for a quest, especially for a place where the economic fallout is so blatantly apocalyptic, but the narrative, more or less about the dangers of gentrification, is often lost in a series of interesting and inconsequential tangents. A graffiti historian doesn’t say much that’s beyond common knowledge. The graffiti artists themselves, masked and insular, aren’t much help either. A parade of locals share the usual ‘it ain’t what it used to be’ sentiments and paranoid anecdotes about cops coming for squatters and taking them in the night.
The film does succeed in putting a name to Red Hook’s Bete Noire: Ikea. The impending arrival of the nation’s largest furniture superstore becomes the inciting incident for the area’s potential transformation. The head of an inner city farming program Ian Marvy presents the most neutral argument, weighing the corporation’s pro-environment stance against its aggressive political maneuvers to secure the site.
The rest of the movie is brimming with meaningful cutaways of loaded Escalades at the curb and Ikea signage framed against the blighted surroundings, harbingers of the coming yuppie horde. The best segment of the film, centered on architect Benjamin Uyeda’s interaction with the homeless community behind the fence, is similarly derailed by one of Young’s wayward lunges at portent. The Ikea brouhaha forced the owners of the vacant lots to clean them up in a hurry, but as Uyeda is put on camera saying, “it’s as if all the life had been extinguished from it.” Spoooooky.
It may not tread lightly, but A Hole in a Fence is a unique and provocative look at the high cost of low-income renewal. Young’s subjects are colorful and engaging. The music by David Ullmann is superb. And the bleak and beautiful vistas of collapsing waterfront structures and meadows of high grass flourishing around zig-zag concrete walls are revelations unto themselves.
Available on DVD December 9th from First Run Features