Saturday, January 26, 2008

Clips from the Upcoming Documentary...

Clip of Monica Robinson, resident, teacher and community activist. She lives in the area of the city that used to be called Newtown, a predominantly African-American neighborhood on the north side of the city. Newtown was established as an independent town adjacent to Harrisonburg by freed slaves from the Shenandoah Valley following the Civil War--later, the area was incorporated into the city. During the 1960's, under the guise of "urban renewal," the city razed housing and African-American businesses in this area, which many say the community hasn't recovered from.

This same area continues to have a strong sense of community and now in addition to African Americans, Latinos and immigrant groups are settling there. This has led the city and its police department to dub the community a "weed and seed" district, part of a federal initiative that seeks to "weed" out criminals and "seed" human services in designated high crime areas. Robinson and her neighbors balk at their historic neighborhood being characterized as "weedy," so she and some other volunteers have organized a branch of Copwatch in the city, to advocate for community policing, monitor and try to prevent police abuses and to help people understand their rights in relation to the police. I went on patrol with Copwatch during the filming of this documentary.

Clip of an interview with Todd Hedinger, Harrisonburg resident active in Friends of Blacks Run Greenway, an organization dedicated to preserving the eleven mile long Blacks Run stream that runs through the city and building a greenway trail along the trunk of the Run.

Clip of an interview with Fred Cooper, long-time Harrisonburg resident and folk artist. He would probably shy away from the term folk artist, but I can't think of a better way to describe his work. He has spent the better part of his life's free time outside of work sketching the houses and buildings of the city before they met with the wrecking ball. In years past, when he would hear of a building that was about to be demolished, he would drop what he was doing and run over to preserve it in his notebooks. When he missed drawing a building before it was down, he would do research to find a photograph or old postcard in order to complete his drawing. Sometimes he only had his memory for a guide. His drawings, and there are hundreds and hundreds, comprise an unbelievable history of the lost parts of the city.

What's the Harrisonburg/Rocktown Connection?

There's not much on the web about the origin of the name, but prior to the founding of Harrisonburg, the area was known as "Rocktown," by the settlers passing through along the Wilderness Road, a migration route originally called the "Great Warrior Path" by the Native Americans who traveled it. It seems that the name was in use throughout the 1700's and up until at least 1818, and then it seems to have been lost for a while. There's been a fairly recent resurgence of the use of "Rocktown" in Harrisonburg; while I don't recall ever hearing the name before I left in 1994, it's now the name of a weekly paper in the city, a music venue, a yard shop, a gift shop, a radical info shop, etc.

According to a Mobile Gas Travel website, the area was called Rocktown because of the massive amounts of limestone that forms the basis of much of the city and surrounding area. I haven't been able to find any other document that confirms this, but it seems obvious enough and was my first guess. The county around the independent city of Harrisonburg is Rockingham County, which was named after the Marquis de Rockingham, an English statesman friendly to the area. But the founding of Rockingham Co. occurred long after people started calling Harrisonburg "Rocktown."

I've used Rocktown in the working title of this documentary because I wanted to call up the spirit of the place and it's origins, as a tiny settlement arranged around some natural springs, when things were simpler and there wasn't a Wal*Mart Superstore in every direction (there are two within the city and eight within a 45 mile radius).

The Making of Rocktown the Documentary

In the Spring of 2006, I traveled back to the small town I grew up in in Virginia to shoot a documentary about how my hometown had changed. It had been 12 years since I lived in Harrisonburg, a small town founded in 1779 in the Shenandoah Valley.

But I had visited many times, and each time I saw that something more had been lost. Like many small towns across the U.S., Harrisonburg, VA is struggling through rapid development. Most long-time residents would say it began long before I ever left, when the Valley Mall was cut into the rich, red farmland east of Interstate 81. That was in the '70s, when my mother was attending college and she can remember when there was nothing on that side of the highway but farmland. All of that has changed.

Few areas of the city remain untouched by the combination of factors conspiring to change Harrisonburg: the intense growth of James Madison University, changing from a small, women-only normal school just after the turn of the last century to a student body of more than 17,000 today; the decline of traditional agriculture as the main economic force in the city and the assent of the retail and service industries as the predominant source of jobs; and the complete reshaping of the physical landscape and the local identity and culture precipitated by the twin growth spurts of the university and the retail economy.

Even though I now lived hundreds of miles from my hometown, I felt a personal loss. I first felt this loss when the house I was brought home to as a newborn was torn down, along with those of all the neighbors I had grown up with, in order to accomodate several parking lots and office buildings for JMU. Now my actual street, Patterson St., is, as I write, being removed from the map of the city due to the building of a new academic building for the campus across the street's former entrance. My high school had been leased to JMU; the hospital I was born in has been sold to them as well.

But it wasn't just JMU's movement across Main, across 81, radiating it's growth in all directions from the city that was causing my feelings of loss--it was also that long time residents I knew were chafing against the changes and felt alienated in their own city; that when you drove out on 33 East you could literally become overwhelmed and dizzy by all the chain stores and restaurants, one after another that had cut themselves into the base of the mountains; that people couldn't afford the rents anymore; that the number of hundred year farms was shrinking dramatically; that the city was starting to take on that bland pallor of a place overrun and homogenized--the local was being pushed out by the multi-national. It was no coincident that almost everyone I interviewed, when asked how Harrisonburg had changed over their time there, catagorically exclaimed, "It's just like Northern VA!" If you're not familiar with NOVA, as it's called by it's people, it is the essence of suburban sprawl.

This was the backdrop against which I shot 40 plus interviews with a diverse group of city residents--some supportive of the changes, some against, most bewildered and uncertain about them, and also feeling the loss I felt. I felt that this story was important to tell because it is now a somewhat universal experience, occurring in small towns across the country. It felt like someone should say, "Wait, let's stop and figure this thing out. Is this really what we want?"