A Film By Jon Wetterau
The story of “Old Johnny” Harte, a septuagenarian from my neighborhood, is about alcoholism, growing old and poverty in the face of gentrification. The gap between rich and poor grows in New York at perhaps, an even quicker rate than in the rest of the country. The borough of Queens has always been primarily working and upper-middle class. Until recently, no major developments have transformed its working class neighborhoods the way the Upper West Side changed in the 60s and 70s, or how Williamsburg, Brooklyn has changed in the past 20 years. Now, an influx of artists and young people, eager to live close to the city and in an inexpensive neighborhood, has transformed the neighborhood from a forgotten depository for people no one important cared about into a neighborhood attractive to the more wealthy.
This film is about how neglect by authorities and financial real estate profiteers pushes out the poorest of the poor. This creates situations of poverty for the powerless, in this case, an old drunk. The disenfranchisement he feels contributes to his perceived disenfranchisement and loneliness. He refuses to seek help from the city because he prefers to stay in the neighborhood as a symbol. Pride and anger makes him want to be a sore thumb.
John lived in this neighborhood on and off all his life. He spins stories about the neighborhood and his old car service business like many elderly recount the old days. Unlike most of the few remaining long-time Long Island City residents, he lives in a car with his nephew. He lives off of Social Security and handouts. He drinks himself to sleep on the cold nights. his story is one of contrasting changes in the environment. The decline of industry in this neighborhood during our time of neo-liberal economic globalization is also happening throughout New York and the whole country. While many smaller cities or towns have become nearly vacant, something quite different occurs in New York, especially in any neighborhood close to Manhattan. After the decades of decline and flight of the more well off original residents, developers are now replacing discarded industrial facilities with luxury towers. The older generation that remain are echoed in the remainders of old painted signs on old buildings, the conversion of the old waterfront to a lovely park or the stark contrast between the old row houses and the 40 plus story towers.
He is proud that his quotidian existence is one of great liberty, within a limited range of possibilities. His story is about his alienated state of dejection, dependency and alcoholism. Anger is his motivational energy but he is far from cruel and not violent. In fact he has a lot of compassion for local homeless, (which he does not see himself as) beneath his dirty exterior.