Clarence Eckerson Jr: The Revolution Will Be Televised

Clarence Eckerson Jr. is founder of Street Films. Photo courtesy Clarence Eckerson Jr.

I’m pretty sure my introduction to Street Films was “Hal Grades Your Bike Locking.” In it, a brash, dread-headed bike mechanic named Hal Ruzal walks around New York City grading people’s lock jobs (mostly Fs) and explaining how they could do better. The point was not to show how dumb New Yorkers are about protecting their bikes. It was to educate people about the very real threat of bike theft. Education is the point of all of the nearly-500 Street Films that have been produced since its launch in 2007. They show the best of biking, walking, transit, and street design (and occasionally the worst) to help people learn improve their own communities and lives.

That Street Films is driven by positivity and a desire to educate is little surprise given how cheerful and positive its founder Clarence Eckerson Jr. is. Through the course of our phone interview, his answers were constantly punctuated by laughter. In between laughs, Eckerson told me about Street Films’ history, his life as a filmmaker and streets advocate, the critical intersection of advocacy and mass media, and much more.

What is Street Films?

We’re a nonprofit–I say we’re, but it’s just me. It’s a free online resource that makes films about bicycling, walking transportation, transit, environmental issues, hoping to inspire the rest of the United States and the world to make their cities better. Whether it be better policies, better bike lane design, open space, all the good livable streets stuff that we preach. We’re just trying to get people around the world to see best practices from all over the place.

How did Street Films get its start?

It ends up being a really long story. I’ll give you the short version. I was involved with Transportation Alternatives in the mid to late 90s. I had a cable access show called Bike TV for a number of years on local cable access. Despite the fact that it was called that it was frequently about more than just biking. It was about neighborhoods and walking and transportation. It kind of evolved into what I’ve kind of been doing with Street Films.

I started making freelance films after work and in my spare time. In 2003, I made a film called “The Case for a Car Free Central Park.” I didn’t know, but it was secretly funded through a couple people that were involved in Transportation Alternatives, most notably a guy by the name of Mark Gorton. We showed that at a screening. Over 600 people came. Remember this was before YouTube or Vimeo or any kind of social media, so you had to go around and show it to communities. Amazingly, we had such a huge turnout and positive response, [Gorton] started saying, “can you make some more films?”  Eventually it evolved once the Streets Blog site got started, they said “you make all these films, you should be a sister site.” They were already referring to the films as street films when they posted them on StreetsBlog so the site just became Street Films.

That was 2006. It’s mostly just been me since then other than a 3 1/2 year period when I had two colleagues. That was during our big funding years. Now we’re kind of lean and I’m just trying to make whatever I can to help people.

You were clearly already into filmmaking before Street Films. How did you learn the craft?

I always had an 8mm film camera when I was kid. You had to get it developed and all that. I was always fascinated with film. But I never took filmmaking classes or got any kind of degrees in public policy or planning or anything like that. I just would read and study and do whatever I could. I always had a camera. The real way I got started was right before I started the cable access show, I said to myself, I really like making films and I really like biking, maybe I can put the two together to get more people biking in New York. I taped a lot of rides with friends and put little films together.

As a volunteer with Transportation Alternatives I would frequently see things in the media I thought were unfair. We put together a big protest in Prospect Park over in Park Slope. We were trying to get cars out of there. Hundreds of people would show up. Then the news reporters would go out and they would interview a couple of us then they’d interview a whole bunch of drivers who weren’t out there investing their energy trying to change things for the better. The media would just be kind of like, “these people want the park closed, but drivers don’t so that’s the end of the story.” That’s not fair. Maybe if the drivers were here protesting, but they didn’t care. I saw this windshield mentality from the general media back then. It motivated me to change that. I thought we needed rallying films. We needed momentum. We needed people to know these were all real issues.

One more history question for you, why did you get involved in streets advocacy in the first place?

I’m 48 and I’ve never had a drivers license. Other than when I was growing up, I’ve always lived in cities that had decent mass transit. I would walk a lot of places, bike some, and take transit. I think it was in 1994 I did the Transportation Alternatives century ride. You could ride 30, 50, 75, or 100 miles. I’d done some pretty serious rides, like 30-40 miles. But I remember thinking, “100 miles! I can’t even do 75.” But my girlfriend at the time convinced me to sign up. I was just totally blown away that, for one, we did 75 miles that day. But number two, I was blown away that even with the limited bike infrastructure and greenways we had back then how totally big and amazing the city was and that if you knew the major routes and most bike-friendly roads, you really could do a lot of traveling by bike on fairly safe streets. That’s really what got me involved in TA and kicked everything off to begin with.

Photo courtesy Clarence Eckerson Jr.

