When 'gentry' move back to the inner city

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The second season of "U.S. Chronicle," one of television's most unusual series of documentaries, is beginning. The second program of "U.S. Chronicles" -- this series of independent studies made by a consortium of public television stations -- airs Sunday (or Thursday in some areas of the country), 8- 8:30 p.m., check local listings for time, day, premiere, and repeat.

"Lower Lancaster Street," a production of WMHT, Schenectady, N.Y., is an insightful, carefully balanced study of an inner-city phenomenon known as "gentrification."

After plans by Nelson Rockefeller, the late governor, to construct the massive Albany Mall were completed, the areas close to the new superstructures -- once dominated by poor welfare families -- experiienced an influx of middle- and upper-middle-class people who recognized the inherent value of the old buildings and had enough money to buy and renovate them.

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In many cases this meant the displacement of the poor, although it is clear that in the cae of Lower Lancaster Street, the new "landed gentry" tried very hard to make the transition easy for everybody -- including themselves, of course. But in town meeting after town meeting it appeared clear that these urban pioneers were not making the hard-core poor, the handicapped, and the elderly very welcome. The great cleanup campaigns seemed designed to remove human flotsam as well as inanimate jetsam.

"U.S. Chronicle," even with host Jim Lehrer (the smiling part of the MacNeil- Lehrer team) offering comments and perspective, does not come up with any answers. It does pose the questions pointedly, however, and often poignantly.

How does one distinguish between pioneer homeowners and real estate speculators? What does one do when renters are not willing to put as much into the maintenance of their homes as homeowners? Is it so awful to evict tenants from run-down houses in order to rehabilitate those houses, which thus become unaffordable to the original renters? How much of a responsibility to find adequate alternative housing rests with the landlords, the city'? And, perhaps most important, is urban gentrification destroying the whole idea of socially mixed city neighborhoods?

"Lower Lancaster STreet" is just one street in the midst of the urban blight that afflicts so many American cities. "Gentrification" is in many cases seemingly the only alternative to complete destruction of an area, then rebuilding with public housing. This last is a measure that many cities, with federal help, chose back in the 1930s and '40s -- a method that has proved woefully ineffective in many instances.

The fact remains that for many overcrowded lower-income, city-dwelling families, their comfort, entertainment, and ironically, privacy lie in the street, the front stoop. Urban gentrification abhors this, housing projects destroy this. And this documentary dares pose the suggestion that, perhaps, the days of city stoop- sitting are over for many people.

But "Lower Lancaster Street," skillfully made by producer-director Steve Dunn , makes no attempt to avoid the conflict and mental agony caused by urban gentrification. Bravely it points its camera right into the midst of it all. While its point of view may seem to waver, the fact is that there is no simple solution.

Gentrification in the midst of urban blight is an ambivalent problem with ambivalent solutions -- all reflected with straightforward nonambivalence in this quietly effective documentary.

Still to come in this "U.S. Chronicle" series are such things as a study of boomtown Craig, Colo., next week -- then later on the introduction of police dogs into soem police forces, the flight to private schools, the coal mine operator's point of view. Each of these shows is being produced by individual local PBS stations, so there is an honest regional aspect. The series probably represents a better cross section of America than any other electronic documentary series airing today.

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