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Spanish Lake film examines decline of a community

This article first appeared n the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 10, 2012 - St. Louisans once looked at Spanish Lake as a symbol for what was great about living in the suburbs. The community, comprised mostly of white, middle-class working families, had the perfect scenic location by the river and Fort Bellefontaine. It offered its citizens a chance to have a nice home and raise a family near playgrounds, parks and lakes while also being near the malls and shopping centers that many wanted. It was a paradise for the postwar American Dream.

Then a series of economic shifts brought tough times to the area. Things peaked in the 1990s as elderly residents moved on or passed away. Whether motivated by racial paranoia, increased violence, declining home values or something else, many of the middle-class families who had lived in the area for generations moved out in a mass departure often referred to as white flight. As these people left, the neighborhoods of Spanish Lake saw an increase in Section 8 housing, fewer businesses and, with that, fewer jobs. As a result, violent crime increased, education quality faltered and people began to give up on Spanish Lake.

"Spanish Lake" is a new documentary from director and former resident Phillip Andrew Morton. Running nearly 90 minutes, his film, produced by Matt Jordan Smith, puts the plight of this once-beautiful town under the microscope, examining how recent economic downturns, racism, poor government and population shifts have left the city decimated and struggling to survive.

Community As Example

"Spanish Lake" develops as several residents tell their individual stories about life there. From these accounts, we see the transition of Spanish Lake from a wonderful, beautiful suburbia into an apocalyptic ghost town where jobs are scarce, homes are foreclosed, education options are diminished and mass transit has been reduced to a crawl. Sadly, Morton says, Spanish Lake now boasts more public housing than any other area in Missouri.

Yet as the documentary continues we learn that Spanish Lake still has a pulse. Its residents have a grit and determination to make things better despite the odds. These are tough people who clearly want better neighborhoods and are determined to create a good place to live. Morton's lens scrutinizes the local government, which has, in the past, been accused of dishonest zoning laws and inept leadership. Behind all the doom and gloom, Morton sees a community and government trying to work together to try and make things better.

Another local documentary "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth," focused on what went wrong with housing in that area of the city of St. Louis. As Morton's film points out, Spanish Lake in many ways had to pick up the pieces from Pruitt-Igoe. Many of the issues that affected the housing project are present in Spanish Lake. There is an ongoing cycle of poor housing, bad government and crime that reflects what happens anywhere in the country when once solid American communities decay.

As a film, "Spanish Lake" highlights these bigger national problems facing similar communities. Within four decades, Spanish Lake went from representing the hopeful American Dream to the American scream of frustration, poverty, violence and abandonment.

Morton, who lived in what's presented as an idyllic suburbia of a different Spanish Lake, became aware of the problems while living there during the 1990s.

Morton said, "When I came back to visit in 2007, I was shocked to see the economic fallout that resulted. And while a small part of this was due to the recession, it was the 'white flight' phenomenon that drained the area in terms of local businesses. If it wasn't for that visit, I wouldn't have known the extent of the problems the area was experiencing. I'm grateful for the efforts of the Spanish Lake Community Association group, which have been very effective in bringing positive developments to the area in the past few years."

When asked what made him decide that the story of Spanish Lake was a worthy topic for a documentary film, Morton said, "Spanish Lake is my hometown and it's a stunningly beautiful area, containing two national landmarks: the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers and Fort Bellefontaine, the first American military fort established west of the Mississippi. There's a lot of rich history and beauty to the area that deserves some local and national attention.

"But more importantly, witnessing the economic decline of the area in during a visit in 2007 hit me pretty hard. My first home in Spanish Lake was a foreclosure and was abandoned, as were three of the adjoining properties. Walking around a once thriving neighborhood and seeing it emptied out was a haunting and surreal experience. I was familiar with the pattern of 'white flight' that had plagued the St. Louis area for decades, but because this was my hometown, it brought the situation to a more personal level. Having lived in Los Angeles for several years, I realized the pattern of flight and blight was somewhat unique to the St. Louis area and I became curious to understand its origins and functionality. The deeper I researched, the more passionate I became about the project. Learning of the history and politics of the area, which helped foster this pattern of racial segregation was incredibly eye-opening to me and I assume it will be to many other people."

Although research for the project began in 2007, the production team began working on the film last April, with shooting lasting through the summer before starting editing in September. It is now in the final stages of post-production with Morton and Smith shopping it to several film festivals.

Morton provided an update, "There have been some discussions about previewing some clips at the upcoming Open/Closed conference in March. But we are working hard to make sure the film is released in time for (this) summer. I know many people are excited to see the film and I don't want them to have to wait much longer."

One of ways to measure the success of a documentary film is to examine its effect on the issues it deals with. To that end, Morton believes his film has accomplished quite a lot. "I know the Kickstarter campaign and fund-raising trailer we launched last summer jump started some serious discussions about the area. Hundreds of people have contacted me via email, including people from completely different cities, who were able to relate to similar situations in their home towns. I think this analysis of race and economy is very worthwhile and long overdue in the St. Louis area."

MTV Inspired

When asked why he decided to become a filmmaker, Morton said, "Three letters: MTV. When I was a young kid, I was mesmerized by the music videos of the 1980s. Trying to wrap my little head around these four-minute short films, which were often layered with abstract symbolism and subversive elements, was a feast for my imagination. That dynamic combination of imagery, music and story was so powerful it could communicate the deepest and most primal of emotions to just about anyone.

"I got a buzz from watching those videos," Morton said, "and I knew that I wanted to create that same excitement for an audience."

Producer Matt Jordan Smith's path to making films was different. "As a kid, film was another world to be created, and I had a very creative mind early on. Being born and raised in LA, the entertainment industry was always around me. I lived among the talent of our day and felt that I had something to contribute to that. For me, it really started with story telling. After I saw the 1955 film classic 'Rebel Without A Cause,' where I connected to a character and a story, not of my own life but so parallel as a rebellious but sympathetic and misunderstood kid, that was the first moment I realized I had found my calling. I knew I wanted to tell stories that moved people that struck some kind of real emotion. Passion is not a big enough word to describe my love of film making."

With the Spanish Lake film complete, Morton is eager to move on. "My goal this year is to direct my first feature film from a script that took me seven years to write. While I love documentaries, I'm ready for the challenge of bringing a fictional story to life. I also have a couple of documentaries I'm co-producing, but unfortunately I can't talk about those yet. I keep pretty busy creatively, so there's always a new project on the horizon."

A website for "Spanish Lake" is under development and the film is hoping to use film festivals as a means to get widespread theatrical distribution. In the meantime you can follow the progress of "Spanish Lake" via its Facebookpage.

Rob Levy is a freelance writer.