During the 1960s many U.S. citizens marched under the banners of the New Frontier and the Great Society. For these Americans, participation in the civil rights and antiwar movements was a "school for citizenship." But as the decades have rolled by politicians and social activists have noticed a waning of interest and participation in community involvement.
John W. Gardner, the founding chairman of Common Cause, has written that "wholeness incorporating diversity" will be the central thrust of the communities of the future. They must be adaptable to change, tolerant of strangers, grounded in a shared culture, and intimate enough to foster fellowship, cultivate trust, and demand loyalty. He contends that thinking seriously about communities and then building them is one of the most important tasks facing people today.
In Jackson Heights is a fascinating documentary by veteran filmmaker Frederick Wiseman that immerses us in a New York community. He celebrates the activities of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish believers as they worship in this Queens neighborhood. Even without using the staples of narration, voice-over, and talking heads, he makes the point about the diversity of religions in the area.
Wiseman emphasizes the large immigrant population in Jackson Heights from Latin America, South Asia, and elsewhere. There are over 167 languages spoken there, making it one of the most multi-ethnic communities in America. We watch the proceedings at a Latino neighborhood where they are discussing "Make the Road New York" which is helping small business owners protest the plans of the city's Business Improvement District which could harm many small shops. We also sit in on the meeting of a gay seniors' support group convening at the Jewish Center.
The director's cinematic style has been called "observational cinema" or "direct cinema" and both terms are accurate. Wiseman has a genuine appreciation for urban living – the sights and sounds and happenings that take place on the streets filled with shoppers, hawkers, and strollers. We hear the roar of the elevated subway and enter a tattoo shop; listen in to a sharing session of transgender individuals who lament the feeling that they don't fit in anywhere; watch the mayhem on the streets over the victory of Columbia's soccer team; empathize with a 98-year-old woman at a senior center who is overcome with loneliness; and march along with those celebrating in the longstanding Queens Pride parade.
In Jackson Heights is Frederick Wiseman's 42nd film and it runs over three hours. This is his third community portrait (Aspen; Belfast, Maine), and it is a rich study of the fabric of a community that vibrates with enthusiasm for pluralism, openness, and hospitality for strangers. Best of all, Wiseman enables us to fine-tune our thinking about citizenship and the common good. He would agree with Harry C. Boyte who has observed:
"A dynamic education for democracy and citizenship must take place in many settings in our society, and not simply in formal educational institutions or large-scale citizen groups.
"In the coming years, we need to experiment with a variety of new public forums, civic resource centers, and community commons through which the basic concepts and arts of public life can be relearned by the citizenry."