Volume 17 • Issue 30 | Dec. 17 - 23, 2004

Stuyvesant High School principal Stanley Teitel shakes hands with Merrie Frankel of the New York District Council of Urban Land Institute, which awarded the school a grant to film a documentary about transportation in Lower Manhattan. With them are Alice Connell and Barry Moss of the institute, left, and Jennifer Suri, a school assistant principal, right.

Stuy begins to learn more on Downtown through film project

By Hemmy So

The airy halls at Stuyvesant High School constantly echo with the bustling sounds of students heading to unknown destinations in the giant fortress on Chambers St. An oblique path from the front lobby leads to the technology education room, where a bright blue wall greets students and teachers. There, a group of seniors have already started editing hours of video relating to their biggest project yet: a full-length documentary covering the transportation system’s impact on Downtown’s quality of life.

Already a prestigious high school, Stuyvesant recently accomplished another educational boon on Nov. 24: winning an Urban Land Institute Community Action Grant. This year marks the first time Urban Land Institute, a Washington D.C.-based organization concentrating on land use and development disciplines, has offered the grant. U.L.I. chose only six proposals out of 46 submissions from throughout the country. Through the grant, the institute hopes to provide entrepreneurial thinkers the means to build community consensus on particular issues impacting urban environments.

Stuyvesant received $18,540 from U.L.I. for its documentary project. Sponsored by the U.L.I. New York District Council, whose leading supporting members for the project included chair Barry Moss, vice chairperson and trustee Merrie Frankel and education committee vice chair Joyce Lee, Stuyvesant is also working with Baruch College, City University of New York and TriBeCa Organization for the video project.

“The film will come from the fresh eyes of our next generation. U.L.I. is pleased to help mentor some of the best and brightest in public education,” Lee said in a statement.

Grants ranged from $10,400 to $40,000 and benefited institutions such as the City of Colorado Springs, Smart Growth Idaho and a Minnesota collective comprised of U.L.I. Minnesota, the Local Initiative Support Project, the University of Minnesota and Target. Topics covered by grant proposals included redevelopment plans, infill projects (development of vacant lots in built-up areas) and a two-day leadership forum for U.L.I. members and public officials.

Transportation was a fitting documentary subject for the Stuyvesant students, many of whom endure long commutes. Student videophiles Marlaina Lee and David Meketansky, for example, spend an hour and a half each morning making their way to school from northern Queens with the help of the Long Island Rail Road and 2/3 subway lines.
Stuyvesant’s Downtown location also provided an optimal location for studying transportation issues. Thanks to its proximity to the Financial District, the area experiences a daily influx of commuters. Moreover, the World Trade Center PATH station reopened a year ago after a $323 million reconstruction and plans for a rail link connecting Lower Manhattan to J.F.K. and the L.I.R.R. are also being considered.

But Elka Gould, the technology education teacher in charge of the video project, said that the Stuyvesant group hasn’t yet decided what angle the documentary will take. “We are juggling ideas around,” she said. To help develop themes and a direction for the video, Gould plans to have a salon-style meeting between the students and filmmakers and editors. Richard Corman, chairperson of the Tribeca Organization, a post-9/11 group, will organize the event, Gould said.

Beyond a specific angle for the documentary, the project’s overarching theme focuses on applied learning. That is, rather than learning from books or manuals, the students gain education through actual video production. “They probably aren’t aware of all they’re learning,” assistant principal Jennifer Suri said. She noted how students not only develop technical prowess over video production, but also other less obvious skills such as effective interviewing. “It’s really a high level of learning, and it’s fun.”

“This goes way beyond the school, which is hard to find in a class,” Meketansky remarked.

Because the U.L.I. grant requirements demanded an educational program that addressed topics with broad interest and applicability to land use challenges, Suri and Gould knew the video project would have to dig deeper than artful video montages of Downtown New York. Gould’s decision to cover transportation provided a perfect basis for a plethora of relevant educational subjects for her students.

