You couldn’t have asked for a better night.
On Tuesday, October 26, “Facing The Wall” had its premiere on the floodwall that lines the Chemung river in the parking lot of B&C Photo. We estimated that between 120 and 150 people came out on a weeknight to stand in a parking lot to watch a documentary. Considering that I brought 20 chairs, and expected a crowd of a couple dozen or so, it was heartening to see so many people there, and receive so much support.
I started this project a year ago with much trepidation. The idea for a movie exploring attitudes about the 1972 Agnes flood had been floating around in my head for a few years. After finishing work on the documentary, “Famiglia Italiana” with the ARTS of the Southern Finger Lakes and the Benjamin Patterson Inn a couple years ago, I felt that this was a story that needed to be told. While “Famiglia Italiana” dealt, in part, with the destruction of the Italian-American neighborhood in the former Water Street area of Corning, NY, I knew that “Facing The Wall” would be much larger in scope and, potentially, more controversial.
I’m not “from” Elmira. I have, however, lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. I’ve raised my family here, and I consider myself a “transplanted native”. I was not here during the 1972 flood, but I did arrive shortly before the last downtown department store closed in Elmira. I’ve witnessed firsthand both the decline and budding revival of the city. I took this project on because, in part, I wanted answers to the lingering questions that stuck in my mind: What happened to Elmira? Why don’t people embrace the river? Why can’t people even access the river? Why is there a giant wall around the river that prevents people from even seeing it? Why are we building parking lots, parole offices and grocery stores on prime riverfront property?
In the course of a year’s worth of research, interviews, observations and a lot of listening, I learned a great deal. The floodwall, built just prior to a previous flood in 1946, was hidden by rows of buildings prior to the 1972 flood. Changing demographics in the Northeast, shifting shopping patterns, a declining population, an economic recession—all these things were already affecting downtowns like Elmira. The devastating flood that covered up to 45% of the city was the tipping point for a lot of Elmirans. Damaged buildings were torn down, and the now-visible floodwall became a symbol of the immense power of the river and our inability to control it.
That story, however, had been told. What I discovered was that there is a hunger on the part of many in Elmira to finally start seeing the river as an asset, and not a liability. In the past year, close to a dozen new businesses have opened in the downtown business district within sight of the floodwall. Mind you, that is in what has been widely described as “the worst economic climate since the Great Depression”. What’s the draw? Why the change?
I firmly believe it is, in large part, the river. A restaurant has opened with a deck overlooking the Chemung. Another restaurant owner knocked down a wall and installed a large window overlooking the river. Luxury apartments opened that face the river—despite the naysayers that insisted that no one wanted to live in Downtown Elmira, let alone pay high prices for luxury apartments. A boat launch and pavilion next to the river are now accessible via a roadway that passes over the dike surrounding the river.
So, what started as a look back at Elmira’s history became a look forward at its future. Will the river ever flood again? History tells us that it will. Extraordinary efforts have been made to keep that from happening, but the river always has the final word. What we can control is our fear, and 40 years later, we seem to finally be getting a handle on that.
One final thought: During the days I spent editing together the archival footage of the flood, I left my studio feeling mentally and physically drained. The sight of those floodwaters cresting and passing over the very floodwall meant to protect the population from such an event must have been terrifying to see. 40 years after the fact, it was chilling to watch even on those fading old 8mm films and old photographs. I walked away from the project with an enormous amount of respect for the people that lived through the flood, rebuilt the city afterwards, and stuck around to do the hard work it took to get us to this point. My film is, in many ways, a love letter to the city I chose to make my home. I thank you all for giving me the opportunity to tell this story, and for embracing my efforts in the way that you have to this point.