American cities have carried on a love affair with gays and lesbians for much of the past thirty years. It’s no secret that cities covet the disposable income that gays and lesbians pour into the hearts of America’s most blighted communities, turning the worst neighborhoods posh. Witness Washington’s own Dupont Circle. Once a run-down, drug-infested wasteland, it’s now home to million-dollar houses and exorbitant rents. Similar tales of urban renewal stretch across the country. Gays have saved America’s inner-cities, thank you very much.
But at what price?
That’s the question behind the exceptional new documentary Flag Wars from filmmakers Linda Goode Bryant and Laura Poitras, airing on the PBS series, P.O.V. For four years, the two women turned their cameras on the east end of Columbus, Ohio, to see what happens when gay gentrification transforms a historically black and impoverished neighborhood into the new up-and-coming zip code.
The film follows several gay and lesbian home buyers as they move into the Olde Towne East district of Columbus to renovate and refurbish their dilapidated Victorian homes. The black residents, who have lived in the area for years, greet their new neighbors with a mixture of awe and fear. And for good reason. Black families are being displaced. Property taxes are rising. And a black haven in central Ohio is steadily giving way to rainbow flags and dual incomes with no kids. What results is an unfortunate clash between two historically oppressed groups as they seek to carve out their own spaces in the world.
Flag Wars is quintessential PBS: rich, poignant and, above all else, helpful. At every turn, the film goes to extraordinary lengths to tell the story from both points of view, expose bigotry on all sides and uncover the truth.
Most of what’s on television works to divide us, but Flag Wars draws us closer together. One moment, we’re rooting for the single gay man as he works two jobs to breathe new life into his fixer-upper. The next, we feel sympathy for the black artist dragged before the zoning board to defend artwork that violates new zoning rules.
At another turn, ourhearts are breaking for the gay man whose face is smashed with a rock as he’s mugged on an evening stroll. We’re equally distraught over the sickly black woman on public assistance, who’s forced by the zoning board to renovate her house or face jail time.
The gays say they just want to reap the rewards of their investments. They have no animosity toward blacks; they just want to create something beautiful that Columbus can be proud of. The black residents claim they don’t have anything against the gays, either. But they’re feeling the squeeze of rising taxes and tougher zoning regulations. “If we can’t afford to live here,” they ask, “where can we live?”
Flag Wars bounces back and forth between the gay and black perspective to surprising effect: you feel deeply committed to both sides. While the people in the documentary talk at one another and past one another, you find yourself thinking, “If only they could see things from where I sit.”
As the commercial networks load their schedules with so-called reality TV, the cinema-verite Flag Wars is reality in its highest form. It digs beneath the prejudice of Olde Towne’s new and old residents to examine what truly motivates them, and finds that they want the same thing: the American Dream of having a home to call your own.
Dan Odenwald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.