If you go to the website for New York City’s Small Business Services, you’ll find this quote: “New York City is home to the nation’s largest, most comprehensive network of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs).” That’s the kind of verbiage that smiles. For those who don’t know, a reduced explanation: BIDs are state programs wherein fees are levied and taxes are raised on business owners in a selected geographic area to fund services like graffiti removal and streetwide wi-fi access. This has become a commonplace approach in urban areas throughout the country. And the websites that end with .gov are quite happy about that. But the small business owners in the districts getting improved? Probably not. Not unless they own a GAP.
In Jackson Heights, the latest film by Boston-born nonfiction filmmaker and national treasure Frederick Wiseman, is not a movie about business improvement districts. That’s not his type of filmmaking: there are no interviews in his movies, or voiceovers, or subtitles to identify the people onscreen. He embeds himself within a culture, then he shapes the resulting footage into a structure befitting that culture. Conversations about the effect of BIDs on rent payments, and thus on the ability of Latino business owners to remain in the area, are indeed prominent within this movie’s 190-minute running time. But so is the depiction of a day’s work at a live poultry market. And a parade following a victory by the Colombian national football team. And the arrests made by police following that same parade. Close-ups are even granted to the vegetables out on the street carts and the flowers growing outside the florist’s window. This is not advocacy, but a profile—a street tour.
We end up spending three days walking around this Queens neighborhood, where more than 60 percent of the population is foreign-born. That’s how the film is structured, at least: day, night, day, night, day, night. We cut directly from the tail end of an evening at a gay bar into children laughing on a nearby playground the next morning—and the rattling of the 7 train serves as the soundtrack for all of it. Patterns emerge. There’s a meeting where immigrants counsel one another on responses to exploitive work conditions, a gathering of transgender and cisgender women—all regulars at a bar called Lucho’s—that’s held to discuss strategies for curtailing police harassment at their hangout, a collective of gay seniors determining if they will continue to hold their meetings in a synagogue or if they’ll move to a location outside Jackson Heights. All that is what we might call “community organization.” Julio Rivera, a gay man killed in 1990 for his sexuality, is invoked throughout the film. For the people involved in them, these community organizations can be described another way. They’re survival techniques.
But if Wiseman is a landscape painter, then each of these individual stops is but a shrub. Which brings us back to the BIDs—that’s the tree that keeps appearing in different places. Wiseman’s films do not have narratives in the traditional sense, but characters often emerge, though he elects not to tell us their names. In this case, there’s a pair of multilingual community organizers who speak to the area’s business owners about their experiences. We find that many storeowners were only notified of the vote to institute the BID program (which can never be repealed!) by mail—in English. We then find that if they didn’t vote, their ballot was counted in the “yes” pile. We hear that landlords are responding to the rise in property values by selling out to larger corporations, and that many local business owners have been evicted already. We hear that a Home Depot is coming. Maybe a Dunkin’ Donuts, too. We look in the mirror of the GAP store that just moved in, and see an advertisement for 70 percent discounts. We find out that the board members for BID are all “super rich” real estate owners standing to make large profits from the rise in property values and from the expulsion of small business owners. In the reflection of GAP’s mirror, we see a Gamestop.
Another quote, this time from a Gothamist report on the effect of the Jackson Heights BID program: “Since the establishment of 82nd street BID, the area has become dominated by chain stores … while smaller businesses have either downsized or gone under.” Wiseman is no advocate, but his dedication to documenting the techniques used by minorities to compete in a professional culture that’s gamed against them—one of the last scenes is of a multilingual training facility for taxi drivers; another scene documents a pride parade—leaves his sympathies clear. In Jackson Heights isn’t about the erosion of the American Dream in a general sense: It considers, very specifically, the systems that are put into place to prevent much of the population from ever achieving those goals. If there’s a story here, the changing signage tells it.
IN JACKSON HEIGHTS. NOT RATED. OPENS WED 11.18 AT MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS. 465 HUNTINGTON AVE., BOSTON. PLAYS THROUGH SUN 11.29—SEE MFA.ORG/PROGRAMS/FILM FOR SHOWTIMES.