Bring on the Green (Review of The Greening of Southie)

July 3, 2009

In July, The Greening of Southie, a documentary that tells the story of designing, building and selling the first LEED Gold residential building in Boston, will be showing at Symphony Space, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Screenings will be July 5, 12, and 19. After seeing the movie at our November 2008 screening, GreenHomeNYC volunteer Devita Davison offers these thoughts — Not so long ago, the only thing green about South Boston was its infamous St. Patrick’s Day parade, Shamrocks, leprechauns, green beer and all things green associated with its proud Irish-American population. Now with the addition of the Macallen Building, Southie is home to the city’s first condos built as “luxury green.” In Macallen, “luxury green” means double-glazed insulated windows, bamboo floors, and natural fiber carpet. Filtered fresh air is ducted into every unit. Bosch appliances, Dornbracht fixtures, and Lutron dimming switches provide energy efficiency. There is no use of chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) gases, considered an ozone-depleting agent, commonly used in HVAC systems. And by choosing nontoxic paints, coatings, adhesives and sealants, volatile organic compounds are eliminated or minimized. Then there is the green roof, a sloped, miniature habitat of plants that cool the building in summer and insulate it in winter, reducing the urban heat island effect. But while we hear a lot about these beacons of sustainable living, we know little about the people who build them—ironworkers, carpenters, and masons who pour the foundation and tar the roof. The Greening of Southie, created by Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, the directors behind the very popular “King Corn”, tells the story of the construction of the Macallen Building, the first large–scale, Gold-level LEED certified residential project in Boston. The filmmakers lets the key players in the construction of Boston’s first “green” building speak for themselves and thus humanizes the construction story through rich portraits of certain project developers, architects, construction workers and potential tenants. In so doing, it uniquely addresses the often hidden social implications of today’s “green wave”, including class inequality and urban gentrification. The Greening of Southie, subtly stokes issues of race and class. Except for two architects, all of the building’s planners and designers are white, as are the majority of the workers. The film only portrays one potential resident of the building, and he’s white. Only one union laborer in the film is black, and though he’s supportive of the building’s environmental mission, he also lays bare the heart of the environmental class conflict. “I would love to live in this environmental building that we built,” he says wistfully, but “we could never afford this.” An ironworker, after describing the swimming pool and other fancy amenities the Macallen Building will feature, similarly professes, “I feel good about doing it… [but] I’ll never see it.” Interviews around the neighborhood show this broader context of urban redevelopment. The distance between Macallen and the rest of Southie can’t be denied. A worker from the Quiet Man pub near the Macallen Building expresses concern about the traditional Southie establishment’s future during the film. He wonders if the Macallen residents will come into the pub, and seems skeptical that they will. His proclamation, “In with the new and out with the old,” The Greening of Southie, shows that the challenges of building green involve more than changing the practices of the building industry; they also include important social and political issues. The green economy can not be a place just for the affluent to spend money, but it must become a place for ordinary people to earn and save money. The House of Representatives just passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act, this historic bill promises to transition the United States to clean energy, allocate $860 million to the Green Jobs Act and provide local access to quality jobs, through green construction careers-demonstration program. Amid the race to go green, members of the building trades are being asked to do things differently: work with recycled materials, install high-efficiency appliances, and find non-toxic paints and adhesives. It is imperative to determine the needs of our existing blue collar workers from their perspective to fully get their buy in to join the green collar workforce. The Greening of Southie is an entertaining and powerful tool for staring discussion, educating workers and galvanizing support for this transition.