Streetsblog Interview: Stefan Schaefer

stefan.jpgThis afternoon we met up with Stefan Schaefer, director, producer and editor of the new documentary film, "Contested Streets."

Streetsblog: Were you interested in urban transportation and land use issues before you started working on this film?

Stefan Schaefer
: I live in Brooklyn on a street where there’s lots of traffic and I had a child recently, so it has become much more front and center in my awareness.

SB: Which street do you live on?

SS: Dean Street between Fourth and Fifth Avenues, right around the corner from where the big Atlantic Yards development may be built. We get a lot of the spillover traffic from Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues and our block probably has over one hundred kids on it. Three times a summer we have a street closing and you see all these people and meet your neighbors. It’s this huge exhale and a chance to get to know your neighbors. The rest of the time we’re all living in our backyards.

SB: Why is your street closed three times during the summer?

SS: I think that all blocks have the right to have a certain number of block parties so we always choose Saturday, which is the most busy traffic day for us. It’s great. Our block party is actually featured in the film, at the end.

SB: Oh, yeah, I got a little weepy during that part.

SS: I do too! It’s very emotional for me. Doing this film has really politicized me around this issue. Like many New Yorkers I felt a certain resignation, like, this is it. This is the urban experience. It’s loud, it’s polluted. I love so many other aspects of the city but there is often this feeling that the experience on the street is the way it is and there’s not much we can do. Then I had the good fortune to examine these other cities and see that they are doing things that we could be doing too.  

SB: What was your favorite city?

SS: Copenhagen is, in some ways, the Utopia. They’ve been working on it for forty years. You go there and see the end-product of all that hard work, the incredible pedestrianized spaces and one-third of the people commuting to work on their bikes. It’s quiet and calm. But I also feel like it is the farthest from New York. It’s not the same scale. It doesn’t have the same density. I was surprised also by Paris. I was expecting it to be closer to New York because they are still just beginning the process. Just in the last couple of years they’ve made major improvements, changing over thirty of their major arteries to bus rapid transit and bike ways.

SB: If you could take one idea that you saw and instantly bring it to New York, which would it be?

SS: Congestion pricing would be great for New York. In London they tried it and it made a big difference.

SB: What has been the reaction to the film?

SS: The people who are already thinking about this feel like it makes a great case. It’s visual and it’s not malletting people over the head. As for "normal" people who watch it, I have a friend, a corporate guy, and he said he almost got teary-eyed watching Copenhangen. It really hits people when they see what is possible. They have a visceral reaction to it because we all have stories about almost getting hit by a truck, or getting in a fistfight with a cabby, or worrying that our kid is going to get run over.

SB: What are the plans for the film and its distribution?

SS: The holy grail is WNET, public television in New York. We’re hitting them from multiple levels. Hopefully they’ll take it. We got an offer from a DVD distribution house that would build-out a whole curriculum for schools and colleges. Transportation Alternatives has already lined up something like thirty living room screenings in the next month or so. There are a lot of people who want to watch it and share it with their friends.