Directed by: Francine Cavanaugh, A. Mark Liiv, Adams Wood
Starring: residents of San Francisco's Mission District, Mayor Willie Brown
Local filmmakers Francine Cavanaugh and Adams Wood bring their 2002 feature documentary to the Fine Arts for one showing to benefit the Asheville Community Resource Center -- which, not unlike many of the nonprofit organizations depicted in Boom: The Sound of Eviction, was forced out of its operating location against its wishes.
While Boom deals specifically with the results of the gentrification of lower-income California neighborhoods in San Francisco and Oakland during the dot-com boom a few years back, its lessons are hardly irrelevant to the ACRC situation -- or to any number of situations facing Asheville (or, indeed, any growing city).
Having moved to Asheville from Fort Pierce, Fla. -- a town that was forever projecting plans for the "revitalization" of a "blighted area" -- I've witnessed some of this before. And I've often wondered just where the low-income families living in that area were supposed to go once neighborhood-improvement permitted itself the luxury of occurring.
Boom makes it clear that my personal suspicion -- that those in charge didn't care so long as the residents went elsewhere -- was pretty much on target. This documentary clearly and coherently depicts the displacement of low-income families, along with the elderly and the artistic community, as the parts of town they inhabit are taken over by interests with more money, and more power.
In some ways, it's an old story -- and one that those of us in the South have experienced through the years. (How many times have you found yourself confronted with someone moving into a town they professes to "just love," only to get that whiff of condescension about "amateur night in Dixie," as they proceed to tell us how they're going to "improve" things and show us "how it should be done"?) The specifics -- notably the dot-com aspect of this particular story -- don't matter; the basic saga is the same.
The filmmakers do a very good job of making this point, even if it's done in a blatantly propagandistic manner. They fill the screen with likable, hard-working residents who are being forced out by unfair eviction practices, but they never show us any trace of the very real downside of those neighborhoods that already existed. There's nary a derelict, a drug dealer or a hooker in the world we see -- and the only homeless people in evidence are those put on the street by the current wave of gentrification. Similarly, the film has a tendency to skirt the fact that most of the artists being displaced were themselves originally part of an earlier gentrification process in these neighborhoods.
On the other hand, each and every one of the dot-com people are not merely unlikable, they're so downright strange that they come across like modern versions of the decadent refugees from 1920s Germany. None of this is unfair, since nowhere is it written that a documentary isn't supposed to choose sides and have a point of view. In fact, most documentaries have an agenda, or they wouldn't be made at all.
Yet when you get the sense that things are being dealt from a stacked deck, it tends to make you feel like you're being given only part of the story, and that things are being deliberately withheld. It doesn't help that the film makes two ballot issues -- Proposition L and Proposition K -- central to its message, yet it never clearly explains what these proposed pieces of legislation entail. That, in fact, may be the film's greatest failing.
That said, Boom is often an amazingly powerful document about the lack of compassion inherent in the gentrification process -- as well as a complete lack of understanding on the part of public officials in shepherding the very identity of their city. The film gives us San Francisco with a mayor -- Willie Brown -- who only sees the dazzlement of the quick fix, and is completely blind to what these sweeping changes will do to the very things that make San Francisco unique. It might be argued: "What profit a city if it gains the whole world and loses its identity?" In addressing this question -- and many such others -- Boom scores high marks.
At the same time, Boom is a chilling cautionary tale of what happens when the dizzying lie of endless prosperity finally collapses, leaving things not only unimproved, but in far worse shape than they were -- the damage has been done, and may not be fixable. And that crucial point should be of great concern to any changing city anywhere.
Boom is being screened at 9 p.m. Thursday, March 25 at the Fine Arts Theater. Tickets ($5-$20) are being sold at the venue and through the filmmakers' own Mountain Eye Media.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke