Filmmaker Russell Blanchard didn't intend to start a new project when he went into Black Star Books & Caffe, just a block from his Algiers home. But, as many neighborhood conversations go in New Orleans, he got to talking to Black Star owner Baakir Tyehimba about the closest blight.
Through their conversations, Blanchard learned how, seven years ago, Tyehimba tried to turn the lot across from his coffee shop into a green space for kids. He used his own money, but, Blanchard said, "it didn't work out due to city regulations." The small, vacant lot on the corner of Belleville and Slidell Streets was full of broken-down cars and over-grown grass, while the local children played in the street.
Today as Blanchard and his film crew finish principle photography on the short film "The Lot," the property still has overgrown grass and the fenceposts Tyehimba installed seven years ago. Local children still play in the street.
"The City seems to have its hands tied or they act like they have their hands tied a lot of times," Tyehimba reflects.
For Blanchard, Tyehimba's failed effort to create an urban green space shows "how sometimes it's difficult because you always want to help on your terms, but then people really need help on their terms."
Tyehimba's attempt to reclaim the lot back in 2007 began modestly. He persuaded a neighbor to park his diesel tractor-trailer-truck elsewhere, and towed the abandoned cars into the street with a heavy chain and his Ford F-150. "For me, I'm not trying to own the property for personal gain or to make some profit off of it. I want it for the benefit of…the people who live around here, and to take it away from being blighted."
The city eventually towed the cars away. Meanwhile, Tyehimba cut the grass, installed a wooden fence, and then taught local children to build playhouses, some of which decorated the property.
As Blanchard recounts, "At the high-water point he had about seven of these little playhouses, everything was rocking and rolling, and then the city came up and said he didn't use the right type of fence-boards, and he had to go to the board and discuss it. And he went and kind of pled his case, and they said they'll review it."
The actual owner of the lot by now supported Tyehimba's renovation effort, until he got a letter from the City threatening a $250 per day fine and jail time if the fines weren't paid. Eventually, the City informed Tyehimba that he could continue operating the park. But he was required to comply with the applicable regulations, including having a different fence and obtaining expensive private park insurance.
Tyehimba's experiences and frustrations resonated with Russell Blanchard.
"It really connected to things I was trying to do, trying to help out the neighborhood,” Blanchard said.
Being a filmmaker, Blanchard wanted to make a film that was inspired by Tyehimba's story.
"Hopefully what we can do with the film is use it as a sort of tool to hopefully raise the funds and finish the park that he started," he said.
“I think it's brilliant to do a film," Tyehimba said. "I appreciate his effort."
Blanchard sold Producer Megan Grogan on “The Lot” while they volunteered together at the Sundance Film Festival. She had never been to New Orleans, but found the story drawing her interest.
"It was more than just, 'I want to make a fun, short film.' There was a story behind it, and it was the message, the message of reaching out and helping, the message of being a part of the neighborhood resonated with me," Brogan said. "And the idea that it was a bigger project. It wasn't just a small film, it was a huge project, and at the end of it there was going to be a park. And that was the other goal outside the film."
Director of Photography D. J. McConduit wanted to do the film after hearing about it from Blanchard at the New Orleans Video Access Center's 2013 event Synch-up Cinema. When local filmmaker Kevin Hughes (Laundry Day) joined the crew as a gaffer, he suggested Blanchard utilize the script-writing talents of his friend, Ben Gouldthrope.
Suddenly Blanchard had a dedicated group to make the film. It came complete with a small window when they were all free to shoot it, once producer Grogan’s regular TV show wrapped up.
"I literally put my stuff in storage, came down here for three months, and here I am," Grogan said.
The only problem was raising the capital.
"We didn't really want to shoot the film until after the Kickstarter was done," Blanchard admits, "but we had such a good group of people that were available in this window that they all kind of agreed to participate, but, of course, you can't make a film with absolutely no money." Blanchard and company created a crowd-funding campaign on the website kickerstarter.com to raise the production costs.
Blanchard plans to shoot for six days on a $10,000 budget. "We have tons and tons of support, and everybody loves this project, but turning that into actual funds and, you know, physical help is a challenge," says Producer Megan Grogan. She's spent her time in New Orleans finding cast and crew, ensuring materials and equipment needed to make the movie are available, coordinating everything and everyone, and launching the fundraising campaign. The final film will be 15 minutes long with the intent for it to play at film festivals and do some local community screenings.
Blanchard hopes bringing "The Lot" to "ready-made audiences" will inspire people to do something with vacant spaces in their neighborhoods.
"If you're going to help, why not help the people nearest to you?" Blanchard said.
Tyehimba retains hope that the property across from his coffeeshop will become useful for the community, even if that only involves a few picnic tables, benches or flowers.
"Sometimes the laws or the rules should be in line with what makes sense," he said.