Envision Television: Charting the Cultural Geography of Homelessness

Publication TypeUnpublished
AuthorsHowley, Kevin
SourceEcumene, Volume 8, Issue 3 (2001)
Full Text: 

In the darkness of a cramped stairwell, its walls covered with the graffiti scrawls of budding urban artists and disaffected young people, Curry Loc addresses the camera with a proud and defiant rap. Dressed in shades of blue that mark him as a member of the Crips-one of several gangs that inhabit the streets of Brooklyn, New York-he recites a litany of social and economic ills that make up his day, and the days of his family and friends. But this is not another style-conscious gangsta rap music video reveling in violence, misogyny and conspicuous consumption. Nor is it one more in a series of spurious investigative news reports on troubled times in America's "inner cities." An Orwelian turn of phrase, popular with bureaucrats, politicians and television talking heads, that obscures the economic deprivation and racial divisiveness it is meant to reveal. This video, and others like it, was produced by a team of homeless teenagers as part of a media arts and training program called Envision Television (e-TV).

e-TV is the latest youth program offered by Downtown Community Television (DCTV), a media access center located in New York City's Chinatown. Founded in 1972 by documentary filmmakers Jon Alpert and Keiko Tsuno, DCTV provides free and low-cost video production training, equipment and services to individuals and community groups whose voices and perspectives are largely absent from mainstream media. In addition to facilitating video program production, DCTV exhibits and distributes programming that is rarely, if ever, available through commercial or public service media outlets. Over the years, DCTV's in-house productions and community projects have graphically demonstrated video's potential as an agent of progressive social change and a vehicle for local cultural expression. Of DCTV's most notable tapes, those dealing with the immigrant experience in America, everyday life in Castro's Cuba, expos�s on the condition of the city's health care and prison systems, and the consequences of substance abuse have won numerous awards for their aesthetic innovations and journalistic integrity. Like other media access initiatives, then, DCTV plays a significant, but largely unacknowledged role in enhancing the social, civic and cultural life of local communities.

Supported through the Soros Foundation's Open Society Institute, the e-TV scholarship program offers media literacy and video production training at two of the city's temporary housing facilities, the Amboy Neighborhood Center in Brooklyn and the HELP center in the Crotona section of the Bronx. This unique training program gives 40 young people living in temporary housing unprecedented access to digital video cameras, lights, microphones and related production gear, as well as non-linear editing systems. For an intensive 10 week training period, DCTV instructors travel to the shelters twice a week to teach students the basics of scriptwriting, camera operation, interviewing techniques, and computer-assisted video editing.
The first stage of the e-TV program culminated on 29 June 2000, when DCTV screened a series of poignant and rather adroitly executed Public Service Announcements (PSAs) dealing with issues of homelessness and economic justice. For example, one PSA features a first-person narrative of how fire forced one family to take up residence in a temporary housing facility. Another describes the difficulties of securing affordable housing for the growing ranks of the working poor. Other projects likewise attempt to explode stereotypes surrounding the city's homeless population. For the second phase of the e-TV program, 10 students are selected to continue their training for one full year. During this time, students continue to hone their single camera production skills and begin work in DCTV's recently opened Cyberstudio-a hybrid multi-camera production studio and Internet distribution outlet.

In the process, e-TV seeks to achieve a number of related objectives. First, e-TV helps demystify media production processes and techniques by giving students hands-on production experience. In this way, e-TV illuminates the constructed nature of television texts and underscores the complex issue of representation within and through media. Second, the e-TV program equips students with skills that can have significant educational or occupational consequences. Like DCTV's other youth initiatives, e-TV provides economically disadvantaged young people with professional training in television production. Finally, but perhaps most importantly, e-TV gives students an opportunity to explore for themselves the expressive and sociopolitical potential of the medium. At a time when media form and content increasingly reflects the narrow range of interests of a handful of transnational corporations, e-TV articulates the fears, hopes and aspirations of homeless young people. Put another way, e-TV gives young people living in temporary housing an opportunity to speak in their own voice, and on their own terms, to the forces and conditions that determine the character and quality of their everyday lives. Viewed in this light, e-TV provides first-hand, if rarely seen or heard, perspectives on the cultural geography of the city's homeless population.

Straight from the Hood, a short documentary by e-TV producers from the Amboy Neighborhood Center, captures the complex interactions between area residents and the spatial, material and institutional conditions of one of the city's 133 temporary housing facilities. In a stark and often unsettling fashion, this tape vividly conveys the everyday lived experience of a sizable (and growing) population that leads an acutely marginalized existence. Dimly lit and sparsely furnished rooms are overcrowded by large extended families; barren city streets serve as playgrounds for young children; teenagers and young adults congregate on street corners with nothing better to do; and shopkeepers conduct business from behind bullet-proof counters. Throughout, the video highlights the paradoxical nature of community among families living in temporary housing: a vague but persistent feeling of foreboding undermines scenes that suggest a sense of camaraderie and fellowship among Amboy residents. In one brief but particularly jarring sequence, the innocent ritual of children returning home from school erupts into a violent altercation between a group of young women.

