South Williamsburg used to be a different kind of neighborhood. Unofficially named “Los Sures” (The Southside) by the Puerto Rican and Dominican immigrants who called it home, the enclave was one of the poorest in New York, and was a hub for crime, violence and drugs in the late seventies and early eighties. In 1984, director Diego Echeverria and his film crew captured five stories of survival and strength from the streets of Los Sures on 16 mm film. His resultant documentary, Los Sures, was largely inaccessible —that is, until now.
Today, in a brick building where Union Avenue meets South 1st Street, a team of filmmakers, artists, programmers, designers and storytellers from UnionDocs are reviving and remixing Echeverria’s Los Sures to create an updated portrait of the neighborhood. In addition to digitizing and restoring the documentary, UnionDocs has created a modern interpretation of Echeverria’s work in the form of a transmedia piece constructed from photographs, timelines, interactive documentaries and oral histories. Last week, they launched their immersive documentary website, Living Los Sures, at The New York Film Festival, thirty years to the day when Los Sures premiered at the very same event.
While the tough environment they grew up in has softened with age, many of the residents from the original documentary still live, work, and thrive in the area. Today, there’s a new story to tell: a history. “The story was much bigger than could be contained into singular narratives,” explains Christopher Allen, founder of UnionDocs, a center for documentary art. “There are so many narratives to Los Sures’ history. We wanted to involve different voices and represent the place in the broadest way.”
The portal into the Living Los Sures website leads to several worlds: a collection of 30 short films inspired by Los Sures and by South Williamsburg today, an archive of 326 sliced shots from Los Sures juxtaposed with memories, and 89 Steps, an interactive documentary about Marta, a mother last seen raising her four daughters in Echeverria’s Los Sures.
Expansiveness, explains Allen, is the beauty and danger of transmedia. Transmedia is daunting for creators because all of the worlds, alleyways, and experiences require entrances, and the hundreds of narrative threads have to be gathered, packaged, tied together and placed in those worlds, behind those doors. But at the same time, transmedia allows for a new narrative to emerge: Living Los Sures is about how collected memories form a community’s history.
In Los Sures, one of the primary characters, Marta Avilés, declares, “I don’t find the need to move out of Williamsburg to move to another area. I’m going to solve my problems here.” Thirty years later, in 89 Steps, she's at a crossroads: after having lived in the same apartment, she is making the difficult decision to leave New York. In this part of Living Los Sures, viewers can visually “climb” the 89 step stairway up to Marta's apartment, explore her home, click through her "For Sale" listing, and follow her journey to her next residence. With each interactive element, Marta’s life experiences become more tangible.
Living Los Sures began as a way of getting to know the neighborhood surrounding UnionDocs, remembers Allen. “I saw it as a window into a history that was pretty inaccessible for me.” Like his own experience of watching Echeverria’s Los Sures, he hopes viewers of Living Los Sures will be surprised, inspired, and intrigued by the vibrant community that remains part of Brooklyn’s history. He believes even those who live far from New York can relate: “Living Los Sures speaks to the importance of local histories, the importance of places being unique and specific instead of being homogenized, globalized, and lacking in the characters that make the experience of being in the city exciting.”
Click here to explore Living Los Sures, and get to know the stories of the people who live there.