The Hot Seat: Jamie Courville and Chris Reynolds

Welcome to the Hot Seat, where we interview people involved in real estate, architecture, development and design. Introducing Jamie Courville and Chris Reynolds, a filmmaking team working on a documentary about the rapid changes in Gowanus. Their film, Gowanus Current, will chronicle the development of the neighborhood over the course of this year and incorporate the voices of people who live and work there. They’ve set up a phone line where anyone can call and record their thoughts about what’s happening in Gowanus. You can listen to some of the calls here.

Brownstoner: Where do you live, and how did you end up there?

Jamie: We live in Gowanus. We’ve lived in different neighborhoods and had some bad luck with apartments. We lived in one place we fixed up a lot, and we had one rental that kept flooding with raw sewage. We lived in another place where the landlord thought he was a master fixer-upper: he wanted to tear a hole in the wall to build a deck, and we decided not to live with an open wall. And now we’ve lived here five years. We’re on 3rd Avenue toward the dead end of the canal. During Sandy, the water was pretty deep on Nevins one block down, but because of the slope we didn’t have any flooding. We’re not in Zone A.

BS: What first drew you to Gowanus, and why did you decide to start filming Gowanus Current?

Jamie: I didn’t know much about this neighborhood before, but I’ve grown to very much love it.

Chris: [We decided to start filming] because it was changing really quickly. A lot of large scale moving in and lots of longtime residents and business moving out. We’re both professional filmmakers and media producers, so it seemed only natural to do that about what we were seeing in our own neighborhood.

After the jump, Jamie and Chris talk about the future of Gowanus, the proposed Historic District, Whole Foods and the demolition of the Burns Brothers coal silos…

BS: How did you come up with the idea for the phone line where people can call in and talk about how they feel about Gowanus?

Jamie: I’ve had an anonymous interactive audio blog for years, called Listen Be Heard. A lot of people have a lot to say about it; I didn’t want to just involve the community, but involve anyone who had something to say. We also had a recording station set up in TEDxGowanus, to get more voices. I’m hoping for more calls, so I think it’s time to start putting up fliers, talking to community organizations, that kind of thing. We’ve gotten under 10 calls, and we’d like this to be a bigger part of the documentary.

Chris: The point of the documentary is following six individuals, but we want the phone calls to be part of it.

BS: What’s your goal for the film?

Chris: It’s not a point of view documentary. It’s a survey of what different individuals think about a changing neighborhood.

Jamie: It’s a little bit of capturing what this place is like right now, because in 10 years it will be completely different. It would be nice to encourage people to have a conversation and get another point of view.

BS: How do you think all of the development in Gowanus will change the feel of the neighborhood? Do you think there are positive aspects to the new development?

Chris: I don’t want to go on record with my personal feelings, because this project is about other people’s feelings about Gowanus. It’s a lot more complicated than I had thought. My personal feelings have changed — it’s not a good guy/bad guy scenario.

I don’t think it’s decided yet [the future]. I don’t think we’ve reached the point of no return. One thing for sure is that it won’t be the way it is now or the way it was five years ago.

BS: What’s your experience been of the community in Gowanus?

There is a community in Gowanus, for sure. There have been people living and working here forever. That’s one thing that some people seem to misunderstand. There’s a small but tightknit community of people who have lived here for a long time. For such a small area, there are a lot of subgroups.

People who have been here for 15 or 20 years have seen tremendous changes on 3rd Avenue, on Nevins.

BS: What are your day jobs?

Chris: I worked as a director of photography for narrative film. My day job is a camera operator for movies and TV.

Jamie: We met on a film set 14 years ago. Today I’m a media producer. I do audio portraits for advocacy and audio slideshows and personal histories.

BS: How do you feel about the Whole Foods?

Chris: I shop at the Park Slope Food Co-op, so it hasn’t affected my grocery shopping. I don’t want to criticize because it’s part of what we’re doing in our film. Because of a couple of characters in the film and their connection to it, we can’t really say anything. Based on our interviews and people we met, there isn’t really a consensus on Whole Foods.

BS: How do you think Gowanus has changed since you’ve lived there?

Chris: It’s only in the last year or two that there’s been physical change. There’s been a lot of gradual change in the kind of people you see walking down the street, but in the last year or so, there have been lots of old buildings being torn down and new businesses moving in — shuffleboard clubs, restaurants, new buildings.

Jamie: Third Avenue used to be pretty sketchy, but now I see tourists walking down the street with their rolling suitcases. Now there’s several hotels around here, and there are more coming.

Chris: What’s interesting about what’s happening here is that there’s a Superfund site in the middle of the neighborhood, and that’s why it’s worth documenting. That people want to build more on the banks of a Superfund site. Five years ago, I would not have guessed it.

This is a yearlong project—we hope to hear more community voices. I want everyone to feel free to participate. And we hope we’ll be finished in the spring!

BS: What do you think of the coal silos being torn down?

Chris: I think it was a special landmark in the neighborhood, and it’s a little sad to see it torn down. What really matters is what comes in their place. That’s when the final judgement will come – what was it torn down for?

BS: What impact do you think the Historic District will have on Gowanus?

Jamie: I think there will be restrictions, and in terms of maintaining the historic structures, or not building five stories on top of one. But the historical designation could impact plans to clear out structures next to the waterway to implement some kind of river walk.

I’ve been contacted by various international students studying architecture who are fascinated by what’s going on in Gowanus right now and want to make it their thesis project. People around the country and the world have their eye on what’s happening here. At least in Brooklyn, some people feel like there’s a tipping point for development, or maybe there’s a new model.

Chris: I’ve heard people talk about Gowanus being like the Venice of Brooklyn. Having like an esplanade running down the canal — the new Lightstone development is being set back from the canal so something like that could happen. A big green belt and a big sidewalk along the water, access for canoes.

BS: Now for your favorite places: your favorite Brooklyn neighborhood, favorite restaurant, favorite place in Gowanus?

Jamie: Gowanus is our favorite neighborhood. One of my favorite places is the few streets on the Park Slope side that just dead end into the water. There’s a garden on Union Street between Nevins and Degraw that I really like. And I like Canal Bar.

Chris: I like Littlefield — that’s a great neighborhood spot. Any spot that’s close to the water of the canal.

Photos by Jojo Whilden

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