Significantly, the program focuses much of its attention on the gang culture that permeates this Brownsville neighborhood: an area that has the well-deserved but unenviable reputation as one of the poorest sections of the city. Leveraging the e-TV crew's "insider status" as Amboy residents, and in some cases, as gang members themselves, Straight from the Hood illustrates the various methods gangs use to demarcate and police their "turf." Several scenes are shot in nominally public spaces, such as street corners, convenience stores, hallways, and stairwells that "belong"-in the fullest sense of the word-to gang members. In this way, the tape reveals how gangs come to occupy and make use of their local environment through various social practices: initiation rites, drug use, rapping, styling, or simply just hanging out. Likewise, the tape graphically demonstrates how the gang's representational practices-most notably the selection and display of clothing, the flagrant exhibition of and fierce competition for consumer goods, the use of physical gestures and "secret" handshakes, the ubiquitous presence of graffiti, and the deft use of idiomatic expressions-are part of the wider processes of identity formation, community building and geographic imagining among young people at Amboy.

Equally important, the tape features remarkably candid interviews with gang members and others whose perspectives illuminate the overdetermined character of Amboy's cultural geography. In one visually striking scene, the camera, as if it were riding alongside him, follows Curry Loc on his bicycle as he describes a neighborhood park in starkly ironic terms. While pointing out the rundown conditions of the park, a haven for "alcoholics and weed heads," Curry Loc laments the impact this environment has on young children. He observes that the lack of economic opportunity and meaningful employment exacerbates residents' despondency and reproduces a nearly inescapable dependency on social services, welfare payments and foods stamps-what he calls "Black American Express." In a forcefully convincing yet decidedly atheoretical fashion, Curry Loc articulates the dynamic ways in which place shapes culture and, in turn, how culture shapes place.

This understanding is not lost on other residents. When asked why gangs are so prevalent among Amboy residents, a pair of young girls respond that the teenage boys have little else to do with their time other than run with a gang. In the absence of meaningful employment and educational opportunities, many teenagers find a sense of purpose and belonging in gang-related activities. A middle-aged man, whose teenage sons are gang members, suggests that security is the motivation behind their involvement with gangs. A brief interview with Jacob Woodberry, one of the e-TV producers, bears out this assertion. In describing a recent confrontation with a rival gang, the Bloods, he matter of factly observes that they "did what they had to do." In response, he and his fellow gang members retaliated. Underlying this cycle of attack and counterattack are social and economic conditions that foster and perpetuate a culture of violence, intimidation and despair.

Another e-TV production focuses on the criminalization of the homeless. Produced by residents of the HELP facility in the Bronx, this tape explores the complex relationship between the working poor, urban space, social service agencies, and law enforcement officials. In a parody of investigative journalism, "intrepid" television reporter John Bond (portrayed by e-TV producer Robert Lewis ) is hard-pressed to conceal his fear and loathing of homeless people. Like other journalists, John Bond can not get past his preconceived notions of what it means to be homeless, relying instead on stereotypes that equate homelessness with laziness, substance abuse, or madness. Such is the power of media representations to naturalize highly selective versions of reality. Stereotypes of what it means to be homeless persist in the imaginations of media producers and consumers alike, including the work of e-TV producers.

In this way, the tape suggests the significance of media and media representations in shaping and informing the cultural geography of homelessness. To be sure, street people are the most visible sign of the homeless problem. And yet, street people account for only a fraction of the entire homeless population. When homelessness is depicted in such a derogatory and one-dimensional manner, public perceptions of the homeless are inevitably quite limited. Far from illuminating the socio-economic forces and conditions that contribute to the rising number of the city's homeless population, these accounts contribute to the marginalization, and the demonization of homeless people.

With the help of DCTV instructors Renata Gangemi and Orlando Richards, these novice producers attempt to avoid the pitfalls of portraying the homeless in such unambiguous and homogeneous terms. Penetrating interviews with homeless people belie any such pat generalizations. For instance, discussions with street people underscore the absurdity of penalizing the homeless for panhandling in the subway or sleeping on park benches. Indeed, for a population that is routinely dismissed as mentally unstable, interviewees provide rather lucid critiques of New York City's so-called "Quality of Life" laws: recently enacted legislation that is part of Mayor Rudy Gulliani's ill-conceived "solution" to the problem of homelessness. Furthermore, interviews with working people who, in the face of low wages and skyrocketing rents, find themselves homeless provide a stark contrast to conventional portraits of the homeless as a group that is unable or unwilling to earn a living. Rather, the growing number of homeless people on the streets and in temporary housing units are frustrated by their inability to make ends meet, despite their long hours of labor. These interviews reveal yet another dimension of the cultural geography of homelessness; the working poor lead a transient lifestyle. Following eviction from their own residences, they either move in with family or friends, into the shelters, or in some cases, out into the streets.

Speaking from their personal experiences as residents of temporary housing facilities, the producers of e-TV are charting the cultural geography of New York City's homeless population. Their work illuminates the complex processes through which homeless people cope with their situation and come to make sense of their surroundings. In doing so, e-TV reminds us that the urban environment-and the cultural meanings attached to city streets, subway stations, and other public spaces-shapes, and is shaped by, all those who inhabit it, including the city's homeless.

Written by Kevin Howley with research assistance by Mami Kuwano.

Originally published in Ecumene

Group Name: 
Downtown Community TV Center
Group Dates: 
1972 -
Group Location: 
New York City