Democracy and the Challenge of Affordability: The Role of Film in Fighting Displacement

This post is the eighth in a month-long series of blog postings on affordable housing as a challenge to the health of American democracy, and in particular local democracy in the United States. The series, edited by Harvard Kennedy School Assistant Professor Quinton Mayne, is part of the Ash Center’s Challenges to Democracy series, a two-year public dialogue inviting leaders in thought and practice to name our greatest challenges and explore promising solutions.

In this post, we invite documentary filmmaker Andrew J. Padilla to share the issues that motivate his filmmaking and what his films El Barrio Tours: Gentrification in East Harlem and El Barrio Tours: Gentrification USA, can tell us about the health of American democracy. In his piece Padilla describes his efforts as a filmmaker to give voice to communities who very often are the voiceless objects of urban policy decisions. He also reflects on how he and fellow filmmakers can engage communities in political awakening, coalition building, and mobilizing action toward positive change.

By Andrew J. Padilla

Born and raised in Spanish Harlem in New York City, I became accustomed to the media portraying my neighbors as “racist” for opposing luxury developers getting public subsidies — even as their own benefits were being taken away.

My community members were called “nostalgic” for not wanting to leave the neighborhood where they’d been forced to live a generation earlier because of redlining. They’re still called “agitators” for standing up against upzonings, meant to raise property value, in a community where over 90% of residents rent.

Those directly affected by and dedicated to fighting the ills of structural racism, structural disinvestment, and neoliberal economic “rebirth” for 30–40 years, are almost never treated as experts in the matter. The first book I read that did was Barrio Dreams by Arlene Davila.

I attempted to do the same through film with El Barrio Tours: Gentrification in East Harlem.

Why I make films

I didn’t go to film school. I learned how to make films in the basement of All Hallows High School in the South Bronx. The school, comprised mainly of working-class youth of color, was once a respite for working-class Irish immigrants as they first arrived to New York City.

Some of those alums, who’d had successful careers in broadcasting, donated camera and computer equipment to the school. Despite repeated threats of expulsion by our strict Irish principal, Sean Sullivan, those of us that made it to senior year were able to take film classes in an actual TV studio. In those classes, Edward Caban, an award-winning filmmaker himself, taught us the basics of film. It was here where I shot my first silent film, short film, and documentary. If it had not been for Mr. Caban’s lessons in the basement of All Hallows, I doubt that I would have entered the world of film at all, much less complete an award-winning film on gentrification and displacement in my community of East Harlem.

Not only did I have zero professional or familial connections to the film world, but growing up, most of the media I consumed about my neighborhood was created by those who did not live with, hire from, or even particularly care for the people of my community. It was through their lens that just about every social issue we faced was explored in the media.

When I began “El Barrio Tours” I didn’t even know what gentrification was. I just knew that my community was being displaced and I wanted to do something about it. This desire began years of research that culminated in premiering the film at the San Diego Latino Film festival in 2012. To my surprise, at the San Diego premiere, over 60 people from Barrio Logan, a community of Mexicans about 15 minutes outside of downtown, came to our screening. At first, they thought the film was about their community, which they also call “El Barrio,” but after seeing the film and touring me through their community, we realized how similar our situations were.

Barrio Logan and East Harlem were both redlined and subsequently abandoned by the public and private sectors. For decades, San Diego shipped its problems to Barrio Logan, just as New York’s were thrown above 96th Street and into the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens.

From the Chicano Movement to the Young Lords, both communities had long histories of powerful liberation movements demanding and achieving systemic change. But as both cities attempted to refill their tax base after white flight, the public sector incentivized wealthier businesses and residents to return to the city. Billions of dollars in public subsidies and tax breaks were spent to incentivize outside private investment, not support long-time residents. These subsidies sent rents and property taxes soaring, with little in the way of serious protection for long-time residents or businesses.

I spent a few days touring and discussing anti-displacement strategies in San Diego with Jerry Guzman, then Executive Director of the Historic Barrio District CDC and Georgette Gomez, co-founder of Sustainable San Diego. We realized we’d been fighting the same structural problems but we weren’t strategizing with other communities dealing with these issues, nearly as much as we should have. Developers talk to each other, policymakers talk to each other, but so often because of a lack of structural resources, smaller nonprofits and community groups are left putting out fires and reinventing the wheel.

Before ending our tour of Barrio Logan, Georgette remarked: “I wish there was a way we could all connect.” That desire is at the core of my second — nationwide — project, El Barrio Tours: Gentrification USA.

Reconnecting the fragments of our collective memory

Upon returning from San Diego I began screening and holding dialogues on displacement across NYC. At the end of 2013, volunteers from across the city helped raise $12,000 from 240 donors all over the world to take the screenings and dialogues nationwide. Along the way I’ve also began creating a series of shorts on the effects of gentrification and displacement across the USA.

El Barrio Tours: Gentrification USA (working title They Did It) looks to link communities outside of the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to share ideas and strategize about the displacement we are facing and aid the fight to remain in our communities — to remain a community.

Ten cities into our tour, our greatest impact has been helping to build support for grassroots collectives across the United States fighting displacement. From Boston to Arizona we’ve collaborated with community groups to hold public art displays, dialogues, screenings, and workshops on displacement.

Watch our first short for El Barrio Tours: Gentrification USA, shot in Austin, Texas

Collaborating with local organizers and filmmakers in almost every city we have visited — as we begin creating these shorts — has been key to reconnecting the fragments of our collective memory as we strategize together to fight displacement in America.

Why this matters: Historical amnesia leads to political anemia

Documentary films, like King Williams’ The Atlanta Way and my own work, provide links to generations of trauma and struggle that are being lost. Too often mainstream press, politicians, and even academics will say “there was nothing here before” as our communities are being displaced, with little regard for where we end up. This erasure of history is not just emotionally painful, this overall invisibility, plays a very tangible role in what debate and dialogue can be politically had when advocating for change in our communities.

The debate on development in our communities too often begins from the perspective of current needs, like affordable housing, without first making plain the structural reasons we have those needs in the first place. As a result we significantly narrow our ability to solve said problems.

We shouldn’t ask for “affordable housing” or “education lotteries” off the tail end of a developer’s luxury skyscraper, after we have publicly subsidized it. Instead we should demand decent housing and more control over our resources and land because we have the right to remain in our communities.

Taking back the narrative, through film, is an essential step forward.

Andrew J. Padilla is an award-winning filmmaker, educator, and independent journalist. To support Andrew’s continued efforts to connect communities suffering from, fighting against, and creating alternatives to displacement in the United States, find a link to his film’s nationwide trailer and fundraising website here. If you have any other questions, comments, ideas for collaboration, or to invite Andrew and his film to your city or university, contact him at­­.

Originally published at




Challenges to Democracy is the blog of the Democratic Governance Program at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard Kennedy School.

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