“It touches on environment, science, business, civics, economics, community relations. It’s something they deal with in the community and at the same time it deals with U.L.I.’s mission,” Suri said.

Lee and fellow classmate Caputo Chang have already touched on certain community concerns through a video project featuring an interview with George Haikalis, chairperson of Auto-Free New York, which wants to reduce the number of cars on city streets and promotes a light rail system to achieve that goal.

The four-person crew spent two weeks preparing for the interview, conducting research on the organization. The students hoped to provide an open forum for Haikalis to express his vision for an auto-free city, but they still asked a few pointed questions about certain issues. The students asked, for example, whether the availability of hybrid cars softened Haikalis’s concerns about high automobile volume in New York City. (They do not.) The interviewers also pressed Haikalis to more fully explain Auto-Free New York’s light rail system concept.

“I began to see his perspectives more about transportation in New York City,” Lee said.

Jonathan Monina tackled an interview project closer to home: he spoke with a Tribeca resident who works at the school to get her opinions on how transportation affects her neighborhood. Through the assignment, Monina discovered how Tribeca’s increased popularity has caused some grief for long-term residents.

Interestingly, despite the school’s location and the long commutes students patiently endure every weekday, many had only an inkling of the transportation issues affecting that area. “We miss a lot of transportation issues here because we don’t hang out here,” said Meketansky, who lives in Douglaston, Queens. An eager young man with a broad build and friendly voice, Meketansky has already hit the pavement to conduct on-the-street interviews for the U.L.I. video project. He’s been lucky enough to encounter opinionated people ready to air their grievances, of which noise, street business and late trains dominate.

Future assignments for the documentary include more street reporting and interviews with City Councilmembers Alan Gerson, who represents Lower Manhattan, and John Liu, head of the City Council’s transportation committee. “They are great friends of Stuyvesant,” Suri said.

As the project grows larger and the students capture more footage, Gould plans to involve more students in the production process. Sporting a mischievous smile, Gould said she intends to recruit the students from her spring semester video class as well as former technology education students. Suri and Gould also hope that biology and government students will help out with the documentary. “It cuts across a lot of different departments,” Suri remarked.

Gould said Stuyvesant plans to use much of the U.L.I. grant money to purchase more equipment. Although the technology education classroom already offers five editing booths, video and sound equipment, television monitors and standard video editing software, newer equipment should help the project run more smoothly. What money can’t buy however, is time — something the students already know will be the biggest contribution to the documentary.

Over the weekend, for example, Monina shot three hours worth of footage for what will become a three-to-five-minute video. His classmate Emanuel Cavalieri, a tall, slender artsy-type with an ear for music, spent about two hours a day during lunch periods and after school for about three weeks in order to finish a two-minute video montage about a day in Tribeca.

“It just takes a lot of work. You always have to re-shoot something. Problems always crop up,” Monina said.

In the end, Gould hopes to have a cohesive, informative documentary that displays the diverse creative talents of her students. Already, an array of styles has begun to develop, and Gould eagerly encourages more creativity. “They’ll come up with styles and then we’ll get consistency [for the documentary]. That’s the thought now,” she said.

Stuyvesant plans to show the final product in June 2005 at Baruch College.

Sitting beside each other, Monina and Meketansky often echo each other’s words when discussing the reasons why they love video production. Meketansky emphasized the flexibility of the medium for self-expression. Monina, a thoughtful student with a dark sense of humor that he can barely keep hidden, pointed out the popularity of video as a means of communication on the grassroots level.

“I hate to say it, but books aren’t as important as they used to be. Video is a way to get something out there,” he said.

Both hope to someday work in the film and video industries, and Monina is already planning to attend a college with strong film and business programs so he may combine his two interests.

Meketansky talked excitedly about his parents’ vision of his future. “My parents are happy and overconfident. They want to see my name on the big screen,” he said. “They said, ‘go to film school and get a job. If not, live at home’ — which would make them happy too.”

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