Building a New Metropolis

Local filmmaker explores the challenges facing America’s first suburbs

Nov 4, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Cincinnati and other cities have long lamented perceived “brain drains” as talented and creative people leave for bigger and supposedly better environs. But Cincinnati resident and award-winning documentary filmmaker Andrea Torrice claims our city as inspiration.

“Moving to Cincinnati gave me the idea for The New Metropolis,” she says.

The New Metropolis is a two-part documentary series that explores complex challenges facing America’s first suburbs, communities that were built after World War II. PBS currently is airing the series throughout the country. WCET will broadcast the documentary’s first episode, “A Crack in the Pavement,” Sunday and the second part, “The New Neighbors,” Nov. 15.

“A Crack in the Pavement” focuses on Elmwood Place and Madeira, representative first suburbs that were once the embodiment of the American dream, now struggling to maintain viability and quality of life due to a vicious cycle of financial problems. Given the different faces of Elmwood Place and Madeira, they share similar concerns — infrastructural decay, population decline and lack of public support.

In the film, Elmwood Place Mayor Richard Ellison and Madeira City Manager Tom Moeller travel to Columbus to talk with state legislators about the problems facing older suburbs. The lawmakers’ mixed reactions are telling.

“The New Neighbors” looks at population shifts in America’s first suburbs, following the efforts of the once all-white Pennsauken, N.J., to reinvent itself as a vibrant multi-racial community. As the community’s plan starts to succeed, the residents realize they’ve discovered something important — a collective will to act for the common good based on mutual respect, rather than ideology and ignorance.

Experience, training and temperament all guide Torrice in creating films, including those with personal relevance like The New Metropolis — she moved to Cincinnati nine years ago and her family moved to suburban New Jersey when she was 7. The idea for The New Metropolis came from witnessing positive and negative features prominent in, but not unique to, suburbs near Cincinnati and in New Jersey.

“Moving here, I said, ‘Man, no trains and not much mass transit. You have to drive everywhere,’ ” she says. “And I was seeing a beautiful city that was disinvested.”

Torrice received a grant from the Ford Foundation and began her characteristically detailed documentary research. After urban design courses at UC and study at the Brookings Institution, she found her story: Current land use policies, racial politics and building practices were threatening the country’s first suburbs.

Like much of her work, the challenges facing early suburbs are under the radar of the major media.

“I try to find stories that are just about to come out and reveal something not usually in the media,” Torrice says. “I put a human face on the issue and the stories come to speak on their own.”

Torrice’s family valued and practiced the arts, and she explored them systematically as an undergraduate student in California.

“I tried painting. I was good at writing. I wasn’t very good at music — I still enjoy singing — but everyone said, ‘You’re a very visual story teller,’ ” she recalls. “Then I took a TV writing class and bingo! It all clicked. Filmmaking let me bring all those disciplines together.”

While finishing college, she gained experience working at the San Francisco PBS affiliate, KQED. Increasingly independent, she produced several shows, honing technical skills and developing her own values as a documentarian.

“It’s a craft that takes a really long time to get down,” she says. “It took me 10 years to be able to write, direct and edit.”

Since then, Torrice has created films about cutting-edge issues: genocide, third-world development, terrorism and global warming. Her work has been broadcast on PBS, the Sundance Channel, Discovery and National Geographic’s World Channel.

A critical aspect of Torrice’s work is relationships. “I develop relationships based on a specific ethical framework when I go into a community to do a story,” she says.

Her ethical context is a process she uses in all her work: “Do no harm, tell the truth, be compassionate and ask the question, ‘How can I make a contribution to make the world a better place?’ ”

For example, when creating Rising Waters, which documents cultural and geographic obliteration in the South Pacific due to rising sea levels, ethics dictated she do more than what was strictly necessary.

“In the islands, I interviewed whole tribes because their culture says it’s not the individual that counts; it’s the community,” she says. “So I interviewed the chief, the chief’s daughter, the fishermen, then chose what I needed.”

To fuel public discussion, WCET, the Cincinnati Chamber’s Agenda 360 and other civic groups are organizing watch parties throughout Cincinnati that coincide with the local broadcast of The New Metropolis. At the watch parties, Torrice will have camera crews capture audience reactions to the issues raised in the film, which she will post on The New Metropolis Web site (

“This is a new model that is very exciting, using documentary as a catalyst to talk about policy change and extending its impact by putting it on the Web,” Torrice says.

Immediately following each episode, WCET also will air a panel discussion with local and national experts and Torrice, moderated by Local 12 WKRC’s Don Hurley.

“This won’t be a debate about decline and sprawl,” she says. “Everyone is in agreement that first suburbs are declining. What we will talk about is how current policies make it difficult to rebuild and revitalize older suburbs. We’ll look at things that prevent re-development.”

Torrice continues to generate and develop novel ideas, including a new documentary about urban agriculture and future New Metropolis segments about the challenges facing urban and rural America, for which she currently is seeking funding.

“My hope is that people will see we need to get together to build a new metropolis,” she says. “We need to support a new vision and programs and policies that will revitalize our cities and our older suburbs, that will save our farms. This will revitalize the entire region.”

ANDREA TORRICE’s documentary film The New Metropolis will be broadcast in two parts on WCET (Channel 48). Episode 1 (“A Crack in the Pavement”) will be shown at 6 p.m. Sunday, with Episode 2 (“The New Neighbors”) shown at 6 p.m. Nov. 15. Watch parties start at 5:30 p.m. both nights at Sitwell’s Coffee House in Clifton and other locations, and a televised panel discussion will follow each WCET broadcast at 6:30. Get all the details here.