South 9th Avenue a city on the verge of change examined through one street (Synopsis draft 1)


South Ninth Avenue is a documentary film that tracks the demographic and societal change to the small New York suburb of Mount Vernon as gentrification rapidly takes hold of New York City. One avenue in particular, South Ninth, will be featured as the film follows specific stories of people, businesses and city services that are located on this street and the immediate area.


A complete investigation into race and ethnicity in a multicultural society requires an examination into the economics and fiscal policies that drive city planning practices, housing opportunities and eventually differences in attitudes and behaviors.

The United States has a long history of utilizing land ownership as a mechanism to economically and socially disenfranchise its citizens of color. Following the end of the Civil war and slavery, most blacks were not allowed to purchase the land on which they had to toiled for generations.1 During the Jim Crow era, black people were subject to restrictive covenants which forbid them from purchasing property in certain neighborhoods and were forced into contracts that would charge them high rates without the benefits of home ownership.2. More recently, predatory lending practices by major banks, or "ghetto loans", forced blacks to bear the brunt of the 2008 housing crisis, crushing many generational dreams of homeownership.2 Gentrification is a current and widely utilized instrument of using existing land management laws to build wealth among whites at the expense of people of color.

Gentrification, often disguised as community improvement or development, involves wealthy people and businesses moving into a delapidated area and the existing poor and/or working class residents being displaced.3 It is a complex process that involves city planning officials, property developers, local and state politicians and untold amounts of money. The trend in the United States is that through gentrification persons of color are displaced by majority white residents and there is little thought to the families and communities that are torn apart through forced relocation. (source)

As gentrification has spread quickly throughout New York City there is a ripple effect on lower Westchester County. People displaced from New York City and newcomers looking for opportunities will move into Westchester and changes in the demographic and infrastructure will take place. South Ninth Avenue will focus on The City of Mount Vernon, NY as a case study of the societal effects of racist economic and housing policies in a country with a diminishing middle-class and increasing wealth disparity.4 As the cost of living skyrockets in NYC, how will Mount Vernon change?

South Ninth Avenue will document Mount Vernon through the residents, both lifelong and newcomers, in order to portray the legacy of the city and its changing dynamic. Mount Vernon has a distinct identity derived directly from the hard working strivers who established the city in 1850. An example of this strong sense of identity and independence can be tracked back to 1894 when its residents voted down a proposal to become part of Greater New York City.4 This tradition continued and Mount Vernon became the proud birthplace and home of world reknown intellectuals, politicians and entertainers - all claiming the city as their home.

The film will closely address and document the effects large scale urban change has on families, communities and individual identity. As a Mount Vernon native, my story and the stories of family and friends will play a significant part as well as interviews with residents, politicians, scholars, businesspersons, athletes and entertainers from Mount Vernon.

Lifelong Mount Vernon resident Mount VeeAD discusses the legacies and lineage of the city.

(Top to bottom and background) The annual Arts on Third festival is a chance for Mount Vernonites and people from lower Westchester and the Bronx to get enjoy music performances, arts and crafts and other activities.
Ms Meyers and artist Andre Lanier celebrate the opening of Heavy D and the Boyz park in Mount Vernon.
Sports legend Walt Frazier at the opening of Heavy D and the Boys Park, a project funded in part by Madison Square Garden.

South Ninth Avenue will explore the socioeconomic causes and effects of demographic and infrastructural change within a community. More directly, why does change occur?

Mount Vernon is part of Westchester County and borders the Bronx, NYC. Its location lends to its unique identity as a city directly affected by NYC policies while functioning under the governance of a separate county. I will explore how legal, planning and infrastructural changes in both Westchester and New York Counties affect Mount Vernon regarding access to resources, government funding and decision making.

Housing and Space

Mount Vernon was coined "The City of Happy Homes" in the 19th century and has allowed hard working middle class people the opportunity to own their own homes.. Palacial homes are still a part of the landscape of the south side and there are new developments constantly providing opportunity for first-time buyers.
Property developers are on the look-out for opportunities available because of abandonment. In some cases, once the homeowner has passed away the family is not aware of the property, does not have the financial resources to keep the property or does not have interest in retaining the property.
The Levister Towers housing development sits between south 7th and 9th avenues. The development was completed in 1949, consists of 5 buildings and has 488 units. Despite being moved from public to privately owned in 2000, the development still serves low-income families (Source NYT)
At any given moment the city has scores of empty lots for rent or sale. These lots become available from either stalled development projects, burned out retail store fronts or abandoned property.

Only 4.2 square miles, Mount Vernon has hundreds of churches and scores of senior housing buildings. Many residents believe that the lost tax revenue from churches is putting the burden on home owners and the state funded senior housing is using valuable real estate that could be used for local businesses or industry.

South 9th Avenue has 9 churches along its 1/2 mile distance.


Mount Vernon has suffered from a high crime rate over the last decade with the violent crime rate being among the highest in the nation.5 Many feel with increasing costs of living, the city should be safer and the crime rate does not reflect the quality of life that should accompany inflated property taxes.


Mount Vernon neighbors the north Bronx, NYC with two subways lines leading directly to the city. This effectively creates a shared neighbourhood as there is much crossover in living, shopping, religious and transportation services between Mount Vernon and Bronx residents. As north Bronx communities have changed so has the south side of Mount Vernon.


Mount Vernon City School District consist of 11 elementary schools, two middle schools, two high schools and one alternative high school. While struggling in recent decades, there has been recent improvement.

Change and Development

After 143 years Sacred Heart Church in Mount Vernon closed its doors in 2015 as a result of the reorganization plan of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York. Its closing was a tremendous blow to the parishioners of the struggling south side of Mount Vernon who have had to find other churches in nearby cities to worship. Closing of major institutions can have a strong effect on community spirits and removes incentives for residents to stay in a struggling city.
New Housing Developments in Mount Vernon stoke fears of change and gentrification. This new building erected a hundred yards away from the Mount Vernon West Metro North train station is a familiar stage of gentrification. With new and affordable housing opportunities close to major transportation many new, wealthy and white residents will likely flock to this neighbourhood. And with re-zoning of the area underway there will be more housing developments and the process will accelerate.


South Ninth Avenue will move forward the discussion of race by examining the level to which decisions driven by race are intertwined in state and local government organization, funding and policy. I will demonstrate how a people can be continually disenfranchised and are systematically faced with challenges often outside their realm of control. With an acknowledgement and understanding of how society's mechanisms are driven, these issues can then be addressed and eventually resolved.


The project will be centered around South 9th Avenue in Mount Vernon. There will be intimate portraits of residents of South 9th Avenue as well as a visual study of the infrastructure, businesses and community services of the area.

South 9th Avenue is located between Mount Vernon's shopping and business district and the north Bronx. It is home to generational Mt Vernonites and new comers from New York City and Westchester. There is a grammar school, several major community churches, a community center, the Mount Vernon Health Care Center, housing projects as well as new home builds juxtaposed next to abandoned homes.


The film will be a narrative in multimedia format with still photography, video and animation. The content will be comprised of on-location interviews, video and still footage of the city and third party images, written news articles and video footage. .


I will make the still images as well as shoot, conduct and direct the interviews utilizing an assistant when required. The majority of the funds required for the project will be used to hire an assistant and secure editing and post-processing help.

Created By
Leon Cato


Copyright 2017 Leon Cato 

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