Out on the street: Streetfilms' New York-based founder Clarence Eckerson, Jr., was in town last week to screen new Streetfilms from San Francisco filmmakers and experienced The Wiggle bike route's new green bike box.

Streetfilms' Two-Wheeled Revolution

Adam Hartzell March 31, 2010

Although pedestrians have always propelled narratives as characters walk and talk on cinema’s sidewalks, the bicycle hasn’t always had a starring role. Perhaps because we’re beginning the 21st century cognizant of the need for significant city infrastructure upgrades to address global warming and survive a post peak oil future, that’s all changing. Bikes are cool again onscreen. One need only look at Barry Jenkins’ wonderful Medicine for Melancholy to see the future of bicycles in cinema, how two characters pedaling through San Francisco allowed Jenkins a means to project an intimate texture to our fair city. And if one wants to further check out how trains, feet and bicycle wheels will be impacting our cinema futures, one only needs to go online to Streetfilms, whose mission is "documenting livable streets worldwide."

Streetfilms is part of the Streetsblog network initiated by software start-up success story, Mark Gorton, creator of the peer-to-peer file sharing website LimeWire and CEO of the Lime Group. Author Jeff Mapes describes Gorton in Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists are Changing American Cities as “an archetype–a privileged, well-educated white guy who wasn’t used to being treated shabbily until he tried to ride a bicycle on the street. And that turned him into an activist.“ Those streets were the streets of New York, and part of that activism has been the reporting on urban planning policies and practices in the Streetsblog network. Focusing primarily on New York, Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and San Francisco. Our city’s cog in this larger wheel of a blog is funded additionally by one of our own software entrepreneurs, Jonathan Weiner of Fine Print Software, along with the Wallace Global Fund.

Streetfilms is an equal part of the Streetsblog effort to destroy the myths around our car culture, establishing new memes of the freedom provided by cities built on a human scale, privileging active transport and public transportation. Coined by Aaron Naparstek, a Brooklyn community leader who also had a hand in the genesis of Streetsblog, Streetfilms uses short videos to inform viewers about urban planning projects essential to pedestrians, cyclists, and public transit riders, all the while providing a new vision of our cities from the perspective of pedestrians and cyclists rather from the windshield of a car. As Mapes notes, “If the streets [of New York] became crowded with bikes, you’d see it in countless movies, television shows, and news stories.

The director, producer and editor behind many of the videos on Streetfilms is New York-based Clarence Eckerson, Jr. Following in the footsteps of such great urban planning thinkers as Jane Jacobs and James Earl Kunstler, Eckerson had no formal training before becoming an advocate for sustainable cities. Like Jacobs and Kunstler, his training was as a city dweller taking note of what worked and what didn’t work in the city in which he lived. Eckerson has never held a driver’s license, so his take on cities has always been from the vantage point of a pedestrian, cyclist and transit rider. And he literally walks the walk (or pedals the wheel) in that the overwhelming majority of his Streetfilms videos are produced on foot, bicycle or public transit, each video humanly scaled.

As well as being a self-taught urbanist, Eckerson is a self-taught documentary filmmaker. “I have always been interested in filmmaking since I was a teenager and had an old 8mm camera. . . . When the video age finally came about near the turn of the century, I looked at what schools were charging for classes to learn all this new technology and I just empowered myself. I decided instead of going to school and spending thousands of dollars on classes, I could buy the equipment outright for less and teach myself at my own rate. Anyone can do that, but that also requires working hard and learning a lot through trial and error.”

One of the most-watched videos on Streetfilms is Eckerson’s “Ciclovia”. And one of those who have watched it is San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. That video of car-free events in Bogota, Colombia, is partly credited with encouraging the implementation of Sunday Streets San Francisco begun last year in the Mission District, along the Great Highway and through the Embarcadero in San Francisco, and expanding to other neighborhoods soon.

Eckerson describes Streetfilms as "one third filmmakers, one third journalists, and one third advocates”. He adds, “I have always seen Streetfilms as a learning tool to enlighten, entertain, inform and energize viewers and advocates about hard-to-grasp transportation concepts.” This follows the arguments of James Earl Kunstler, who has strongly encouraged people to become familiar with actual urban design terms in order to better implement positive enhancements in their cities and streets. Don’t simply ask for "green space," the argument goes, because you might end up with just a tree, and what’s worse, possibly the wrong kind of tree for your region.

Each Streetfilms video includes images of everyday cyclists and pedestrians, normalizing their activities, often contrasting the freedom of biking with the obstructions and isolation of car culture. A video may show cyclists in groups smiling as they pass, or might quick cut to someone pedaling one of those lovely bikes with a storage bin in front for easy human transport of bulkier items. Everyday citizens are shown relaxing or engaged in conversation in the newly implemented public pedestrian plazas of Madison Square in New York, 17th Street Plaza in San Francisco, or the Park(ing) Day festivities throughout the world where people reclaim a parking spot as a temporary urban park oasis, a project started by the San Francisco urban design group Rebar.

Filmmakers in San Francisco have built their own Streetfilms niche. John Hamilton, whose preferred method of human-propelled transportation is inline skating, says he has been “with the movement to calm traffic and to free urban space for cyclists and pedestrians” for some time and he began contributing to SF Streetfilms last summer. His video of last year’s Park(ing) day is an inspiring piece on innovative ways to challenge the car paradigm with lots of helpful information from the folks at SPUR (San Francisco Planning + Urban Research Association). Paul Jaffe provided the camerawork, editing and music for the piece about the proposed Piazza Saint Francis outside Caffe Trieste. The project has an advocate in poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti whom producer (and editor of Streetsblog San Francisco) Bryan Goebel interviews for the short. This video quickly introduces us to (or reminds us of) the character (and characters) that signify North Beach and then shows us how the proposed piazza would fit as snugly into the ‘hood as black turtleneck on a Beat poet.

Jaffe again lent his lens and editing to a video on the 17th Street Plaza, the inaugural Pavement to Parks project that is taking excess or dormant streets and returning them to pedestrians as public spaces. It is informative, entertaining, and well-argued, with just the right images verifying the statements made by those interviewed. Plus, behind the interviewees, you’ll see many "so San Francisco" moments, from the streamlined beauty of the F Line streetcars to the two muscle-chiseled beauties walking past in nothing but their briefs. All involved in the San Francisco Streetfilms have definitely made sure the San Francisco videos represent the texture, diversity, and aesthetics of the City.

“My hope”, states Goebel, “is to draw on a pool of filmmakers in the Bay Area with diverse styles and backgrounds who can highlight livable streets and best practices.” Thanks to yet another contribution from Streetsblog San Francisco principal funder Jonathan Weiner, Goebel has begun seeking even more filmmakers for Streetfilms. What’s in store was on display last week at Workplace Limited in the Mission District, where films by Streetfilms San Francisco’s latest addition, Charlotte Buchen, were screened.

Buchen is focusing her films on San Francisco’s vibrant bicycle culture in a series called Bay Area Street Portraits. In her words, “The videos will be short, poetic and highlight the variety of attitudes towards riding the streets of the Bay Area. Each profile is a window to get inside the head of one of the commuters we see every day but don’t know anything about, and to learn something surprising.”

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