“Living Los Sures”: What Was Williamsburg Like in 1984?

(Film still from "Los Sures," 1984)

After five years of working on what Christopher Allen, founder of Union Docs–the non-profit documentary arts organization that’s been active in Williamsburg for over a decade now–calls “our biggest project ever,” Living Los Sures is nearing completion. And a Kickstarter campaign with just 10 days left on the clock is what Allen is hoping will get them there.

The project started with the recovery of Los Sures, a 1984 documentary about the Latino community living on the south side of Williamsburg when it was one of the roughest neighborhoods in the city. Pamela Yates and Paco de Onis, filmmakers and partners at the Brooklyn-based production company Skylight Pictures, first introduced Allen to the film back in 2007.

“We watched it and found it to be not just a very well made, interesting, and emotive film but also a window into the history of the neighborhood, the cultural elements, and the struggle many people who continue to live in the neighborhood had gone through,” Allen says. Shortly thereafter, UnionDocs began screening the film at local events and tracked down the director, Diego Echeverria.

Five years ago, Allen and the people at UnionDocs set about about restoring Los Sures as well as deconstructing it in ways that have enabled them to expand dramatically on what we take for granted as “documentary film.” The result is Living Los Sures, an experimental foray into the genre of documentary, a social justice initiative, and historical memory project.

“We always aspired to be connected locally and we have a real sense of investment in the community,” Allen says. “Los Sures offered us a way in which we could connect to longer term residents and celebrate and sort of augment and enrich the existing culture, rather than just coming in here and doing our own thing.”

Allen added: “We basically acknowledge a newcomer status and we’ve tried to find a way to respect the history of the place and sort of make that history stronger.”

This spiel might sound familiar, like a something we imagine documentarians say to people when trying to convince them to participate as subjects. The usual order of producing a documentary is to pick a subject, find your characters, follow them around for as long as it takes to get the footage you need, and say goodbye before you retire to a dark room to edit for close to eternity. Making a documentary more often that not involves a fleeting relationship with your subject.

But Allen is wary of what’s typically a tentative relationship between documentarian and subject. “We’re a brick and mortar facility that’s located in the place [that is the subject of the documentary] and we have a longer term commitment to the neighborhood,” he explained. “I think for us, more than any one issue, it’s really about a sense of place and a sense of community and a sense of creating relationships.”

For Allen, this is not empty rhetoric, Living Los Sures has directly involved the subjects of documentation (the south side community) in the process by recruiting individuals to tell their own stories. And instead of simply restoring the original film, UnionDocs has sought to expand on the original story and connect the present with the past. What’s more, they are sharing the fruits of their labor with the neighborhood.

(Right-left) Diego Echeverria and Fernando Moreno speak with community members on a street in Los Sures.

They’ve launched an impressive web platform which gives users, and ideally members of the south side community, access to the expanded project, which includes 30 short films focusing on individual stories: an 11 minute film almost completely without discernible dialogue shot from the point of view of a silent voyeur observing various landscapes in and around the disputed Broadway Triangle, another following a 16-year-old Dominican girl on her birthday, and one focusing on the last Puerto Rican social club left in the neighborhood. And the docs don’t just focus on the Latino community, they provide a diverse glimpse into the lives of all sorts of people who live in the neighborhood.

“There’ s a real expansion in terms of the scope with the shorts and there’s an attempt to broaden the number of voices that are participating in history,” Allen explained.

Living Los Sures has also reassessed traditional storytelling. For example 89 Steps is their interactive, web-based documentary that follows Marta, one of the main characters featured in the original documentary film. More than 20 years later, UnionDocs found Marta still living in the neighborhood she’d called home for more than 40 years. However they found her struggling as an elderly person living on her own.

“[Visitors to the web platform] can follow Marta in a critical moment in her life where she has to decide whether or not she can stay in the neighborhood,” Allen explained. “And the big conflict for her is also the name of the piece, which comes from the number of stairs she has to walk up to get to her 6th floor apartment.”

The web platform allows users to choose their own adventure, so to speak by navigating through scenes and moving about through the story freely, and in a non-linear fashion if they so choose.

Shot By Shot is another effort that picks apart the idea of documentary film. UnionDocs zeroed in on several moments in Los Sures, picked people out from the background, from the crowds and either tracked them down or sought out their families. However Shot By Shot proved to be a momentous task, and is still in the works.

04 Los Sures Map

“By last summer we’d done 40 interviews,” Allen explained. “It’s been amazing to take it this far, but we’ve only scratched the surface. So over the course of the next 6 months, we’re planning to conduct about 100 more interviews, so we have a collection of stories closer to 1,500, and can make it the rich history it deserves to be.”

Talk about extensive historical documentation. But one might ask why all this is necessary? Why go to all the trouble? Because Allen and UnionDocs understand history as an essential part of community strength, in fact one of their promises to Kickstarter donors is that Living Los Sures has the potential to redefine the history of the neighborhood.

We asked Allen what the current narrative of the neighborhood’s history is, and why that might need to be adjusted. “I think pretty much there’s an absence of history prior to the 90s,” Allen explained. “There’s sort of a sense that the history of Williamsburg starts with some of the largely white artists moving here for cheap rent outside of Manhattan. The reality is that there were communities here before that.”

Considering the countless articles we’ve seen, mostly pieces cordoned off in the Real Estate section (God help them), that portray Brooklyn as a place where “no one” lived prior to the influx of luxury housing and artisanal mustard palaces–Allen isn’t far off in his assessment.

“In a lot of ways I think there’s just not even really a consciousness that the south side was, and continues to be a really important Latino neighborhood,” he continued. “In Manhattan you have El Barrio, but the history in Williamsburg is sort of underrepresented, though in many ways equally as important because especially for the Puerto Rican and Dominican communities, their first stop was in Los Sures when they came here. “

As part of the historical memory project, UnionDocs has teamed up with El Puente, the longstanding Williamsburg community organization to incorporate the documentary into a lesson plan that could be taught to local students.  “We’ve been talking to them about an arts curriculum that would be used in local high schools that takes all the work that’s been done with Living Los Sures and uses it to explore both the history of the neighborhood and media as an art form,” Allen explained.

The Kickstarter campaign, if realized, will cover the costs of preparing Living Los Sures for digital distribution as well as screening it as a theatrical release. But UnionDocs also hopes to raise enough money to fund a mural commissioned by local cartoonist José Luis Medina to cover the facade of the organization’s building.

All this is super ambitious, if not totally lofty–and as Allen said, “way more than what you can cram into a 90 minute experience”—but it shows that UnionDocs is committed to making Living Los Sures into so much more than a documentary film. 

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Ah yes.
    it’s sooooo much “better”, eh? Is it? Oh the bad old days.
    Really. For whom? For the people who used to live there?
    Is it “better” to be kicked out of your home, the place that you have lived your entire life,
    where your roots and friends and institutions are all located, such as it is,
    —-by outsiders who happen to come in one day and say:
    Hey I like the place, it has potential. Now get out.”

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