Imagining Home: Planning an American Dream

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Poor African Americans, Poverty and development, Social justice, Segregation, Racial equity, Racism, Race relations, Anti-racism


Imagining Home, a feature documentary, traces the transformation of a historic, maligned, and cherished public housing neighborhood in Portland, Oregon into a multi-cultural, mixed-income urban development. Through stories of several displaced and relocated families, the film elicits the soul of a neighborhood, and asks: “Can we re-create a community that fosters integration and equity, and in doing so offer a model for the future of our nation’s cities?” Synthesizing image, emotion, and idea, the film encourages audiences to “inhabit” the lives of characters facing poverty, community upheaval, and multi-cultural integration.

The film tracks the growth of the community from its inception as a housing project for white WWII shipyard workers in 1942 to its demolition 61 years later and, finally, its rebirth and struggle to reidentify itself outside of the entrenched stigma it faces. Relying on the accounts of former residents, housing managers, and city officials, among others, the film follows the arc of life in an inner urban community, as it endures critical social development stages and emerges a strong, resilient, nurturing community.

Like many disadvantaged communities, the “Villa” provided a haven for single mothers, refugees from many troubled nations, survivors of domestic abuse, the elderly and disabled, all seeking better circumstances for themselves and their children. Columbia Villa ultimately became the most culturally diverse neighborhood in Oregon’s history, with over 17 primary languages spoken. Despite struggling with isolation, poverty, stigma, and crime, the Villa emanated a remarkable sense of unity and belonging.

From racial integration to the War on Poverty to gang violence and back to peaceful interaction and the building of strong relationships among its residents, this 82-acre community represents the challenges of urban neighborhoods around the country. What is different about this community is that the city decided to tear it down and rebuild it, following the model of New Urbanist design — including a population with mixed incomes, several levels of rental and home ownership options, front porches, open spaces, just like an idyllic neighborhood ‘should be.’ But, when the time comes for the reinhabitation of the community, will the former residents come back? How will they rebuild their once nurturing community?

Imagining Home addresses critical and controversial issues surrounding our inner-city neighborhoods and urban revitalization issues that go largely ignored in mainstream media and are sparsely represented in public television. It is a well-rounded, deeply considered story about current problems told by the people most directly affected. It is a story about one small Portland, Oregon neighborhood, but the lessons it teaches have urgent nationwide relevance.

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