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New Urbanism Film Fest Preview: American Makeover

1:20 PM PST on November 5, 2014

L.A.'s New Urbanism Film Festival kicks off tomorrow with an opening reception starting at 7 pm at the ACME Theater in Hollywood. From Thursday through Sunday, #NUFF2014 attendees will enjoy feature-length films and shorts on architecture, urban farming, bicycling, street art, and more. The list of programs are at the NUFF website; select "buy tickets" to view the entire schedule of films. In addition to the film program, there are more events: cycling and walking tours, receptions, awards, etc.

The 2014 New Urbanist Film Festival runs tomorrow through Sunday
The 2014 New Urbanist Film Festival runs tomorrow through Sunday. Image via NUFF

The opening night feature film will be American Makeover. It was made by the same folks who did the teaser trailer video above, and uses some similar graphically appealing storytelling style. The film features lots of livability leaders with which Streetsblog readers may be familiar, including Stefanos Polyzoides, Ellen Dunham-Jones, Robert Bullard, and others.

American Makeover traces four different 10- to 20-minute urbanist success stories:

    • Atlanta, Georgia: Glenwood mixed-use infill development
    • Seaside, Florida: New construction resort community
    • Fresno, California: Downtown revitalization community planning
    • Buffalo, New York: Historic core redevelopment

None of these stories present a precise analogy for Los Angeles, but they're all interesting and all include some lesson applicable to Southern California. Closest to home is California's fifth largest city: Fresno. American Makeover presents Fresno's story as sprawl versus the most valuable farmland in the world. (Los Angeles had that same conflict from the mid-1800s through mid-1900s, too, but our farmland preservation train already left the proverbial station. See also NUFF's Sunday urban farming programs, though!) The film focuses mostly on Fresno's successful update of its downtown neighborhoods community plan. This multi-year stakeholder process included multilingual, multigenerational outreach and community meetings, and ultimately resulted in a plan that returns the city's focus to its neglected core. 

The Fresno chapter also includes a lot of the story of Fresno's Fulton Street pedestrian mall, located in the core of its downtown. The mall won awards in the 1960s when it was implemented, and fell into disuse by the '90s. Frankly, onscreen it looks a lot like Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade did when it was struggling in the '80s and early '90s. Recently, in contrast to Santa Monica's successful revitalization of its promenade, the city of Fresno voted to open Fulton Street back up to traffic.

American Makeover is a very watchable documentary. It moves quickly, more like Streetfilms or MTV than PBS. My only critique would be that it is a little too focused on success, happiness, and joy. One of the interesting things about urban interventions is learning from failures.

American Makeover screens at 8pm tomorrow night. Go to NUFF website for information on the opening, other films, and purchasing tickets. Read my earlier interview with Festival Director Josh Paget here.

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