A few weeks ago, a newly digitized version of the 1941 documentary “A Place to Live” was uploaded to YouTube. There is an excellent chance that you never heard of this film, unless you are a rabid movie trivia buff – “A Place to Live” was among 11 films that were nominated in the first competition for the Academy Award’s Best Documentary Short Subject competition.
But for anyone with an interest in issues relating to affordable housing, “A Place to Live” is a milestone achievement that brought the conversation to a completely different level. By using the motion picture medium to push a socio-political agenda, “A Place to Live” forced the public – and, by extension, the political forces of the era – to take a long look at urban squalor and offer a solution to a problem that had been festering for too long.
“A Place to Live” was sponsored by the Philadelphia Housing Association, a nonprofit that was formed in 1911 with the goal of improving the quality and quantity of affordable housing options to the City of Brotherly Love. However, this group found its mission jeopardized when the Great Depression robbed Philadelphia’s municipal government of the funding needed to address the acute living situations in many neighborhoods.
During the 1930s and early 1940s, nonfiction filmmakers began to turn their cameras on the social ills that were created and/or exacerbated by the Great Depression. “A Place to Live” fell into this muckraking movie genre, and the Philadelphia Housing Association worked with filmmaker Irving Lerner to call attention to that city’s housing woes by detailing one family’s life in urban residential misery.
By contemporary standards, it may seem peculiar that the emotional center of “A Place to Live” – a beleaguered mother and her young son, who live in a broken down row house – relies on actors in a scripted narrative setting. But back in those days, it was not uncommon for nonfiction filmmaking to freely incorporate the protocol of dramatic films. However, Lerner shot most of his film on location in Philadelphia’s less desirable neighborhoods, and the scenes showing the boy scrounging for firewood amid the abandoned ruins of slum apartment buildings are highly disturbing – especially when Lerner juxtaposes this small tale of squalor against scenes of Philadelphia’s majestic historic sites and elegant luxury housing.
Oddly, “A Place to Live” is strangely vague about how to solve the affordable housing crisis. There is a brief view of the construction on the Richard Allen Homes, one of Philadelphia’s first federally funded public housing complexes. But the film avoids stating who is paying for this project. Indeed, there is no overt call for anyone – either Uncle Sam or the local elected officials or private developers – to step forward and fix the mess.
For its time, “A Place to Live” was an ingenious tool for affordable housing advocates, and the film enjoyed a number of screenings before organizations devoted to improving housing conditions. Of course, its Oscar nomination gave it a degree of prominence that helped bring audiences to its message. While World War II interrupted housing development in the U.S. for several years, the postwar years began to place a new degree of attention on affordable housing. The results were mixed, with many examples of admirable success and many more of dangerous failure.
Today, the subject of affordable housing generates a great deal of talk – not action, just talk. While there is an urgent need to re-evaluate the state of affordable housing, it seems that no one in either the public or private sector is interested in stepping forward and charting a cogent course of action in regard to this still-percolating situation.
According to a New York Times report in March, affordable housing is still an elusive commodity in Philadelphia, where 26.9 percent of the population is living at or below the federal poverty line and 110,000 families on a waiting list for public housing. Perhaps Philadelphia needs a 2014 edition “A Place to Live” to offer a reminder that this problem never went away – in fact, it appears to have become more dismal.
And if you wish to see “A Place to Live,” you can watch it on YouTube (courtesy of the Prelinger Archives) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EsJ0bUsApC8.
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