What happened to Spanish Lake? Possibly the best documentary I haven’t seen yet

Update (10/12/12) > View Spanish Lake trailer #2 here

On Wednesday I attended at sneak preview of the documentary-in-progress Spanish Lake during the Open/Closed Film Festival in St. Louis.

Director Phillip Andrew Morton and producer Matt Jordan Smith were on hand to set the scene and context for their film. Morton, who grew up in this northeast St. Louis County community, told a packed house in a second floor space at the Grandel Theatre that he decided to undertake the project as a way of dealing with his feelings and questions about the once-thriving unincorporated town.

Here’s an excerpt about the film on the Open/Closed website:

On a visit to Spanish Lake to see family, Phillip Andrew Morton explored his old stomping grounds and was experienced its decline firsthand. Closed were his church and grade school. The first home he’d ever known was in foreclosure and had been abandoned. In an interview with NOCO, he described the experience as “surreal, shocking and emotionally devastating.” Morton is young, and the transformation he witnessed occurred in less than a decade. Then and there he decided to turn his camera on Spanish Lake and film a documentary.

Basically, Morton’s documentary seeks to explore the intersection of race, real estate and politics in the particular case of his hometown. The story will ring lots of bells with people who grew up in and around St. Louis, with its complex network of more than 90 municipalities and myriad unincorporated communities.

As I understand it, unincorporated communities are governed by the county. That means no city or aldermanic council, no local taxes, and no local control. Apparently, most Spanish Lake residents wanted it this way. One woman in the documentary calls opting not to incorporate the “biggest mistake we ever made.”

Morton and Smith showed the trailer and two clips of the film, in which a number of themes emerged:

  • The role of federal government housing initiatives in the 1960s and 1970s
  • The alleged practice of “racial steering,” by local realtors
  • The aforementioned unincorporated status of the Spanish Lake
  • Class insecurities and aspirations
  • Racial prejudice

The love that former Spanish Lake residents feel for their declining community is apparent and quite striking. The regret about leaving is palpable, even when people are not openly weeping. The president of the Spanish Lake Community Association is Dora Gianoulakis; she never left the town. She spoke quite eloquently Wednesday in answer to questions from the audience.

At the moment, Spanish Lakers are working hard to raise funds to restore an historic building in order to turn it into a community center. Morton credits Gianoulakis for helping improve Spanish Lake. On Wednesday he described physical and attitudinal changes in the town he’s seen in just the past few years.

There were blacks and whites at the screening Wednesday, including many former and current Spanish Lake residents. I wish we could have heard more about how these two segments of the community feel about each other today, since skin color and economic status played such a major role in what happened to Spanish Lake.

The film will likely have an August release.

Read more:

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