This week, When SHoP Architects unveiled plans to overhaul the Domino sugar factory in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, it marked the most recent chapter in the area’s transformation from low-rise industrial zone to inexpensive artists’ enclave to in-demand residential district. In her impassioned new documentary, Gut Renovation, director and Su Friedrich chronicles that change over the course of several years.
The film is at once a documentary about 21st century urbanism and an extremely intimate look at how the unique composition of a neighborhood—residents, business owners, history—can be wiped away by gentrification. Friedrich constructed the film from footage that she shot between the mid-2000’s and 2008, as New York City rezoned scads of warehouses (which had been transformed into studios and homes by artists) and small businesses into residential areas ripe for redevelopment and condominium towers quickly sprouted up across the neighborhood. By turns aggressive and meditative, Gut Renovation is at its core an expression of grief for the unique civic tapestry that Friedrich believes has been unwoven by of the forces of urban evolution—and a memorial to what was lost. Record spoke with Friedrich in advance of the U.S. premiere of Gut Renovation at New York’s Film Forum on March 6, which kicks off a weeklong run of the film.
What makes the transformation of Williamsburg a unique gentrification story?
I lived in the East Village back in the '80s when it changed. After I moved, I would go back to the neighborhood, and I'd be walking past some new boutique, and I would think, "Wait, was that the butcher or the baker?" It would still be in the same old tenement building storefront. But in Williamsburg, where many existing buildings were torn down, you really forget what was there. So I started out just wanting to bear witness to what had been there.
The film has some footage developers walking around and people showing an apartment, but it does not include their perspective. Without that balance, are you worried that viewers will get the impression that you are just one angry person who was kicked out of her neighborhood?
People have said that. But I didn't really set out to say, "I'm going to look at both sides of this and see what the developers have to say." I did spend time reading things and hearing them do their sales pitches, and I think that what they're selling is a false argument. It would actually have been dishonest of me to try to make the film objective or balanced because I was not objective and I was not balanced. I was quite angry about what the city had decided to do to the neighborhood, and I was also very sad about what was happening. I also knew lots of other people who were really, really upset. And in a way, the film is about telling the story of the people who don't get their stories told.
The way you portray some of the people who move in to Williamsburg comes off as antagonistic. What do you think their role, these new renters or owners, is in the story?
Well, that's a really hard question because it's difficult to generalize about 40,000 new people. [laughs] You know? I can't blame them all. But I think it's necessary for the very privileged among us to at least own up to what they are. You cannot be living off your extremely wealthy parents but dress like an artist and pretend that you're like somebody who's really poor. It’s completely whitewashing the issue of class in this country.
Gut Renovation is really focused on your experience in Williamsburg. Was there ever the urge to expand the scope to make it a larger conversation about Mayor Bloomberg's New York?
Taking on the whole city? No. The labor of documenting Williamsburg and trying really hard to keep my personal story in the picture but not have that overpower the story of the neighborhood was difficult enough. The hope was more that if somebody is hearing about Williamsburg, but they're living on the Upper West Side or the Lower East Side, they can think about what's happening in their neighborhood.