10.23.2007

Dreaming of a New Westcott Theater

Citizens of Syracuse's Westcott Nation, lovers of cinema and defenders of the besieged independent media all have reason to mourn this week. The Westcott Cinema is closing. One of a dying breed, the Cinema is a single screen, independently owned movie house. Certainly, the owner of the structure will look for an alternative tenant, but there are enough empty storefronts in Syracuse for one to guess that finding someone to occupy a run-down, single-screen theater might not be the easiest prospect. There is a good chance that it will go un-occupied for some time to come.

Westcott is a fantastically aberrant neighborhood. For starters, it (like its cinema) is an increasing rarity: an integrated neighborhood. While this most certainly refers to the presence of both whites and blacks within the area, this doesn’t encapsulate the diversity found in this little outlying area. Women in saris pass those in the latest hip-hop fashions. University professors rub elbows with psychics and shamans. At the Credit Union, one is as likely to hear Spanish as English. Our yearly festival features music from places as varied as Havana, the Bronx, Ghana and Nashville.

More than simply an abundance of cultural roots, we also enjoy a fantastic network of community institutions: neighborhood associations, a thriving business strip, a community center, a farmer’s market, a branch library, numerous churches, a neighborhood credit union and a co-operative grocery.

I am sure that various community-oriented minds around the Westcott Nation read ‘opportunity’ into the closing of the Cinema. Space is a precious resource, especially at the convergence of Westcott and Harvard streets and there are many that would love to see their dream come to fill that space. Undoubtedly, someone is thinking of re-opening Westcott once again as an art theater. This is both my hope and my great fear.

It seems to be consensus that something different has to be done. The previous tenant, Nat Tobin, was an experienced cinema owner (he also runs the Manlius Art Cinema) and a great lover of the art form, yet was unable to sustain the enterprise. According to the Post Standard (on October 18th, 2007):

…people have shown interest in creating a new theater on the site that would
show either first- or second-run films. Several local business people have
suggested partnerships in new ventures, including a coffee shop, at the
location. Others have proposed the theater become a venue for live
entertainment…

What is it that I fear about these developments? Simply put, the harmonious cohabitation of numerous racial and cultural groups within a neighborhood is a balance that needs to be continually worked on to be maintained. Sitting on Westcott on a Friday night, one sees both groups of whites and blacks, but they are almost always segregated. I rarely saw anyone that wasn’t a middle-aged, middle-classed and white attending the old Westcott Cinema. The only institutions that pull off this integration well—from what I can see—are the Community Center and the Credit Union, and both of them have had to work hard and, more importantly, consciously at maintaining this balance.

I fear an art cinema, community run or not, that claims to appeal to the ‘community’ but in fact aims only at the wealthiest, whitest and most prestigious of clientele. A place that takes its cues solely from Sundance and where the term ‘foreign film’ rarely extends beyond the art scenes of Western Europe and its Latin American imitators. A place like the misnamed Little Theater in Rochester with its attached jazz club and French pastry shop. I fear a resurrected cinema of fancy coffees, expensive pastries and high brow films—another agent of gentrification.

Do I dislike art films? Am I opposed to liberal-minded documentaries? Of course not, I firmly stand behind cinema that aims for something higher than profit. Yet, I also stand behind a cinema that aims to be a truly community affair. What do the citizens of Westcott Nation—white and black, native and immigrant, young and old, working and middle class—want to see on their screen?

My imagined cinema would show the standard fare of art flicks and documentaries, but also feature popular films from the burgeoning film industries of India and China, second-run Hollywood films to undercut the popularity of corporate cinemaplexes, and bizarre kitsch films like the Rocky Horror Picture Show for nothing more than sheer fun. I see it as a place spiced up with stand-up comics and musical acts, both local and brought in from the outside. I fantasize of each film being preceded by a short produced by a student from a local high school or university. However, in the end, I hope that my dreams carry only as much weight as any of my other neighbors.

How could this be arranged? I see two options for organizing a dream like this: non-profit, or a cooperative of some sort (perhaps a consumer co-0p like the Real Food Co-Op or perhaps a worker-owned one). All of these options would leave control of the destiny of our cinema in the hands of our neighbors.

As we move towards one of these options, we might do well to take a lesson from the Art Cinema of Binghamton. When the old, privately owned, single-screened, Art Theater burned down a few years ago, the cinemaphiles of Binghamton organized screenings of art films in homes and sympathetic places of business. These screenings raised money, attracted attention, built a sense of fellowship among activists and provided the basic framework of an organization that would eventually open a new Art Cinema downtown. If we are to undertake these actions, we must take care to not only respect but also celebrate the beautiful, empowering and, ultimately, fragile diversity that is Westcott.

-By Jesse

2 comments:

Cathy said...

Jesse,

I'm sad. I didn't know it was closing. I guess I actually need to go see something there before it closes.

While I appreciate your comments about integrating the community with a new theater, I think it is difficult for independent theaters to do well. Our local theater had a point where it was almost going to shut down and it required the support of the upper class white community to stay afloat. Simply put, they tried to get 2nd run movies but they still had a problem with ticket sales. But more than that, I think it was a problem with comfort. Our cinema was on a street, much like Wescott, with cute shops and nice, funky restaurants. There was no brick wall, but the lower income, primarily African American population just never crossed into that area. I asked my friends in high school and got various answers, from strange stares to not being interested in any of the movies or things in the area. While the theater has stayed open and managed to strike a balance between catering to the older elite and the young (largely due to their weekly Rocky Horror Picture Show time), they do not seem to have been able to cross the color barrier. I think there are too many people who will go to see a "foreign" film but will not go to see a film with a largely African American cast. So smaller theaters have to make a choice on what sells in order to pay the bills. If your clientèle will watch Baliwood, you play it, but Love and Basketball or Soul Food don't get you far enough away from reality.

Have you ever seen Sullivan's Travels? Not to spoil it for you, but the main character discovers that people just aren't interested in the politically minded, socially meaningful movies during the Depression because they are dealing with that on a daily basis. They go to movies to escape that. The small independent theater can't afford the blockbusters for the most part until they are almost out on DVD and so have created a niche for themselves with the low budget art films. But then again, those films seem only to attract the elites, and not even that often. So what are they to do?

I think the issue is complicated and while the movie lover in me is saddened to see the theater on Wescott go and hopeful of a reprieve and something new and exciting, I fear that this trend will continue.

Cathy

Ellen said...

Jesse,

Would you show good old fashioned Bollywood flicks at your theater, or do you prefer India's "parallel cinema"?

(Nice seeing you at the SU farmer's market, by the way...)