The HBO documentary Class Divide isn’t one of the network’s more viral efforts. It’s not Westworld or Game Of Thrones anyway, and even as the network’s documentaries go, it doesn’t have the sort of easy true-crime hook of a series like The Jinx. What it does have is a thoughtful, serious look at gentrification and the people–especially the young people–who find themselves thrust into the roles of haves and have-nots, and the challenges that taking on one of those two identities presents for both sides of the divide.
The film centers around the gentrification of West Chelsea in Manhattan, and specifically about the intersection of W. 26th St. and 10th Ave., where Avenues: The World School–a $40,000 a year private, for-profit international K-12 school for elite students–meets the Elliott-Chelsea housing projects, where the average household income is roughly half of what it costs to send a child to the school across the street.
The film highlights the challenges presented by that inequality and the lack of class mobility between the young neighbors–but selling a film like that to audiences requires a unique touch. That’s something that HBO invested in by working with the students who are the subject of the film, to give them a chance to learn more about each other, and each other’s worlds–and to tap into their creativity, as well.
“When we develop a marketing campaign, in the same way that the HBO brand is about storytelling, we feel like there’s a story there, as well,” Lucinda Martinez, HBO’s Senior Vice President of Multicultural Marketing, explains. “Even in our marketing campaign, we feel a responsibility to sort of bring that to life, as well.”
What that meant for Class Divide–which premiered on HBO in early October, and which is streaming on HBO Go and HBO Now–is to help the young people in the film show off their own worlds by equipping them with DSLR cameras, training them in how to use them with free weekly workshops, and providing young people in Chelsea from each side of that divide with the chance to show off what they see when they walk out the door. The work they created then went up to the Chelsea High Line park, where it was displayed at a three-day long exhibit at the beginning of the month called “Views From The Block.”
“Sometimes when we look at the subject matter of gentrification, just from a statistical standpoint, it seems like it’s not very personal,” Martinez says. “But because of the approach that the documentary took, and what’s so magical about it is that it’s told through the eyes of children. So we thought that in the way that the film bears witness, it felt like we need to also bring that to life in the way that we promoted the film and the way that we shared the film. It wasn’t just an opportunity for promotion, but also a responsibility to the neighborhood and the themes that it brought up to impact that.”
To put all of that together, HBO talked with several community organizations in the neighborhood, to ensure that they were engaging the community in the right way, and to make sure that the campaign would have a positive impact for those in the neighborhood who have a vision for it as a better place. They worked with Street Dreams Magazine, which taught photography to the young people; the Hudson Guild, which offers educational opportunities to Chelsea residents in need; the Friends of the High Line organization that volunteers to maintain the park; and the Avenues school, engaging a variety of partners in that process. That’s the sort of broad consensus it takes to engage on a contentious issue, and to find the shared common ground between all sides–and in that way, “Views From The Block” was certainly a success.
“What was so interesting about the film, and then in looking at the marketing of it, was that even though it seemed that there is this divide, there wasn’t, really–the kids really wanted to learn more and more about each other. They wanted to cross those lines,” Martinez says. “They were interested in learning more about each other, whether they were attending the Avenues school or they were living in the public housing. They wanted to understand each other, and where are the places they could come together. So bringing that to life, and creating an installation–all of those things with those community organizations–the result of that was providing them with that outlet.”