Inspired by the efforts of the "Friends of the Lower West Side" and the Save Washington Street coalition to protect the last traces of Manhattan's Little Syria neighborhood, Turkish director Özge Dogan completed an extraordinary documentary film called The Sacred in 2012. Pursued while she obtained a Masters of Fine Arts in Integrated Media Arts at Hunter College while on a Fulbright scholarship, the film has been featured in The New York Times and entered into several film festivals. This endeavor is so significant that I chose to perform the below interview with her, and I encourage you first to watch the embedded film.
The imagery of the film is rooted in various quotidian scenes in these iconic downtown locations that, now, have no directly appreciable trace of the "Little Syria" history. While watching your film, I found myself plaintively grasping for any link to the past to sense in these images, even ghosts. Can you describe what drove your walks through the area, and what drove your selection of these images?
Like many people who have watched the documentary, at my first exposure, I was fascinated by the idea that there was once a multicultural and predominantly Arab neighborhood in the Lower West Side of Manhattan, and that nobody knew about it! I am interested in issues involving gentrification, the role of local actors in corporate property development strategies and the democratization of decision-making processes about city planning. I believe that similar stories exist everywhere in the world. Rather than increasing affordable housing options and expanding public space, it becomes more profitable for local and national actors to support large and lucrative construction projects. It was shocking for me to explore the collective memory of the neighborhood: only three buildings remain to convey, although rather perfectly, the character of the neighborhood in terms of its cultural, economic and religious features. I researched the topic as much as I could until I found people who had spent parts of their lives in Little Syria. I did my best to depict the memories of Marian Sahadi, Mary Ann DiNapoli and Joe Svehlak, and I attempted to intertwine their stories with today's scenes of empty streets with construction vehicles and overwhelming NYPD surveillance. I felt like I did not have any option but to juxtapose today's scenery and the images from the neighborhood in order to reveal the hardship and sense of loss of this small immigrant community. I believe that this kind of irony can emphasize the forgotten history of the city.
Could you touch on why you titled your film The Sacred? Do you think that we invest a sacredness in our memory of place? In historic preservation?
I do not locate myself at a place where I can attribute sacredness to the memories of another individual or a community. I think this is more of a personal thing. But basically, home and the idea of home are sacred to me. We spend our lives in the place we call home, and more importantly we put down roots there. This is why it is ludicrous when politicians and real estate developers claim that a community could easily rebuild in another place or that a brand new community can flourish in any place from scratch. Perhaps shopping malls, highways, bridges and stadiums can attract many people, but that doesn't necessarily mean that a community has been formed.
By saying home I also mean the neighborhood: our relationships with our neighbors, shopkeepers, vendors, etc. The essence of the relationships that we form with our neighbors is trust, and therefore it takes a tremendous amount of time and effort to build a community in which people trust each other and share experiences together. The documentary reveals how the first decades of multicultural immigrant experience in Little Syria established irreplaceable bonds that brought so many different people together, from Arabs to Lithuanians. Now, it is all gone among the ruins of Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, with the assistance of other corporate development policies. I find it crucial to recall these forgotten memories because the missing links in the history of a city can inform us tremendously about what we have lost and about what kind of neighborhoods we should want to live in.
You approached this subject as a foreigner on a Fulbright scholarship who became a New Yorker of sorts during your study. Do you think that the history of Little Syria could resonate outside of New York City? Do you think efforts to preserve the remaining buildings or build memorials could have an impact globally?
Of course, it would be wonderful if the Downtown Community House could be a designated landmark and a constant reminder of Little Syria for people who visit the neighborhood with no understanding of the location's history. Furthermore, I always remember the line that I read in The New York Times by Elizabeth Giddens on the 10th anniversary of September 11: "One generation's solemn effort to never forget is another generation's skateboard platform." For children headed to the September 11 Memorial to possibly become fascinated with the Little Syria quarter on Washington Street through landmark buildings and a memorial could transform perceptions of the city and its history. Instead of glorifying the past without addressing urgent concerns, memorials should embody a true remembrance of communities and people. They should alter one's perception about given facts towards a more contextual, informative and encompassing view of history.
Even though the causes are complex, the recent events in Turkey regarding Gezi Park have emphasized the investment human beings have in place and in memory in connection with place, even in the urban environment. Has the experience of making this film informed your understanding of what triggered and shaped the Occupy Gezi movement?
Definitely. In the making of the documentary I tried to read everything that I could find on gentrification, public space, urban renewal, city culture, etc. The endless construction cycles in various cities in Turkey were something that I had been witnessing in recent years. Yet, it took me some time to comprehend that I was no longer a citizen of this country, supposedly a part of decision-making processes and an organic contributor of politics, but an obedient customer who is expected to think and act in the way that the government desires.
Frankly, when I attended the meetings of the Friends of the Lower West Side group and had conversations with its very talented preservationists, my dominant feeling was admiration -- for their persistence to hold onto the city's history as well as their own neighborhood. So, then, it was thrilling to see the same persistence and courage in my own country with the aim of protecting "a few trees" and keeping public space open for everyone. Unfortunately, these protests took a different course when the government declared that protesters were marginal and irrelevant. And police violence reached a level of brutality which led the protests to be turned into a resistance movement opposing all forms of authoritarianism in the country. Yet I still believe, despite its further ramifications, the Gezi protests have preserved their original motivation to reclaim our agoras -- shared spaces -- where people from all walks of life can come together, discuss and organize. Without any doubt, there is a clear connection between the Gezi protests and my documentary about Little Syria in the sense of people opposing inexorable capitalist greed, in particular neoliberal policies, to keep their communities and "homes" intact.