Breaking cars and communities

by October 11, 2010

There are glimpses of mankind’s relationship with cast-off objects that stick with you. The salvage and re-use of coral-cinder blocks from abandoned buildings in Barbados; the breaking of mammoth ships into scrap metal on the Alang beaches of India. Though intellectually we know such scenes are not necessarily negative — recycling is a virtue, remember — there is something in us that finds them saddening, even tragic.

One needn’t visit the developing world to see things like these. Willets Point, in the New York City borough of Queen’s, is a major centre for the dismantling of cars and the re-sale of their parts. It is also the focus of a controversy over the city’s plans to redevelop the area with a convention centre, office buildings, stores, and 5,500 units of housing (“one of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s signature projects”, observed the New York Times), relocating all of the Point’s existing businesses to do so. In Foreign Parts, a film that recently won a Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival for Best First Feature, anthropologists Véréna Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki focus on Willets Point’s community of business people, customers, homeless, and its one formal resident. Robert Koehler provides a compelling review of the film in the most recent issue of Cinema Scope:

These complaints fill out a study of a failed corner of a corner of a country that is showing every sign of epidemic collapse, if current readings of economic and employment statistics and the sclerotic political environment tell us anything at all. While 39th Avenue provides the foreground for Foreign Parts, the background is an impending $3 billion redevelopment project backed by the Bloomberg administration that’s set to transform Willets Point into an inevitable sprawl of malls, offices, and condos accelerating the pattern of gentrification that has swept across much of New York for decades. Nearly everyone in front of Paravel and Sniadecki’s camera is far too consumed with work and/or survival to spend time fighting City Hall’s big plans, and the one guy who does—crusty, loud-mouthed 76-year-old Willets native Joe Ardizzone—shows up for meetings that fail to happen and doesn’t even own a personal computer.


Visit the film’s website here.