Under the 'Hood and Over the Hedge

A mundane, yet oddly haunting image from Dean Terry's doc Subdivided

Two months ago, we posted an item about how Little Forest Hills--"the quaint, quirky White Rock Lake neighborhood"--was being swallowed by the McMansions sprouting up like weeds in Eden. A litle digging revealed that University of Texas-Dallas new media and emergent communications professor Dean Terry was working on a documentary titled Subdivided: Isolation & Community in America, dealing with the issue of urban sprawl, prefab construction and the homogenizing of America, which, in April, he had hoped to finish come summer. Well, Terry was kind enough to send Unfair Park a more or less final version of Subdivided, and surprisingly it deals almost exclusively with the razing of Little Forest Hills and how the neighborhood's struggling to stave off developers who would turn their urban oasis into...Plano. In fact, the 45-minute doc presents Plano as the antithesis of all that's good and pure about neighborhoods in which friendly folks without temptations hang out in their front yards, eat dinner with their kids and engage in some form of civic involvement. As one Little Forest Hills resident says in the doc of a friend who moved from San Francisco to Plano: "She says she feels like the soul's being sucked out of her."

Perhaps such rah-rahing for the White Rock 'hood is to be expected: Terry grew up in Little Forest Hills before moving to Southern California, where he got his graduate degree and was, among other things, senior vice president of creative development for the influential AtomFilms, which showcased films by emerging and established directors and viral videos long before the likes of YouTube and iFilm came along. But Terry says he loathed Little Forest Hills when he was a kid and couldn't wait to escape, and when he returned to Dallas a few years ago to teach at UTD, after 15 years spent near Los Angeles, he chose to live in a place that could not have been more Little Forest Hills' opposite: Bent Tree off the Dallas North Tollway, in far, far North Dallas.

"And we are trying to sell our house," Terry says. "We're outta there. And I am forced to admit it: I am a failure. Some people who have seen the movie say, 'Why don't you work as hard as they do in Little Forest Hills [to create a community], and I have to say, maybe I am not as good as it as they are. Also, I've learned from them. The mistake I made was looking for a house and not a community."

Subdivided actually begins with Terry peeking out his front window, where he spies his across-the-street neighbor mowing his lawn. Terry goes outside to say hello, and the man turns and heads to the back of his house. Terry comes to call this guy The Lawnmower Man, who represents the millions in the U.S. who move out to the suburbs to get away from the clutter and chatter of the city. They're the folks who spend hours each week commuting, who live in their cars and do most of their talking to family members over cell phone while stuck in traffic. They're the people who like to go bowling alone, which happens to be the title of Harvard professor Robert Putnam's influential 2000 book on the subject of "the collapse and revival of American community." Putnam is among the many thoughtful, illuminating experts Terry interviewed for his film, and he talks at great length about how the more minutes we add to our commute, the more minutes we lose with our family--a no-brainer, absolutely, but one that does not matter to folks living further and further from the city center in which many Americans still work.

"When I came back here and this gig came up at UTD, I bought my first house, and it was the American dream," Terry says. "I was so excited: I got married, my wife got pregnant, the whole thing. But when I started trying to meet my neighbors, I was met with sheets of ice. I use The Lawnmower Man as an example, but it happened over and over again, and I found out it's happening all over the place. The film's a giant complaint in a way. And when I got back, my mom said, 'You need to come down to your old neighborhood and see that it's become a really great neighorhood now. "

Terry's movie will absolutely appeal to--or appall, depending upon where you live--locals, but he wants the Subdivided to have national appeal; he says he's in talks with KERA-Channel 13 about airing the doc, but that he also believes national distribution through other PBS outlets is a likelihood. It's certainly capable of garnering a broad audience: Not only does Terry interview experts on the subject of sprawl and separation--including architect Andres Duany, co-founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism and author of Suburban Nation--but the movie's absolutely beautiful, a first-timer's one-man show that looks to be the work of dozens of old pros. It's stocked with gorgeous images of hideous things: Wal-Mart parking lots lined with rows and rows of cars; a single scrawy tree sticking out of a sidewalk; piles of bricks waiting to be stuck into a "starter castle"; barren streets dotted with half-built cardboard-cutout homes; and the charred ruins of Bill Walker's burned-down home in Little Forest Hills, around which the neighborhood rallies to help their friend regroup and rebuild.

"Yeah," Terry says with a small laugh when asked about how he can make the unattractive look so alluring. "It's about contemplating those things and trying to see them differently. It's the photographer approach, and there is an irony there, absolutely. I am also trying to get people to contemplate them. That tree is so stark. It's something you pass by all the time and never pay attention to, and it illustrates the madness of this kind of planning." --Robert Wilonsky

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky