The Slow, Sad Crumbling of Urban America in Sometimes Cities


Urban planning and its discontents might seem like dry subjects for a night at the movies, but given how many copies of The Death and Life of Great American Cities and The Power Broker people are reading on the subway, it’s anything but to many young New Yorkers—quite often migrants from ailing American towns.

Anthology Film Archives’ programmers have been particularly receptive to the subject. Its small program “Sometimes Cities” dovetails with a retrospective for Tony Buba, chronicler of Braddock, Pennsylvania’s, downhill slalom, while not so long ago, Lee Anne Schmitt’s California Company Town looked at obsolete Western cities.

The urban America featured in “Sometimes Cities” is that which is often trivialized as “flyover”: the deindustrialized industrial Midwest, cities whose manufacturing jobs and middle-class residents left, taking the tax base along with them, and leaving the downtowns to death by a thousand cutbacks. In Chad Freidrichs’s 2011 documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, the impressive breadth of found footage includes a graphic borrowed from an old TV news program that summarizes the exodus—”Population Loss 1970–1980: St. Louis 28%, Cleveland 24%, Detroit 21%”—while singling out the stars of “Sometimes Cities.”

Freidrichs’s film, through documentation and interviews with former residents and applicable experts, recounts the history of the 33-building, 12,000-resident Pruitt-Igoe housing project constructed on St. Louis’s north side. He examines the eroding factors at work between the houses’ first appearance in 1954, touted as a modernist solution to urban slums, and their mid-1970s demolition, by then rundown and condemned. Although Pruitt-Igoe was reduced to a symbol of federally funded folly, Freidrichs’s talking heads point to other elements that hexed the project, including an official policy that banned able-bodied fathers from subsidized housing and the collapse of the urban-industrial economy.

Most often, the films in “Sometimes Cities” prescribe a dose of old-fashioned socialism as the panacea for sick towns. Stephen Lighthill’s 1980 Taking Back Detroit profiles the “consistent left critique of administration policies”—namely, the business-as-usual doling out of corporate tax abatements—offered by City Councilman Kenneth V. Cockrel and Judge Justin Ravitz, Motor City socialists whose voices oppose that of a villain speaking from offscreen: Chrysler’s Lee Iacocca.

Julien Temple’s 2010 Requiem for Detroit? looks for signs of life amid the debris of the contemporary city, as does Tom Jarmusch’s Cleveland-set piece of POV flaneuring, from which the program’s title comes. The secret subject of Sometimes City, a homely piece of man-on-the-street reporting in a pedestrian-poor town, is Cleveland’s still-gaping racial divide: A tranny prostitute reads from the Beat poet d.a. levy’s Suburban Monastery Death Poem, written in response to the 1968 Hough Riots.

We return to the banks of the Cuyahoga in 1980’s Tighten Your Belts, Bite the Bullet: Cleveland, New York, and the Crisis of America’s Cities, which contrasts two responses to the ’70s’ fiscal crises. In New York, lending banks threatened foreclosure on the city “to take power away from the mayor and city government,” per the didactic narration, and mayors Abraham Beame and Ed Koch kowtow to the board of the Municipal Assistance Corporation set up by the debt holders. This suppliance is unfavorably contrasted to the defiance of Cleveland’s “Boy Mayor” Dennis Kucinich, hero of a standoff between public and private sectors when the Cleveland Trust Company threatened to put the city into default if it wasn’t granted the Municipal Power and Light Company. Not that the Battle of Cleveland won the war. “See that building they’re building?” interjected the former resident with whom I watched Tighten Your Belts. “It’s abandoned now.”