One of the most blatant and unacknowledged problems facing my hometown of Chicago is gentrification. I’ve seen ethnic and low-income neighborhoods slowly and rapidly turn into hot spots for the privileged and higher earning folks, who are mostly – let’s face it – white people. It “betters” communities and then pushes people out of their homes in order to cater to people who can earn and spend more. While the improvements come with less crime and other positive attributes, it also is sometimes at the cost of culture and what makes that neighborhood unique and special to a certain community.
In the new HBO documentary, Class Divide, director Marc Levin and producer Daphne Pinkerson explore the widening inequality gap between the wealthy and poor in West Chelsea, a neighborhood in New York City. Centering on the perspective of the young people in neighborhood from both sides of this deep economic divide, the documentary offers thought-provoking and fascinating insight on what it means to have it all or nothing at all in a constantly evolving place like New York City.
One of the first people we meet is Rosa, a precocious eight-year-old who lives in the Elliott-Chelsea housing projects. She admires Beyoncé, isn’t afraid to speak her mind – and makes sure you know that – and dreams of going to a school like the one across the street. Said school is Avenues: The World School, an elite private school that opened in 2012. The kids who go there have parents who are part of New York’s 1%, and with a tuition of $40,000 per year, that comes as no surprise. What does come as a surprise is that in a community where the unemployment rate is at 50%, a school such as this one is nestled so close to low-income housing. Like one Elliott-Chelsea housing resident says it’s “like a tease and a smack in the face.”
It’s an awkward and unfair situation for the young people who live in the projects and even for the students who go to Avenues. The documentary talks to both groups of kids for their perspectives on how their two vastly different worlds are separated by one street. For the Avenues students, there is a lot of guilt accompanying their feelings, which frankly acknowledges their privilege. For the young people of Elliott-Chelsea, there are everyday struggles, maybe a little resentment, but also a ton of hope that life can improve for them. Class Divide doubles down on these perspectives, showing that in many ways the grass isn’t always greener on the other side, but then again, sometimes it is.
The film backs up their interviews with facts and even gives us background on Chelsea’s biggest attraction, and pretty much the catalyst on the neighborhood’s gentrification problem: The High Line. However, in the end, this is very much a human story, and the kids of this film from both sides of the divide make an impression, whether you can directly relate to them or not. As Rosa says, “My family is poor because we live in the projects. I don’t have what I want, necessarily, but I do have people that I love.”
Even as both groups of kids make their way into their future, there is hope that they can integrate and do it together. Class Divide shines an important light on our country’s gentrification problem, but also pushes forward the necessity of integration in order to accomplish a better, more diverse and fairer future.
Class Divide debuts on Monday, October 3rd at 8pm EST on HBO.