Directed by Josh Pais
7th Street is an interesting documentary about a city block in Manhattan between C and D avenues. Actor Josh Pais (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) makes his directorial debut as he combines his remembrances as a young man with interviews of the block’s residents. The footage was shot over a ten-year period from 1992 to 2002.
Pais provides a historical overview as he explains the origins of the area. Back in the 1800’s the area was a salt marsh, but so many immigrants were coming over to the United States that they needed housing and converted the marsh. Most of the population who moved into the area was Hungarian Jews. In the 1950’s and 60’s, blacks and Puerto Ricans moved in. The area began to look like a war zone as the inhabitants dealt with a race riot and the greed of few landlords who were able to make more money burning down their buildings rather than renting them out.
Pais arrived on the scene as a young child in the mid-60’s when his parents divorced. His mother had friends who lived in an apartment on the street and the cheap rent of the East Village was the only place she could afford to go. She was a free spirit whose home was open to everyone. Many people of a bohemian persuasion passed through her living room, from artists to drug addicts, not that those classifications were mutually exclusive. His mother died in 1987, but we do get to meet Pais’ father, a physics professor who left Holland as the Nazis were taking over. In the United States he worked with Oppenheimer and Einstein. He talked about some reservations he had about Robert growing up there.
Pais interviews what he calls his street family, a group with varied backgrounds, ranging from a nice married couple of artists who were friends of his mother to street hustlers who are always looking for ways to make a buck. Merlin is a drunk who lives on the street. He blames the death of his toddler for his alcoholism in a heartbreaking story. Manny is the king of the street. He owns a few buildings and everyone says he’s a millionaire, but you wouldn’t know it from his appearance. He has an assistant who helps him with recycling, a Puerto Rican man who is studying Judaism. We even meet one of his mother’s paramours. They are all people just trying to survive and the one thing that binds them is this block on 7th Street.
In the ’90s life for the residents of 7th Street changed drastically. First, they had to deal with the arrival of the drug trade as it made its way to the East Village. Pais had his family’s life threatened by the drug kingpin of the neighborhood who didn’t want a movie made that could affect his business. In 1998, the drugs were swept out and developers realized how much money there was to make in real estate and the area became gentrified. The new, higher rents forced out some residents.
Pais serves his friends and family well by creating a good story out of their lives. This documentary might have greater meaning for those who grew up in a city as opposed to those who lived in rural areas, but I, who grew up in the suburbs of Southern California, was curious to learn the way the people of this neighborhood bonded together living in such close quarters. I don’t know the names of anyone on my street and 7th Street showed me I’m missing out on the opportunity to learn about other people’s ideas and cultures. It’s a great reminder to the ego that there is more to life than ourselves.
The DVD extras include an audience Q&A session with Pais at a film festival and about 30 minutes of clips of Manny, some of which appeared in the documentary.