Aug. 1, 2021
This summer, audiences across the country are tentatively dipping their toes back in the water of in-person movie screenings — and local theaters are eager to welcome them back.
An important aspect of this delicate two-step is finding the right films to remind us of the importance of the big screen experience. For many, that means action, car chases, and explosions (Black Widow, F9), or maybe family-friendly fare to keep the kids entertained (Cruella, Space Jam: A New Legacy). In some parts of the country, the biggest attraction might be anything with air conditioning.
But for this reviewer, there was no better reason to return to the cinema than the most American of art forms: the Broadway musical recast as a Hollywood blockbuster. And as a city planner turned movie critic, my first movie back had to be In the Heights.
Directed by Jon Chu (Crazy Rich Asians), written by Quiara Alegría Hudes, and based on an original stage musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame, In the Heights follows the interconnected stories of New York City's Washington Heights neighborhood.
As the film explores, its characters are all dreamers of one kind or another — including, quite literally, a DACA-recipient unsure of how his insecure legal status will affect his future in this country. The largely Latinx and intergenerational cast of characters includes the young owner of a bodega, a local honor student who "got out" by going to an elite college, a civic-minded taxi-dispatcher, a budding fashion designer, and an elderly woman who acts as the entire neighborhood's abuela. Here, however, it's important to acknowledge that the film has been criticized for colorism due to casting mostly lighter-skinned actors to portray a neighborhood well known for its Afro-Caribbean residents and culture.
The songs are great, and the dance numbers are impressive, played out on the streets, parks, plazas, and even the building facades of the city. Many of the scenes were shot on location in New York, and the camera delights in capturing views of the George Washington Bridge and the late-afternoon sunlight streaking across the neighborhood's streetscape of brownstones, stoops, awnings, pavement, and fire-escapes.
But beyond this celebration of the sights and sounds of the city, the film's most important message for planners, community developers, and decision makers is the underlying theme of how people find meaning in a place through their connection with each other, and how imperative preserving both the physical and more intangible elements of those connections truly is.
"It's the story of a block that was disappearing. Once upon a time, in a faraway land called Nueva York, en un barrio called Washington Heights. Say it so it doesn't disappear."
—Usnavi, In the Heights
Because against the simple truth of this message is the tension that drives the story. The very things that people value most — home; each other; small acts of self-expression; a sense of belonging, ownership, history, sharing, memory, and lasting meaning — are all under threat. And not due to some stereotypical "bad guy," but rather from the 1,001 small cuts of everyday forces: gentrification, displacement, migration, economic pressure, and even upward mobility.
As planners well know, some of those threats can result directly from the decisions we make. That's why In the Heights is yet another reminder of our imperative to follow residents' lead when it comes to placemaking and placekeeping. By addressing the basic challenges of community empowerment — and remembering just who the dancers in Jane Jacobs' famous "sidewalk ballet" are — planners can learn from and work with community organizers and residents to help create and preserve the buldings, public spaces, and streets that make our cities feel like home and our neighbors feel like family.
In the Heights is playing in theaters and on video on demand.