Filmmaker gives voice to forgotten E. Liberty residents

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From the passion behind every pixel of Chris Ivey’s films, you’d think for sure he was a Pittsburgh native. However, Ivey, who is actually a transplant from North Carolina, only came to Pittsburgh a little more than 15 years ago.

Since that time he has been responsible for some of the most eye opening and inspirational documentary films to come out of the region. Through his lens he has spent the last six years shedding light on some of the most challenging issues facing African-Americans, while giving a voice to those who aren’t often heard.

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TWO-FACED—Chris Ivey’s films show contrasting sides of East Liberty. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

“Every year and a half to two years I try to come up with a new film dealing with things that are happening. They all deal with similar things: race, gentrification fears. I want people to get active,” Ivey said. “I love filmmaking. I also like the idea of telling stories. I’m very visual. If I have the opportunity to use what I have to inspire people, I have to do it. That’s the most I can do right now.”

In 2005, the neighborhood of East Liberty found itself at a crossroads. After being identified as an area ripe for development, city leaders began a revitalization plan that longtime residents feared would change the face of their beloved neighborhood forever.

On the cusp of this revitalization Ivey was hired by a community group to film the demolition of several public housing high rises. It was at the demolition ceremony that he saw a prime example of the neighborhood’s two faces—one White, one Black, one East Liberty, and one East Side.

“It was kind of funny when you see over 100 White people there in East Liberty, in the street, at the celebration. A little bit later I started doing interviews with some of the residents who had been displaced. There was a lot of anger under the surface and that started to connect with my frustration as a Black man,” Ivey said. “For a while the development company thought it was going to be a nice PR piece, but when they started seeing the footage, they got scared.”

After months of funding battles with the community development organization, Ivey’s first film “East of Liberty: A Story of Good Intentions,” was released in 2007. His second film “Chapter Two: The Fear of Us,” was released in 2009.

Although these films opened Ivey’s eyes to what he saw as the gentrification of East Liberty, he was exposed to Pittsburgh’s racial inequality not long after he arrived in the city. After graduating from Pittsburgh Filmmakers School, Ivey had trouble finding work and was told it was because of his race. In an effort to reconcile his own feelings of rejection, he focused on working with other African-Americans.

“I started working in commercials. Then in 2000 I started shooting small budget commercials for small businesses. I was trying to work with small Black owned businesses,” Ivey said. “I was trying to talk to businesses in East Liberty but very few of them were Black owned. It was very frustrating for me.”

The same story is true in East Liberty today, even though businesses are moving into the neighborhood at an alarming rate. Although Ivey fears it might be too late for many of the Black business owners in the neighborhood, who are slowly being forced out, he hopes his films will inspire others to be proactive.

“Some of the Black owned businesses, they don’t have leases, so they pay on a month to month basis. It’s not like they’re evicting people, they just raise the rent so high people can’t afford it,” Ivey said. “I think it may inspire people to go out and make change and inspire people to get in on the ground floor in Larimer and Homewood before the city buys everything up. People in these communities need to motivate themselves.”

The most recent installment of Ivey’s documentary series “In Unlivable Times,” focuses on youth in the neighborhood. Although, Ivey was unable to get in direct contact with some of the area’s gang members, the film examines youth violence and its causes.

“(The youth) feel not included at all. You have all this development going on, but there’s nothing for the kids who live here,” Ivey said. “Some of these gang members don’t even know what they’re fighting over. One girl said she got a gun pulled on her because she wouldn’t give someone her phone number. It’s so frustrating. No kid’s born a drug dealer; no kid’s born in a gang. There’s reasons for everything and it must get addressed.”

(For more information on Ivey or his films visit http://www.eastofliberty.com.)

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