WeHo filmmakers plot course of “white flight” in Spanish Lake

spanish700
July 10, 2014

Film by Ryan Gierach, West Hollywood, California

The phenomenon that still drives today’s politics – white supremacy and urban white flight – gets a frank, almost brutal, look in West Hollywood filmmakers’ newly released “Spanish Lake.”

Still photo from Spanish Lake.

Still photo from Spanish Lake.

The documentary is racially charged, especially as the residents detail how they felt as the watched four of five whites leave their formerly mixed community of Spanish Lake near St. Louis. As they describe their feelings about being unable to buy a home anywhere else because of red-lining by realtors and realty companies and H.U.D. low-income housing funds being misdirected to massive complexes in urban cores.

Called, “The most controversial documentary of the year,”  director Phillip Andrew Morton and producer Matt Jordan Smith spoke to WeHo News about their experience filming the documentary. Mr. Morton grew up in Spanish Lake and recalls the different racial mix of the community.

“It’s astonishing, really, to see house after house without the white people I recall,” he said, “but it’s really crushing to see the houses, and the community, vacant and falling apart in disrepair. My house was a vacant. My neighbors’ houses, too. My school was a closed,” as was his church

Still photo from Spanish Lake.

Still photo from Spanish Lake.

Worse, said the pair, was the abject and unapologetic racism they encountered. “I don’t have a problem with black people, it’s just n**gers,” says a man in the trailer to the film.

The same attitude, although never said in so many words, seemed to permeate the real estate interests they portray as scheming and conniving.

“We did talk to the people in government, and they placed blame on government and commercial interests for the Spanish Lake white flight in the 1990s.”

Varying parts of America experienced white flight at different times. In my history of Cedarburg, Wisconsin, my historic hometown just north of Milwaukee, I show the whites to matter-of-factly discussing white flight as what to them was an obvious answer to the desegregation and busing rulings of the 1950-60s and Father Groppi’s, a white liberal priest, civil rights activism. in the late 1960s and 1970.

Ironically, this white Catholic priest who dramatized the segregated housing situation in Milwaukee through frequent demonstrations and occasional arrests during the winter of 1967-68, ended up increasing fears in the white community of a black takeover, accelerating white flight.

The filmmakers don’t make the connection between pre-1990s civil rights and the 1990s Spanish Lake situation. Spanish Lake’s filmmakers sat down with the head staff of H.U.D. in Washington D.C. to discuss the film’s assertions that a saturation of Section 8 housing and real estate “red-lining,” or steering, were responsible for the mass exodus of thousands of whites from the St. Louis area in the 1990s.

Still photo from Spanish Lake.

Still photo from Spanish Lake.

“We’ve interviewed several political heavy-hitters for the film,” said Mr. Morton. “One of those interviews was with a former high-level H.U.D. employee, and that triggered the federal government interest. I wasn’t sure they would appreciate the film.”

The documentary shows how U.S. Census Bureau statistics reveal an 80 percent decline in white residents in Spanish Lake since 1990.

The community that had been built from the 1950s as an idyllic American working-class union town. It fell victim to unscrupulous Realtors and real estate companies, which decimated it first by openly scaring white families into selling their houses because of the “black invasion” and the threat of lower property values.

The houses they left behind got marked up above market rate and sold to minority families while the exodus of white families required newly built subdivisions, which spreads the profit around to real estate developers and contractors.

If that assessment seems harsh, factor in the state’s Realtors unwillingness to address the issue with the filmmakers. Apparently they could think of no defense for their actions, so didn’t bother showing up for the debate, which allows the other side open field.

Phillip Andrew Morton. Photo by Daniel Bleckley.

Phillip Andrew Morton. Photo by Daniel Bleckley.

The social justice issues standing at the heart of the white flight at Spanish Lake seem wrapped up in both overt and mindless racism, say the filmmakers. “The economic decline of the area comes mostly as a result of failed federal government policies. Spanish Lake was racially segregated by design,” according to the film’s producer, Mr. Smith.

Mr. Morton points to a federal government seeking efficiencies in housing low income citizens without regard for the consequences, as well as the self-conscious law-breaking of the Realtors for the phenomenon.

Emotions run high in the film, but the doc’s makers hold the social justice high ground because they entered the inquiry with no preconceptions and allowed the interviews to direct the content. “Any city that has gone through this or faces it will benefit from its leaders seeing it,” said Mr. Morton.

Spanish Lake premiers tonight, July 10th in limited release in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Detroit, Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati, and according to the filmmakers, is already drawing large crowds in St. Louis, where it was released on June 13th to strong reviews and intense media coverage.

View the trailer:http://trailers.apple.com/trailers/independent/spanishlake

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