‘City of Trees’ Provides a Look Into the Promise of Urban Green Jobs Programs

Jason Kozlowski April 26, 2016

(City of Trees)

A film occa­sion­al­ly blind­sides every self-pro­fessed cinephile with the depth and com­plex­i­ty with which it treats its sub­jects and themes. For me, this tran­spired when I saw a trail­er for Bran­don and Lance Kramer’s film City of Trees at the 2014 Glob­al Labor Film Fes­ti­val Orga­niz­ers Con­fer­ence in Wash­ing­ton, D.C..

A nuanced view into an urban green jobs pro­gram in our capi­tol, the trail­er impressed me with its rich­ness and under­ly­ing human­i­ty enough to watch the full-length film. City of Trees is a sub­tly pow­er­ful, insight­ful, and at times poignant social and envi­ron­men­tal doc­u­men­tary, blend­ing social and envi­ron­men­tal themes.

Beau­ti­ful­ly filmed, the film traces the efforts of Wash­ing­ton Parks & Peo­ple, a D.C.-based non­prof­it, to admin­is­ter a $2.7 mil­lion grant by simul­ta­ne­ous­ly pro­vid­ing green jobs train­ing to some of the city’s long-term unem­ployed, many of whom are African Amer­i­can, and improv­ing some of the capital’s ignored and blight­ed pub­lic spaces. Award­ed as part of the fed­er­al stim­u­lus pack­age dur­ing the Great Reces­sion, the allot­ment runs out by mid-2012, and Parks & Peo­ple direc­tors Steve Cole­man and Karen Loeschn­er strug­gle in its final months to stretch the grant’s funds and main­tain the morale of those receiv­ing them.

In this, City of Trees evokes in micro­cosm what fed­er­al plan­ners dur­ing the Great Depres­sion hasti­ly ini­ti­at­ed and imple­ment­ed through the Civil­ian Con­ser­va­tion Corps (CCC). The brain­child of Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt and a high­ly suc­cess­ful tem­po­rary jobs pro­gram from 1933 to 1942, the CCC employed rough­ly three mil­lion men — most of whom were under 25, sin­gle and man­dat­ed to send $25 of their $30 total month­ly stipend back to their fam­i­lies — in a vast array of pri­mar­i­ly rur­al work projects on parks, camps, farms, forests, dams, air­ports, pow­er lines, roads and bridges that ulti­mate­ly and per­ma­nent­ly trans­formed America’s land­scape. Its echoes, if on a much small­er, more inclu­sive and local­ly admin­is­tered lev­el with­out the man­date to remit salaries, ring through­out the film — short-term jobs train­ing for the long-term unem­ployed to acquire durable skills, achieve per­son­al gains and improve pub­lic spaces.

The ini­tial sounds over­lay­ing the open­ing cred­its, of shov­els uproot­ing earth, pro­vide the essence of urban green­scap­ing work. Yet City of Trees yields far more fruit than the worth­while expli­ca­tion of imple­ment­ing a grant-fund­ed jobs pro­gram. The Kramers skill­ful­ly immerse view­ers in the chal­leng­ing work­place and home lives of sev­er­al staffers and the man­u­al labor­ers they employ. We learn about the strug­gles and aspi­ra­tions of Charles Hol­comb, who strives to sup­port his new­born daugh­ter and incar­cer­at­ed broth­er by being the father and male role mod­el he lacked; Michael Samuels, who yearns for sta­ble employ­ment after his lengthy incar­cer­a­tion for sell­ing drugs to sup­port his ill moth­er; and James Magrud­er, a resource­ful com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er grap­pling with unem­ploy­ment who grows in con­fi­dence and finds his voice before our eyes.

From the straight­for­ward, heart­felt per­spec­tives of these African-Amer­i­can work­ers, what emerges is not mere­ly the sto­ry of peo­ple receiv­ing much-need­ed pay­checks through train­ing. The film­mak­ers wise­ly allow par­tic­i­pants in Parks & Peo­ple, and the com­mu­ni­ty groups and res­i­dents they encounter, to tell their own sto­ries that pro­vide a look into parts of the Ward 8 com­mu­ni­ty in South­east Wash­ing­ton DC.