What makes for effective, multi-media advocacy?

I think right off the bat, you’ve gotta choose interesting topics. You’ve either got to choose really new, different interesting topics that people haven’t seen before. Or, if you choose something like a bike ride or an open streets event, you’ve gotta find a new angle or a way to make that video creative in a way people haven’t seen anymore. Up until a few years ago I could make a film and, whether I was talented or not, people saw bikes and were like, “oh I want to watch that!” These days if you don’t capture somebody’s attention in the first 15 seconds, they’ll tune right out. Doesn’t matter what the title is, doesn’t matter who’s in it. You’re under the gun to do something interesting in the first few minutes of your film or have some kind of controversial topic or shot.

I just put up a film yesterday about New York City trying for the first time a granite bike lane on a cobblestone street. It’s interesting because New York DOT announced they were going to make this bike route better and there’s one block that’s all cobblestone. They said they were going to use a skinny concrete paver so you could ride your bike instead of having to deal with the bumps. Right away I thought that’s something that hasn’t happened in a lot of places. There might be a few places in Europe where they tried that with cobblestones. They told me they didn’t think that had happened in the United States anywhere. Right then and there I said that’s a film. There are advocates across the country that will want to see that. I saw people tweeting about it already saying “when can we do this in Philadelphia?” or how bout San Francisco or Boston? You want something that will generate buzz and excitement.

In that same vein, how do you think media can and should be better be utilized for bike advocacy in the US? What are bike advocates not doing with media that they really should be?

I worked at a TV station in college and the number one thing is you’ve gotta make it easy. It sounds horrible. But if you’re a TV station and you’re looking for something to cover, if something’s going to be a pain in the ass or something’s going to be neatly spelled out for you, you’re going to go for the latter. We’re all hard workers, but everyone wants to work a little less hard. I think it’s really important for people to at least keep in mind the people you’re working with.

If you’re going to do a bike tour, a lot of people don’t have the ability to ride and shoot the way I do. They’re all with their giant cameras. In Philadelphia–this was the smartest thing I’ve ever seen–they introduced the new bike share system Indego. The mayor cuts the ribbon and gets on the bike and takes off. Usually that’s the only shot the media’s going to get. But they did a loop around the media and came back for a second shot. Always try to keep in mind that you’re working with people who want to do a good job and they want to have as much ability to make their story look as good as possible. But they also have time and mobility limitations. Once you successfully do that, you get in their news cycle. They know they can count on you.

You’ve been doing this for about 15 years now, how has the advocacy world changed? How has the general understanding of transportation changed in New York or beyond?

I think number one is that people are becoming educated. Whether it’s Street Films or StreetsBlog or some of the local media or local and national advocacy groups we have. I can tell you, 10-15 years ago nobody knew what the word traffic calming meant. People barely knew what a speed hump was. There’s been a lot of successful activation with education. What you now find is that just about every city has a very decent movement of folks trying to push for pedestrian, bike, livable streets advocacy. It’s encouraging. You also see the younger generation now doesn’t want to live a mile and a half commute from their job. They want to live closer. Those people are also thinking about these issues. Unfortunately we also have a glut of people that love this stuff and are going to school for it and we don’t have jobs for all of them. There is a limit. I also do recall when I was starting to get involved, NYCDOT only had two or three dedicated people tops working in the bicycle program. Now that group is not only so much larger, but you might have an engineer who understands bike accessibility issues and isn’t even in the bike program. Everything has expanded exponentially.

The other thing I’ve seen happen is that now everybody thinks everything is going to magically change overnight. That’s just not going to happen. There are 20 year olds who go to Copenhagen, come back to New York City, and they’re like, “why can’t we look like Copenhagen?” Well, it was incremental there. It’s incremental everywhere. You fight for things. Over my life I’ve seen streets go from being a marked bike route with just signs to a painted bike lanes to a buffered bike lane to full protected bike lane. You have to be willing to compromise somewhat. There are some people who are like it’s all or nothing. But we’re ultimately going to fail in the United States if you keep that view. It’s been nice to see over the years that people are starting to understand that there are many iterations of these bicycling amenities and sometimes you have to be happy with what you can get. Some people say you’re copping out or settling for less. I mentioned that cobblestone street. There are a lot of people watching the videos and saying, “the granite block is way too narrow. This is a fail, fail, fail.” I’m just thinking OK, I’ve ridden on that cobblestone street many times and this is 98 percent better than it used to me. I understand that it’s not wide enough if you have a trike or a three wheeled cargo bike. OK, but this is a substantial improvement. You need to compromise sometimes then to keep working at it.

Photo courtesy Clarence Eckerson Jr.

Of the almost 500 films you’ve made do you have a favorite?

