Make it Snappy: Redhouse and Gifford bring back PBS documentarian

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 08/02/10More articles
Filmmaker Harry Wiland, left, and Onondaga Nation's Oren Lyons worked together last week on a project for PBS. Photo courtesy Gifford Foundation, used with permission.
PBS filmmaker Harry Wiland and Onondgaga Nation chief Oren Lyons at Onondaga Lake on July 26th. Lyons will be featured in a segment profiling Syracuse in the 2011 PBS series, "Building Healthy Cities." Photo courtesy Gifford Foundation, used with permission.

Filmmaker Harry Wiland and his producing partner Dale Bell first learned about Syracuse when the Gifford Foundation asked to include their hour-long film, “Philadelphia: The Holy Experiment,” in their “What If…?” Film Series at Redhouse Arts Center this past spring.

“We asked him if he’d waive his fee and explained what we’re trying to do here,” said Gifford’s Executive Director Kathy Goldfarb-Findling after a third screening Wednesday night at Redhouse. “He said sure. Then he decided to come and document what’s happening here.”

But let’s go back. The “What If…?” Film Series occurred when Gifford and Redhouse teamed up to screen three films about community-based urban innovation over five sessions from late March to mid-May. After each, audiences discussed the lessons of Boston, Philadelphia and five other US cities. The Philadelphia film – part of the “Edens Lost and Found” series on PBS in 2006, which also explores similar efforts in Chicago, Los Angeles and Seattle, and has a companion book – screened twice. The sessions were packed and the conversations long and lively.

Last Wednesday night, Erie Canal Museum curator Dan Ward said, “I’ve seen this film like five times now and each time I see something new.”

“The Holy Experiment” traces the founding, decline and recovery of the “city of brotherly love,” narrated by actor David Morse, who lives there. The Philadelphia Horticultural Society started Philadelphia Green in the 1970s, a project that uses the $1 million profit from their annual Flower Show to turn vacant lots in gardens. In 1993, PHS added a parks program. Doris Gwaltney, lifelong West Philly resident, chronicles how she and her neighbors then saved the historic four-acre Carroll Park. Ed Elliss tells the story of the Belgrade St. Park and Garden, and Doris Brown has hers about Norris Square Park. To qualify for PHS support, a project has to demonstrate that 85 percent of the neighborhood supports it. Said Elliss, “I had to learn to talk to my neighbors.”

Art followed. There’s a profile of the city-run Mural Arts Project and its director, Jane Golden. Since 1984 they’ve completed 2,500 exterior murals. A waiting list of 1,000 citizens want one too. Native Taiwanese artist Lily Yeh – who visited Syracuse a few years back – founded the Village for the Arts and Humanities in North Philadelphia. It’s thrived for two decades, despite naysayers who warned her the black neighborhood wouldn’t welcome her. Mary Corby’s Greensgrow is a hydroponic vegetable farm on an old steel plant site, which supplies the organic White Dog Café.

You might think there’s a similar trajectory in Roosevelt’s 1930s New Deal work projects to lift us from economic depression. Like Philadelphians, he started with conservation and moved into the arts. But the “Edens Lost and Found” book is more blunt. The forward by environmental attorney Van Jones begins by listing what we won’t find there: no references to presidents, federal legislation or “long lists of agency acronyms.” And though “The Holy Experiment” includes the massive neighborhood work of Philadelphia Mayor John Street, Wiland and Bell declare, “We cannot depend on government anymore.” Instead, they highlight collaborations arising among citizens and non-governmental institutions to address the two crises they say now define our century: “sweeping environmental destruction and radical social inequality.” In cities – where 80 percent of Americans now live – they say the answer to one answers the other.

Last Wednesday, Harry Wiland planned to conduct the talk-back. He and his crew – including the Philadelphia film’s cinematographer Jonathan Bell – spent 16-hour days all last week filming here. By 8:00 p.m. he called to beg off. Still, at 9 o’clock Gifford’s Heidi Holtz told us we had to let Redhouse close for the night.

Wiland’s Syracuse profile will be part of the “Building Healthy Communities” series slated for PBS in 2011. It’s hosted by Dr. Richard Jackson of UCLA, one of the first to address how the built urban environment is making us sick. (Asthma, for example, is soaring.) Heidi Holtz said some themes emerged from Wiland’s week here, like water (he interviewed Onondaga Nation chief Oren Lyons at Onondaga Lake, then visited Skaneateles to contrast how the two bodies of water have been cared for) and walkability (at Onondaga Historical Society he sought vintage photos for what barriers Route 81 erected, later noticed that West Street traffic and those rail trestles actually cut the Near West Side off from downtown). And air quality: Wiland also did a walking tour with some Upstate medical students, investigated asthma treatment at St. Joseph’s Hospital, and visited a mobile vegetable store, besides obvious showcases like the Near West Side Initiative and Center of Excellence.

“What now?” you might ask. In September, Gifford hosts a follow-up with that name. Holtz said it might include a couple lunches, discussion of possible murals – and discussion of the new way the Gifford Foundation gives out grants. “What’s the new rule?” she asked. An audience member stuck her hand up. “85 percent?” “Bingo,” said Holtz. “Eighty-five percent.”

This article appears in the August 5, 2010 print edition of "The Eagle" weekly. Learn more about filmmaker Harry Wiland’s work at Get on the list for Gifford’s September “What Now?” events at or 315.474.2489. Reach Nancy at

TAGS: urban revitalization, sustainability, pubic health in cities, Edens Lost and Found, Building Healthy Cities, Harry Wiland, Media & Policy Center, Gifford Foundation, Redhouse Arts Center, Onondaga Lake, Oren Lyons, Dr. Richard Jackson, Philadelphia: The Holy Experiment, Heidi Holtz, Nancy Keefe Rhodes
EDITION: The Eagle

Rating: 3.0/5 (20 votes cast)

Comments powered by Disqus

Local Entertainment Archive


Talk to Us!
We want you to know that your opinion matters. Please complete our online form and give us your feedback today.