by Jessica Mosby
- USA -
In the not so distant past, the idea of reducing, reusing, and recycling seemed idealistic, even if it just meant putting a glass bottle in a recycling container instead of the trash. But a wave of environmentalism has swept the United States, and now recycling a soda can is practically a given. To truly be “green” you must buy the latest environmentally friendly technology, watch green television channels, drive a hybrid, and live in a multimillion dollar home constructed exclusively with green products. If this lifestyle is going to save us, it’s sadly out of reach for most people.
Filmmakers Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis followed the construction of the Macallen luxury condos from 2005-2007. Along the way, they interviewed everyone involved from union laborers to the developer to South Boston business owners who see the building as a sign of changing times in their formerly working-class neighborhood. Cheney and Ellis succeed in making construction an engaging cinematic topic, but The Greening of Southie lacks the charm of the duo’s last film, King Corn.
For viewers not familiar with “green” and all of its attributes, the film clearly lays out the formal qualifications for a new building. In 1998, the US Green Building Council created the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) criteria. Buildings can earn “points” in five areas (think using recycled materials, water efficiency, and locally made products) to then be rated Platinum, Gold, Silver, or Certified. According to LEED Consultant Jay Murray, “The Macallen building is going for gold. It is going to be a challenge; it is a very aggressive level to get.”
Most of the documentary’s viewers are not building a multimillion dollar condo, so many of the touted technologies seem irrelevant if you’re trying to make your small rented apartment more energy efficient. But Cheney and Ellis successfully translate the Macallen’s green goals to a smaller scale. For instance, the 30,000 tons of concrete that created the foundation were locally made and 95% of the 3.2 million pounds of steel used was made from scrap metal – anyone can make a conscious effort to buy recycled and local goods, even if it’s just apples at a neighborhood farmer’s market.Some of the environmentally-friendly technologies and products used in the building’s construction are clearly superior to their environmentally-harmful counterparts. Most construction uses fiberglass insulation, which is difficult to install and dangerous to breathe; the Macallen developers instead chose recycled cotton insulation. Mark Warner, a union laborer who installed the insulation says “The fiberglass insulation itches, and it gets all over your clothes. I’ve got two little kids, so before I go in the house, I’ve got to change clothes before they hug me. Cotton is a lot better.”
However admirable the green products and practices, the entire Macallen project is undeniably elitist. Everyone should reduce the amount of energy and water they use, but do you need a two million dollar condo to achieve those goals? Is new construction – as opposed to updating existing structures – really sustainable on a large scale?
Thirty four year old Macallen owner and developer Tim Pappas has an overall air of opulence. With perfectly coifed shaggy hair and expensive looking suits, his decree “I hope that everyone who works on this project embraces green” seems naïve. The union workers who worked for two years to the build the condos could never afford to live there.
The filmmakers subtly expose the exclusivity of the Macallen, and in essence the entire green movement. Wayne Phillips, a Trinidadian union laborer, was initially dubious about the entire thing, but after the building is finished he stands on the roof looking at a beautiful view accentuated by a cloudless sky and laments, “I wish I had an apartment here…but we could never afford this. I would love to live in the environmental building that we built.”The people buying units in the Macallen obviously want a certain level of luxury and have the means to do so. After growing up in South Boston in a family of 10, Bill Gleason decides to return to his former neighborhood by buying one of the first units. For Gleason the LEED status was part of the appeal, “I think living in a green building will compliment the way I already live my life.” Admittedly, Gleason has the economic means that other former and current South Boston residents do not.
South Boston is traditionally a family-oriented, blue-collar neighborhood with a strong Irish-Catholic influence. Recently, as developers look for cheaper land, the area has become a hotbed of gentrification. The situation is complicated because new structures, like the Macallen, are being built on abandoned lots or in place of old manufacturing plants. According to Architect Monica Ponce de Leon, “What is exciting about the site of the Macallen building is that it was a former industrial area, so we are transforming an area of South Boston that had been very run-down.”
What is not so “exciting” is that families and long-time South Boston residents are being priced out of their neighborhood. A camera shot of the modern Macallen looming over slightly rundown row houses clearly illustrates that this new development is creating a different kind of home that attracts a different kind of person. To their credit, Cheney and Ellis never take sides in the gentrification versus urban renewal debate; like all effective documentary filmmakers, they state the facts and then let their subjects tell the story so viewers can make up their own minds.
If environmentalism is going to be more than a passing fad, it must be less expensive and exclusive. Living in the Macallen, where rainwater is collected in underground containers and then used to water the landscaping, is unfeasible for the majority of Americans. If you can get past the inherent elitism, almost anyone can go green on their own terms; the idea of smaller, cheaper contributions, like collecting rainwater in a bucket for your own plants, seems more realistic.
Going green is not going to transform our planet unless everyone can embrace the movement on their own terms and scale. The Greening of Southie presents some great ideas that are easily achievable by the individual. Still, environmentalism cannot be about building new homes filled with new things, even if those new things are made from recycled products. If we don’t embrace reducing and reusing, the green movement cannot make a real impact. Recycling alone isn’t enough to save us.
About the Author Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in San Francisco, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.