With the streets of the Lower East Side reshaping themselves faster than any of us can keep track, it’s easy to become a wistful piner for the “good old days,” when a storied building with a 100-year-old storefront was your neighbor instead of all these fresh new high rises. (A teaser site for the Essex Crossing condo building on Broome Street was just released today; the first of its 10 buildings is expected to be finished in the fall.) One longtime resident, Clayton Dean Smith, decided to channel that urge to preserve the neighborhood into an artistic outlet. Maybe he couldn’t save all the buildings he’d come to love over his 16 years in the area, but he could use some of them for the backdrop of a short film that serves as a living time capsule of the neighborhood as it currently exists (or existed, only a year and half ago).
The result, Off Track Betty, premiers on Sunday at the Brooklyn Film Festival and follows the story of a fictional longtime LES dweller who is coming to terms with her neighborhood’s changes and whether or not she can stay. (Kind of reminds us of a real-life story in Williamsburg told on WNYC’s There Goes the Neighborhood gentrification podcast.)
“Betty is a longtime resident who begins to realize that she no longer recognizes her neighborhood,” said Smith. “It’s a slow and gradual awareness that I think all of us have. It can be jarring, like when a favorite building is just gone. But other times it’s more gradual. We find [Betty] in a day in her life when a stranger shows up who has a direct connection to her past.”
So, if you’re like me and already mourn some of the recent buildings knocked down to make way for new development, Off Track Betty is a nice way to commemorate the near-past. Several of the film’s locations have since been cleared away for Essex Crossing, like the old Essex Street Market building and liquor store on the south side of Delancey Street, between Essex and Norfolk, and the shoe repair store run by a 95-year-old Eastern European immigrant on Grand Street near Clinton.
The main character, Betty, lives in a building just west of Essex Street, which has an old graphic OTB (Off Track Betting) sign above the storefront. In a testament to how quickly an unexpected change can arrive, just 48 hours after the crew wrapped up filming, the OTB sign (part of the inspiration for the film) was brought down and the entire exterior of the building was soon re-clad.
“The story kind of came to me,” Smith said. “Like all New Yorkers, I’ve been witnessing how quickly our neighborhoods are changing and New York has always been that way, but it seems to have escalated in terms of the pace of change. And I just started questioning how we reconcile the natural impulse to hang onto the things that we’re losing.” He also wondered how people whose families had lived in the area for generations might be coping with a neighborhood they barely recognized.
Though change can be unsettling, it’s not all doom and gloom– Smith has lamented the closing of many neighborhood businesses over the years, like Gertel’s Bakery on Hester Street or Streit’s Matzo, but he’s also excited by many newcomers to the area, like Metrograph (obvi).
It also seems Smith has a knack for catching things just before they disappear. Besides capturing some streetscapes on the cusp of transformation, Off Track Betty was also one of the last films to be processed in the city. “We shot on film because we just thought that was the perfect medium to use to capture a spirit of old New York,” Smith said. “It was a complete coincidence that after we dropped off our reels of 16 mm film to Film Lab New York, the last remaining film lab in NYC, they developed and processed our film and then shut down a few weeks after. That’s it– theres no more film labs in New York for film.”
Check out the trailer below:
Off Track Betty will play at the Brooklyn Film Festival on Sunday, June 5 at Windmill Studios, 100 Kingsland Ave between Norman and Nassau, and Friday June 10 at the Wythe Hotel, 80 Wythe Ave between North 11th and North 12th.