By a gentrifier, for a gentrifier. That’s what Craig Corl’s movie is. Titled “Heal H Street,” the short film, which debuts Thursday at the DC Shorts Film Festival, takes a look at what has become an iconic corridor from the point of view of someone who knew almost nothing about it until he arrived.
There’s a part of this movie that is fascinating. It tells the story of a Capitol Hill resident who learns more about his community through the relationships he develops with his neighbors, new and old. Growing up, Corl knew about Martin Luther King, Jr., but he knew nothing of the riots that tore down H Street, NE after the civil rights leader’s assassination.
So when Corl, 52, found himself living in the neighborhood in the midst of seismic change, he made a movie. As a native, it’s amazing to know that there are people who arrive in town with almost no knowledge of the most important event in the city’s modern history. But it’s that honesty of ignorance that makes this movie important. Corl says he wants people like himself to watch it and learn.
“My target audience for that movie are the new, young, essentially white crowd that’s moving back in here and doesn’t quite understand the dynamics of what the place was what it is, and what it’s becoming,” Corl, a retired Coast Guard engineer says, smoking a cigar on his porch. “For them to understand, like I came to understand the impacts of just being here. If I didn’t even interact with anyone at all, just because I’m here, I’m having an impact.”
Corl said he made the movie as his thesis project at the Corcoran College of Art and Design. He works in IT now, and he and his wife decided to move to the area, after their children left home.
He’s lived all over the hemisphere: San Francisco, Galveston, Baltimore, Connecticut, Venezuela, with even a couple stints in the D.C. metropolitan area. But as a man with children, living in the city was not an option.
“We were never in the city then,” Corl said, referring to the times he’d lived in the suburbs traveling with his family. “We had young children then and when you’re in a position where you’re moving a lot like that, there’s a checklist you go through, in terms of selecting a place. And always the kids and the school are the first thing. One time I was in Waldorf, one time in Woodbridge, one time up in Severna Park.”
By 2006, they’d bought a house. Back then, it was considered a risky move. Corl explained that at that time H Street was still considered a dividing line: Crossing it on the north side was a harbinger for danger for a white homeowner. It was advice he heeded.
“Our realtor advised us, he said, ‘you don’t want to go across H Street.’ Which now, going all the way across to Gallaudet, that’s changed dramatically.”
Fast forward nearly a decade, and Corl is sitting on his porch, drinking beer and talking with his neighbor, Bobby. Bobby grew up on 9th Street. Still lives there. He’s the principal character of the film and his story is one worth listening to.
Too often gentrification stories are told by pitting good guys (usually native Washingtonians) versus bad guys (usually newcomers). But gentrification is more complicated than that.
In fact, as he started to make the movie, Corl realized that without inserting himself into the film, it didn’t make sense. It’s why he’s the narrator. The fact is that there are a decent amount of white people who simply don’t know what they’re looking at when they move in.
For anyone who’s been in D.C. for a fair amount of time and knows anything about the area, this movie is not for you. It’s a history lesson for the unfamiliar. Except for one part.
When I grew up, the riots were this eternal dark cloud, hanging over everything. They were the fulcrum upon which most people’s personal histories always pivoted. “Ever since the riots…” or “before the riots…” were often intros to many a story from family members.
But one thing I never heard was an admission of participation from anyone. Ever. Bobby talks openly about it in this movie. He refers directly to his part in the looting, with some amount of shame on his face. “We did everything that our mother told us not to do,” he says.
For that alone, it’s worth it that everybody sees this short film.
In fairness, white guilt is a big part of this movie, Corl suggests. He begins the movie by admitting that the plight of black people was not something he was aware of growing up in factory-town Michigan outside of Grand Rapids. It wasn’t until high school that he got his first consistent exposure to black folks. And that was in a basketball tournament. The movie starts off with that admission. After seeing a kid sing the “Eenie Meenie” song, the version that liberally uses the n-word, you hear Craig’s voice.
“My mother taught me this common rhyme. It never occurred to her that it might be offensive. And I was too young to know the difference. I was raised in a racist family. Of course, they would never admit it,” he says, while pictures of him and his family scroll the screen. “My family did not discriminate against black people. Their offense was more disturbing. It was their language, the labels, the stereotypes and the off-color jokes.”
It’s something that he had to come to terms with to properly execute this project. He identifies as a gentrifier, openly, but not quite proudly. He understands that his part in the changing demographics of the city is not necessarily one that everyone could or should see positively.
“I did learn a lot. First of all, recognizing my role as a gentrifier, someone who’s coming in and paying a bunch of money for a house and moving into the neighborhood while the whole demographics of the neighborhood were changing. When I first bought here I didn’t even consider that,” Corl said.
Monday morning, as we took a walk down H Street, Corl remarked on how quickly everything was changing. There was a long line at the Department of Employment Services, and a fence has gone up around the Murry’s across the street, which will eventually make way for a Whole Foods. Corl saw that as a positive. “I’ve had a hard time finding anyone who had a problem with it leaving,” he said.
I will admit that when I first saw the film, I was turned off. It felt a bit condescending, but that’s unfair. One can’t just assume that people know their history. And after meeting Corl, you couldn’t help but respect his honesty.
But that’s where we’re at now in D.C. No longer is it just self-affected hipsters who want to be part of something edgy taking over black neighborhoods. It’s “regular” guys like Craig, who have a bunch of money and can choose where they want to live, who come to town. They didn’t necessarily kick anybody out, they just moved in after someone else did that. It’s hard to blame them for wanting to live in the coolest city in America. Corl’s movie does its job.
If you live on or near the corridor, watch it. But don’t forget what you’re looking at: a short film made by a newcomer trying to understand how he fits into a changing landscape. Also, there’s still a sentiment in the back of his mind, that he knows won’t go away.
“It’s always going to be a mixed neighborhood. We’re talking in addition to the white folks coming in, more Asians, more Latinos, it’s growing in diversity,” Corl said. “But it’s never going to look the way it was.”