Director Christina Eliopoulos is no stranger to film work. Her credits include co-writing a CBS documentary, The Wall Within, which followed five veterans recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and directing a documentary short, This Is My Line, that explored the power of art therapy. She has also directed brand films and commercials for Ogilvy & Mather.
Her latest project, Greetings From Asbury Park, is a four-year quest that takes a stark look at the heyday and subsequent fall from grace of a city that has pulled at the imaginations of people from all walks of life since the 1800s. But if you’re looking for a breezy trip down memory lane here, this is not the “feel good” film you’re looking for. This documentary centers on the legendary redevelopment nightmares of a town in constant financial and social turmoil.
The documentary follows the daily struggles of 92-year-old immigrant Angie Hampilos who fled Greece for the U.S.A. and Asbury Park freedom back in the late ‘40s, early ‘50s as she learns that her property (a cottage built in 1875) has been included in the Eminent Domain sector on a developer’s scope. Consisting of 29 city blocks, on 56 acres of waterfront property, the whole area is scheduled to be razed for luxury condominiums and support structures. While she at first appears hopeful, the senior slowly experiences the scary reality of her future as developers begin moving forward with their plans to enforce evictions, taking city blocks at a time to coincide with their vision of “SoHo meets South Beach.”
This film takes you on a whirlwind journey of disappointing visits to county officials office’s, discussions with lawyers and strategies, town meetings and individual stories of bitter betrayal from a community that feels that town officials have dropped the proverbial (and literal) wrecking ball right on top of them.
When Angie is told by a friend to “go to the waterfront to talk to the new man in charge, the one that bought the boardwalk” the cameras re-focus on the project’s master developer, who fires off enthusiastic press release phrases like “increased tax flow from the waterfront to city coffers” and “our goal is to create a vibrant community,” goals that while admirable, don’t include anyone that’s actually living there in the film’s timeline.
The production and film work in Greetings from Asbury Park are as real and flowing as it gets, taking you back over the last several decades, allowing a few carefree glimpses of golden summers full of fun houses and carousels, the Monte Carlo salt water pool, cotton candy and bustling boardwalk life in a time when the town was a nationally renowned destination. But just as your relishing those precious images, the film drops you back into the fray one step at a time, taking you through the race riots, middle class flight, national recession and the downfall of the mom and pop stores (due to the malls) until you’re right back into the reality at hand, a waking nightmare for many in the film.
In one scene, Angie watches the construction machines from her backyard destroying properties literally within a fence length of her home, demonstrating the cold anonymity of progress as she watches helplessly, wringing her hands and obsessing on their impending closeness.
In the closing scene, Angie patiently tries to show her granddaughter where her life took place in the surrounding neighborhood. She walks up and down abandoned streets, pointing at the areas where her friends used to sit out on the porches tending to flowers and raising families but now, theres nothing there but piles of construction rubble and unfinished condos as she tries to describe what was once here to her offspring with what’s left of the only past she’s really known.
The film shows several residents and their children mailing postcards of their beloved neighborhood to themselves as a pictorial protest of what is and of what the area once was, a last effort of remembrance and goodbyes are these true postcards from the edge. The filmmakers say that while Angie’s house was appraised by the city for $161,000, the average price of a studio apt offered by the developers at the time was $480,000. With a final sense of urgency Angie asks the camera, “This was my life for 45 years, where am I going to go?” While the economy has slowed the bulldozers’ advances over the last couple of years, the issue is far from dead. Angie is still awaiting an answer to her question as we speak.
The Castle Coalition and the New Jersey Coalition to stop Eminent Domain abuse (NJ STOP EDA) continue to press for comprehensive legislative reform nationwide. Recent New Jersey court cases give precise definitions of blight and rigorous procedures for proper notifications in these matters as well. This action has enabled activists to save 29 family businesses on Main Street from being seized by Eminent Domain. For further information on the movie go to greetingsfromasburyparkmovie.com.