Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek. Directed by Leah Mahan. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films, 2013. 56 minutes.
Changing Face of Harlem. Directed by Shawn Batey. New York: Third World Newsreel, 2014. 62 minutes.
Environmental Justice and Gentrification: Centering Race and Class in Local Struggles
The films reviewed here offer windows into two different struggles for recognition, respect, and justice in the face of the imperatives of capitalist urban expansion by foregrounding the effects of development processes on historic African American sites and communities.
In Come Hell or High Water, filmmaker Leah Mahan follows college friend Derrick Evans as he returns over time to his family’s historic home in Turkey Creek, Mississippi. Originally an independent Black settlement founded by freed slaves, Turkey Creek has been swallowed by the rapid growth of Gulfport over the last century. The neighborhood and its surrounding sensitive forested wetlands sit in the path of Gulfport’s freeway, retail, and gaming expansion plans. The film chronicles Evans’s initial efforts to trace and mark the rich history of Turkey Creek, efforts that soon turn into a heated struggle against the city and developers to preserve what is both a significant site of African American heritage and also an essential ecosystem for protection from flooding.
The film effectively details the multi-pronged—and eventually successful—efforts of activists to have the area recognized as an urban greenway and historic community in 2004. Their celebrations are curtailed, however, by the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. In a moving segment of the film, Evans leads a relief convoy to hard-hit Turkey Creek, participating in rescue and recovery efforts. Despite the protections won for the area, the disasters have authorized new redevelopment agendas that dismantle previous environmental regulations, sparking a new round of environmental justice and heritage preservation activism. As the film closes, the Deepwater Horizon disaster hits the gulf, and Evans is drawn back into the struggle yet again.
The Changing Face of Harlem offers multiple perspectives on the gentrification of Harlem from residents, business owners, developers, politicians, and real estate agents. Covering the emergence of Harlem as a Black mecca in the 1920s and its critical importance for civil rights activism in the 1960s, the film sets up the conflict between activists who seek to preserve Harlem’s unique history and status as a haven for Black Americans, and those who see it as a prime space for investment and redevelopment. “Anything you build, we gonna burn it down!” exclaims a community member at a redevelopment and rezoning town hall meeting, exemplifying the high emotions involved. The film powerfully illustrates how urban neighborhoods that have suffered from disinvestment, abandonment, crime, poverty, and racist stigma (as Harlem did in the 1970s and 1980s) can come to be seen as “ripe for investment.” With a wide range of interview subjects, the film gives viewers a chance to hear the diversity of opinions held by Black Americans on newcomers, tourism, business development, historic preservation, and their sense of Harlem as changes took hold in the early 2000s. The stories told challenge viewers to consider who can be full participants in the vision and realization of a “better Harlem.”
These films highlight the salience of intersecting race and class oppression in processes of urban change. Students learning about environmental racism, gentrification, segregation, and activism will be able to trace how the historical legacies of slavery, housing discrimination, and racism continue to shape the trajectories of cities and neighborhoods. Come Hell or High Water offers a particularly compelling depiction of the emotional, physical, and psychic toll on vulnerable, racialized communities when their homes, lives, and histories are discarded for economic projects that will offer them little in return. It is also a moving portrayal of the personal cost of immersing oneself in seemingly never-ending struggles for environmental justice. The Changing Face of Harlem takes a more detached stance. In contrast to Come Hell or High Water, viewers do not get a sense of the filmmakers’ connection to the people or places featured. The multiplicity of voices offers “balance”; however, given the important differences in structural and representational power among those interviewed, the film might be more impactful if it centered the voices of those who have the most to lose through gentrification. After all, those who have much to gain are already overrepresented in media, politics, and business. Nonetheless, either film would make for engaging case study material in the classroom, bringing to life scholarship on environmental racism (for example, the work of Laura Pulido and Robert Bullard) and race and gentrification (including the work of Sharon Zukin and Lance Freeman).1
1 On environmental racism, see Laura Pulido, “Geographies of Race and Ethnicity 1: White Supremacy vs White Privilege in Environmental Racism Research,” Progress in Human Geography 39, no. 6 (2015): 809-17; Robert D. Bullard, “Dismantling Environmental Racism in the USA,” Local Environment 4, no. 1 (1999): 5-19. On race and gentrification, see Sharon Zukin, “Consuming Authenticity: From Outposts of Difference to Means of Exclusion,” Cultural Studies 22, no. 5 (2008): 724-48; Lance Freeman, There Goes the ‘Hood: Views of Gentrification from the Ground Up (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006).