In dai­ly encoun­ters over work­place issues, we see Hol­comb, Samuels and Magrud­er — some­times qui­et­ly, some­times direct­ly — con­vey hon­esty toward and com­mand respect from their peers and super­vi­sors. Sim­i­lar­ly, some Ward 8 polit­i­cal lead­ers and com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers, as well as his African-Amer­i­can staff who also live in the city’s South­east, resent that Cole­man, an earnest envi­ron­men­tal­ist and employ­er who is white, failed to either include or con­sult them before plant­i­ng trees in Oxon Run Park. This cre­ates ten­sion between them and the non­prof­it over pub­lic space, for it rein­forces Parks & People’s out­sider sta­tus to a com­mu­ni­ty wary of unful­filled promis­es, and illus­trates that effec­tive com­mu­ni­ty empow­er­ment is most effec­tive through mutu­al respect and trust.

The film­mak­ers eschew the neat­ness of a hap­py end­ing or anoth­er patron­iz­ing sto­ry of white-led uplift with­in black urban expe­ri­ences. For Parks & Peo­ple trainees, the dialec­tics of real­iz­ing suc­cess and fail­ure, feel­ing ela­tion and dejec­tion, often hinge upon their time with or absence from loved ones, news or silence about their scores of pend­ing job appli­ca­tions, and their pal­pa­ble efforts to pro­vide for oth­ers and their com­mu­ni­ties through their work.

Some of the most pow­er­ful scenes reveal how hard the con­tem­po­rary pre­cari­at labors to attain and main­tain employ­ment. Often alone, trainees tra­verse the city and fre­quent­ly call prospec­tive employ­ers for jobs. At the same time, they dis­play strength and mutu­al sup­port as they con­vene to con­duct thor­ough peer-reviewed prac­tice job inter­views and lay bare their fears about bar­ri­ers in job searches.

City of Trees so bril­liant­ly suc­ceeds not because it is an envi­ron­men­tal film (though it clear­ly is) but rather because, as a ter­rif­ic labor film, it uses an envi­ron­men­tal pro­gram as a prism into the inter­con­nect­ed intri­ca­cies of work, race, class, urban space, male bread­win­ner gen­der roles and com­mu­ni­ty pol­i­tics. It belies the long-stand­ing, per­ni­cious and often racist stereo­types about the indif­fer­ent unde­serv­ing poor” and the politi­cized tropes about alleged­ly irre­spon­si­ble com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ers emerg­ing from the 2008 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. And it does so at a time when aca­d­e­mics, pun­dits and pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als are awak­en­ing to the yawn­ing chasm of inequal­i­ty in our soci­ety, and the socioe­co­nom­ic effects for grow­ing num­bers of peo­ple that inequal­i­ty threat­ens to engulf.

Even won­der­ful films leave us want­i­ng more, seek­ing answers to our ques­tions that the film­mak­ers, with their own objec­tives and inquiries, may have prompt­ed but did not ful­ly answer. View­ers get a clear look into the struc­tur­al pover­ty and prob­lems afflict­ing many res­i­dents of Ward 8’s pri­mar­i­ly African-Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion, and their efforts to sur­mount them. I sought answers to how this unfold­ed his­tor­i­cal­ly, polit­i­cal­ly and insti­tu­tion­al­ly. To an extent, this snap­shot in time sets aside some ques­tions about how these con­di­tions emerged and were enforced over time, par­tic­u­lar­ly in a city with per­sis­tent seg­re­ga­tion. I also won­dered how the black female trainees we see but hear lit­tle from in City of Trees might have com­ple­ment­ed the pri­mar­i­ly male per­spec­tives we receive on class, race and urban life from a dif­fer­ent gen­dered experience.

But such unan­swered ques­tions don’t detract from this remark­able doc­u­men­tary — view­ers like me will just have to wait until the Kramer Broth­ers and Merid­i­an Hill Pic­tures release their next fea­ture film. If it is half as engross­ing and inspir­ing as City of Trees, it will have done much to shed keen insights into our tumul­tuous times, and help us learn from orga­ni­za­tions like Parks & Peo­ple and com­mu­ni­ties such as Ward 8.

You can watch City of Trees online for free from until June 18, 2016, at world​chan​nel​.org/​a​m​e​r​i​c​a​r​e​f​ramed.

Jason Kozlows­ki is a labor his­to­ri­an and labor edu­ca­tor at the West Vir­ginia Uni­ver­si­ty Insti­tute for Labor Stud­ies and Research.
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