Bulldozing a Path – North Saint Louis and the NGA

When the semester began, we set out to create a documentary about North St. Louis that was informative and insightful.  To that end, we have drawn on the voices of longtime residents of the neighborhood.  Our film Bulldozing a Path addresses a question that may be new to some viewers but probably has been asked by longtime residents of North St. Louis many times: what is the point of all this destruction? The preservation or destruction of vacant houses is one issue, but the repeated construction and destruction of institutions is quite another.  Schools, a hospital, a large public housing complex have all faced defunding and eventual halting of their original functions in serving the community.  We have learned from our interviewees that this change represented a downgrade to some residents, even as new institutions were created to replace them.

For this reason, we thought it best to let the interviewees’ words speak for themselves.  Denetta James was kind enough to talk with us after having to reschedule our first interview.  Her experiences and Mrs. Taylor’s add a human voice to the images we present of the way the past and the present of North St. Louis.  Dr. Roz Norman adds similar detail to the picture we planned to paint and connects the community response to this project with past efforts to develop housing and job centers in the area.  The introductory and narrative audio clips we recorded for the final cut are meant to add components of our research that would have put us over the allotted time.  That research dealt with descriptions from the 19th century that maligned the area as a slum to demonstrate that negative depictions of the North Side and low-income neighborhoods have been embedded in the city’s public memory vastly different time periods.  This serves to contrast with the warm memories of our interviewees.

At Mrs. James’ request, we did not use video footage of her interview and opted to do the same with our other interviewees.  None of our interviews were conducted in person due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the video footage of our interviewees’ zoom windows would not have added anything to the film.  Indeed, our presence as interviewers is not keenly felt throughout the film, except for special moments when a question or a murmur can be heard.  Our film follows the standard expository mode, but in this sense, it is also partly observational.  Some of the footage is taken from historic archives, while other shots were taken with a camera on-site.  We addressed our subject matter in an expository way by collecting information and putting it together in a way that made sense.

The NGA site was the focal point of our research but not the most significant part of our film’s subject matter.  The site is a multimillion project for the city and the federal government and the culmination of years and years of effort. Still, from a historical perspective, it is only the latest in a series of projects meant to solve problems related to poverty and underdevelopment.  It is far too soon to say whether it will improve the standard of living of people in the area, but our film describes the efforts of Dr. Roz Norman to prepare high schoolers in the use of software to obtain jobs with the Agency.  We felt it was better to demonstrate an existing community-led effort than to speculate on the potential success of the site.

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