I think the one film that’s always going to be very close and dear to my heart is going to be the Bogota Ciclovia film. In many ways that was probably the defining film for Street Films. It was our biggest film up until 2012. It had the highest number of plays on the site by far. It helped usher in just a huge number of open streets events throughout the United States especially. I go to open streets events or ciclovias and people will tell me, “it was your film, we showed our Mayor” or “the film is what motivated people to do it.” Also that was my first real trip to a place where I had no idea what I was getting myself into. But I was taken all around, treated like royalty, and had a fun time riding. I never thought I would be in the midst of anything like that. Essentially an entire city shuts down and people come out to enjoy their Sunday morning riding bikes.

I also like the Cycling Copenhagen film I did back at the 2010 Velo City conference. I’d been to San Francisco and other cities where they had a good number of cyclists. And I knew there were a lot of cyclist in Copenhagen. But within minutes of checking into my hotel and stepping outside with my camera, I come across my first protected bike lane. There were 30 people heading towards me on bikes in the lane and I was rushing to set up my camera and I fell and twisted my ankle. It swelled up huge. While I’m laying there holding my ankle thinking what the hell is wrong with me, another light cycle goes by and another 30 cyclists come at me. I didn’t have to rush to get the shot. I could’ve gotten that shot over and over if I’d sat there all day. That was kind of a bummer. I spent the entire time in a lot of discomfort. But that trip was great.

Another one was Groningen in the Netherlands. You go to Amsterdam or Copenhagen and you see a lot of bicycling and it’s exciting. But you go to Gronigen and it’s 50 percent or so cyclists. I got off the train and took a mile walk to the hotel. I was literally laughing out loud. There were no cars anywhere. It was like Candy Land for bicycles. The city was so quiet and everything was magical. I was so impressed. I knew I had to tell that story right and I think I did.

Aaron Naparstek told me to ask you when you’re going to do your Paperboy movie.

*Laughs* Through all these years of advocacy and making friends, I’ve also realized that some of the most intelligent and interesting people that I have been friends with or I have really revered as bike advocates all had paper routes when they were younger. All these people who were young, getting up in the morning to deliver newspapers by bike or by walking all developed this wonderful appreciation of being able to do their job without a car. The just really appreciate the world. I started to get people together to actually do this film. But I kept coming up against the fact that nobody has any pictures of themselves delivering papers back in the day. Aaron was probably the closest because he says he still has his delivery paper satchel. Amazingly, I was a paperboy for five years and I don’t have one photo of me delivering the paper. It’s a difficult story to tell with absolutely no footage. No photos, nothing. There’s still maybe a chance I’ll do it one day. I just find it funny that these people all ended up being really independent, they’re all good at communicating, they’re good with money. You had to collect your own money. These days it’s all automatic, it’s adults in cars doing deliveries. It was a different era. Nobody was worried about stranger danger. There weren’t all these rules. There weren’t helicopter parents. It was a wonderful time. Now that I’m having a son in July I’m finding I’m very aware of these things. How do I try to bring him up in this new world where there’s a lot of over worrying by parents and our society?

What’s on the horizon for street films?

Other people are getting good at documenting things or taking photos. We have Twitter or Facebook. Everyone can make films now–though not necessarily good films–because the technology’s different. It’s getting harder and harder to find the interesting new stuff. It’s a strategy of covering things with a new angle and more importantly, finding the places doing best practices that everybody can learn from. I’m going to London in a few weeks. They’ve got a lot of good things going on so you’ll see a lot of films from there. But that’s the constant. How do we make films that people can appreciate and also how do we give them tools that they can use in their communities?

We’ve done this thing called the Sneckdown. [Eds. note: Sneckdown is a portmanteau of snowy neck down and refers to the traffic-calming curb extensions created by recently plowed streets.] Interestingly enough there’s been a couple cities, especially Philadelphia, where it’s really just taken off. They went out and documented a lot of their streets that come together at weird angles.

We did a film about parking craters. We’re trying to educate about the fact that parking is really one of the toughest things to deal with. On a local level, politicians don’t want to touch it. Neighborhood residents want as much parking as possible. Developers are being told they have to put it in. Parking is one of the things destroying cities. If you follow it all the way down its chain, parking puts more automobiles on the road, it makes cities hotter, streets get more dangerous, more people get hurt. Myrid problems all trace back to the parking issue. We also did an animated film about parking. Both those films got over 30,000 plays. If you’d told me those films would get even 3,000-4,000 views I’d consider that a success.

People are opening their minds and we’re getting smarter and smarter leaders in our cities. How do we tell the important stories that people need to hear?


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One Response to Clarence Eckerson Jr: The Revolution Will Be Televised

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