When Giorgio Angelini was working on a master’s in architecture in the midst of the 2008 housing market crash, he read an article about an abandoned development project in the Inland Empire, a densely populated metropolitan area in coastal Southern California. The article described an uncanny scene of the land that used to be home to citrus groves, but Angelini was surprised that the story did not include photos. He applied for a grant and drove out to the California desert to see and photograph the project for himself.
“The scale of wreckage was just unfathomable,” Angelini said.
He was awed by the desolate landscape of mass-produced, half-built houses side by side with a scorched orange grove.
“That was a really striking image for me, that in this moment where global capital markets were frozen, and money wasn’t flowing, you were witnessing this commodity shift frozen in time,” Angelini said. “Someone, on a spreadsheet somewhere far, far away, said, ‘Oh, we can make incrementally more money per acre if we convert this from bushels of oranges to bundled, air-conditioned square footage.’ ”
Angelini’s education in architecture during that unstable period and his encounter with the Inland Empire wasteland planted the seeds for his directorial debut: the 2018 documentary “Owned: A Tale of Two Americas.” Angelini will give a lecture as part of Week Seven’s theme, “More Than Shelter: Redefining the American Home.” The lecture will take place at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater. The documentary will also screen at 12:15 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 11 at Chautauqua Cinema.
Angelini firmly believes that we, as a society, need to reconceptualize what “home” means. He thought that the 2008 housing crisis would turn the tide and force America to recalibrate, but that hope has not borne fruit.
“In America, we’re uniquely predisposed to thinking of a home as this wealth accumulation machine,” Angelini said. “And really, that’s first and foremost, and everything else is kind of secondary. But I want people to understand that when we treat a home like a commodity, it necessarily teases out the worst aspects, both on the financial side and the cultural side.”
Post-World War II housing policy implemented deeply entrenched segregation through redlining. With the Baby Boom creating a need for more housing and the lingering specter of the Great Depression, America dreamed of building a thriving society of wealth through home ownership.
The Federal Housing Administration insured mortgages to private banks, but drew up segregated maps with proverbial and literal red lines indicating which neighborhoods they would insure. Given the racist impression that Black residents would bring down property values, the FHA chose to insure mortgages in white neighborhoods, but not Black ones.
Angelini said that those racist impressions persist now, and are part and parcel of the financial and cultural implications of home ownership, as well as the unremitting divide between suburbia and inner cities.
“If a home is just meant to make you money, then you’re going to do everything you can do to protect that investment and your future ability to make more money, more wealth for yourself,” Angelini said. “So if you live in a society that is generally racist, or bigoted or stereotyping of other groups, and you think that a Black family moving into your neighborhood is going to bring down your property values, you’re going to do everything you can do to ensure that that never happens.”
When Angelini set out to make “Owned,” he initially conceived of it through an architectural perspective. He said that architects are uniquely situated to imagine the cultural underpinnings of the built environment. Angelini thought of the film as visually oriented, filtered through the design and even poetry of the home.
The police killings of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray and the ensuing protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore caused Angelini to rethink his concept. He realized he wanted to make a film revealing the inextricable linkage between the wreckage of the Inland Empire and the oppressive conditions of the inner city.
“These urban uprisings started springing up, and I began to appreciate that you couldn’t really critique this abundance of space in the peripheries of American cities without also understanding what was happening in the inner cities, because of course, these two things were deeply intertwined,” Angelini said. “The vastness of suburbia was coming at the expense of divestment from inner-city America.”
Angelini wanted the documentary to be character-driven, so he spent years traveling the country and speaking to individuals from a swath of experiences. In Levittown, New York, which he said is widely regarded as the archetypal postwar suburb, he met a retired police officer named Jimmy Silvestri who became a central figure in the film.
Angelini said that Silvestri’s story aligned with the arc of the postwar history of American housing. Angelini was filming with Silvestri during the Baltimore uprisings.
“Through Jimmy’s eyes, we got to see what I think is the central struggle that’s facing America today, which is a large number of middle-class white Americans confronting the reality that they got a leg up in the system, necessarily at the expense of other people, predominantly Black families,” Angelini said. “That’s just the reality, and truth hurts sometimes. Negotiating those emotions can sometimes produce anger, or confusion, and Jimmy’s storyline, I think, really captures that quite beautifully.”
That type of reckoning is essential to the task of reconceptualizing the American home — not only the physical structure of the house, he said, but the entirety of the lived environment. Angelini pointed out that statistically, the No. 1 factor which predicts one’s ability to advance socioeconomically is one’s zip code.
“If you understand the way that this country was segregated, by race, through housing policy, then you start to realize that we are condemning certain groups of people to living in zip codes that are necessarily going to produce negative outcomes for those people,” Angelini said. “We can’t live in a country like that and say that it’s egalitarian. We have to confront the idealism of the American dream with the American reality.”