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    7th Street

    Denied gentry

    "7th Street" preserves the memory of some of the vanishing characters of the rapidly gentrifying Lower East Side but doesn't transcend the atmosphere of a home movie.


    "7th Street" is a documentary of the gentrification of New York City's once bohemian counterculture mecca of 7th Street over a ten-year period — from 1992 to 2002. The film, told from the perspective of actor/filmmaker Josh Pais, chronicles the changes of what Pais calls his "street" and "blood" families during this period; that is, the disappearance of the multiracial community of hippies, junkies, and bohemians, his street family, and Pais's own emergence into adulthood in relation to his blood family — his parents, wife, and child. Pais places his personal experiences into a broader social context, a la Forest Gump, framing his film with the message: "There are two ways to learn about the world. One way is to travel all over the planet and see all the different lands. And the other way is to stay in the same place."

    Directed by: Josh Pais.
    Featuring: Manny, Merlin, Rino Thunder, May and Ray, Yury, Rex..

    Related links: Official site
    What's so interesting about Pais's documentary are the stories he tells. For instance, Pais played Raphael in the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." How cool is that? His father is a theoretical physicist who escaped a Gestapo prison during World War II and was later invited by Robert Oppenheimer to work with Albert Einstein in Princeton. Pais's mother was a floor model for Sacks and Bergdorf Goodman. She was also a poet, painter, and after his parents' divorce, the neighborhood matriarch who presided over a sort of salon of fellow artists.

    When his parents divorced, Pais was forced to grow up in two very different New York worlds — that of his father's Upper East Side and of his mother's Lower East Side. He lived on 7th Street but attended the exclusive private school Dalton. He says at one point that he would listen to his father's friends — Nobel Laureates and fellow scientists discuss the evolution of the universe — and then head on down to his mother's house to listen to his mother's friends — hippies, junkies, and artists — discuss the evolution of the universe.

    Manny in 7th Street  
    Pais also introduces the audience to the eclectic neighborhood residents. There are May and Ray — a gentle elderly couple with a tabby cat who seem as if they would be better suited to the quiet pace of rocking chairs in a New England cottage than the drug-infested streets of the Lower East Side. Until, of course, they talk about the harsh realities of living on the then-crime-ridden 7th Street, and of their love of the healing and unifying power of the arts in such an urban setting.

    Then there is Manny, the street-tough 80-something-year-old who, the other residents claim, made millions of dollars from hoarding his profits from can and plastic recycling. Manny is constantly saying things like, "I made peace with the Italians" and "They didn't bother me no more after that" while winking slyly and playfully at the women off-camera. Pais shows him walking the street in a beat-up fedora hat and fur-lined shearling coat while picking through garbage cans with his friend William, a Hispanic Catholic converting to Judaism.

    And I can't forget to tell you about Merlin — the college-educated homeless philosopher-drunkard whose son was beaten to death by his ex-wife's boyfriend. And Rino, his mother's lover, a Native American with long silver hair who takes in every stray dog he comes across. And Yury, the Russian artist. And oh oh oh — his cousin Rex who dodged the draft and hid out in Pais's closet while two FBI agents interrogated Pais in his room, one sitting on his bed asking him question after question, the other slowly picking up and investigating Pais's toys.

      Merlin in 7th Street
    Doesn't this all sound so interesting? It is — on paper. But for some reason the actual film was not as engrossing or heart-wrenching as I hoped it would be. Maybe it's the way the film was shot — as a home video interspersed with shots of Pais's childhood pictures and New York Times clippings.

    While watching it I had a nagging feeling that it was on the cusp of something greater than the individual stories Pais relays. It almost — but not quite — fully integrated the broader culture into the lives he chronicled. I was expecting some sort of thought-provoking and educational commentary about the effects that national and local economics and politics had on the residents of this particular community. In the end, all I learned was what I already know — that the East Village and Lower East Side have been gentrified. And I was left with a waxy, kind of superficial nostalgia for the past and vaguely accusatory feeling towards the neighborhood's current residents for not being as eclectic and tough as those of Pais's childhood.

    See "7th Street" if you want to hear the personal stories and outcomes of the film's characters, which are really sad. Otherwise, just read this review.

    JANUARY 17, 2003

    Reader comments on 7th Street:

  • [no subject]   from clayton, Apr 30, 2003
  • Re: [no subject]   from mike, Aug 17, 2003
  • Re: [no subject]   from DW, Aug 25, 2003
  • 7th Street   from Ava Korngut, Sep 4, 2003
  • Re: 7th Street   from Joe, Aug 17, 2004
  • Re: [no subject]   from ron forteo, Feb 6, 2006
  • Rino Thunder   from Elspeth Macdonald, Nov 23, 2003
  • Re: Rino Thunder   from roxanne jitomir, Apr 9, 2004
  • Re: Rino Thunder   from ron forteo, Feb 6, 2006
  • elspeth macdonald   from donald vance, Nov 24, 2004
  • "7TH STREET"   from JAMES DURAN, Aug 27, 2004
  • Yuppie Scum   from Ringo, Dec 25, 2004
  • [no subject]   from ANGEL CANALES, Feb 9, 2005
  • Rino Thunder   from Kiowa Steve, Mar 12, 2005

  • Post a comment on "7th Street"