You can’t just take a magic sword and slice through the Gordian knot of a convoluted problem decades in the making. But you can make a documentary — a film to pull that problem into focus and shine some light on it.
“Advocacy is the first step,” says state Sen. Dina Neal of Windsor Park: The Sinking Streets, the short film that came of her seeking help from the William S. Boyd School of Law at UNLV about longstanding problems in a North Las Vegas neighborhood. “You can find strange bedfellows to help you on an issue.”
After Neal reached out to UNLV's law school, part of its response was to reach out in turn, across campus to the College of Fine Arts. Film students ended up collaborating on a 14-minute documentary about Windsor Park, the historically Black neighborhood built over geologic faults and an aquifer in the 1960s.
Two decades later, residents began to notice a problem: Houses began to sink after groundwater was pumped from the aquifer to provide drinking water. Pumping can reactivate faults and cause surface fissures and differential compaction of soil. The problem is called subsidence.
House foundations cracked and broke; so did water and gas lines.
The entanglement involving city, state, and federal officials — wrangling over questions of how much a solution would cost and who was going to pay for it — has dragged on since the 1980s.
Over the years, a good percentage of the residents accepted financial incentives to move. But no single solution fit everyone who stayed. Some considered themselves too advanced in age or financially unable to take on a mortgage for the remaining balance on another home.
Moreover, in 1991, the North Las Vegas City Council passed a resolution suspending permits for new buildings or additions to existing buildings in the neighborhood. Although the resolution was later rescinded, the neighborhood near the North Las Vegas Airport continued to stagnate as razed houses left abandoned lots to become dumping grounds for trash.
The quagmire fell in Neal’s lap again in 2019, when North Las Vegas moved toward approval of a zoning change to turn a neighboring 86 acres into a light industrial park.
That raised some basic questions: Why would new construction be allowed when neighborhood improvements are contested? (“The residents were fighting to just replace the brick fences in front of their homes and being told they could not do it,” Neal says.) Would the new industry bring quality jobs accessible to the neighborhood? Or would it make the environment even worse for the remaining residents and the neighboring magnet elementary school, Gilbert Academy for the Creative Arts?
“I would say I was getting tired,” Neal recalls. “I was literally just driving one day and I said, ‘I need to find someone else who is going to help me. I can’t do this one alone.’”
Neal met with former Boyd Law Dean Dan Hamilton. “She showed up with a huge stack of documents, and he decided she needed some help,” says Frank Fritz, a senior fellow and adjunct professor at the law school, who has experience in environmental and climate law.
“As soon as I heard the story I thought, ‘That’s wrong. Something has to be done about this.’ I just had an emotional response to it,” Fritz says. “There’s not a one-size fits-all answer. But honestly, these people who live in these houses did nothing wrong. Their houses were destroyed through forces beyond their control. Built on top of geological faults which were not detected. And maybe could not have been detected.”
Fritz took the lead on the project with now-departed professor Ngai Pindell and put out a call for a student research assistant to organize Neal’s documents and create a timeline from them.
Student Sebastian Ross had other offers to be a research assistant, but this project resonated on a personal level: His family once lived in nearby Cibola Park. “It afforded me the opportunity to give back to a marginalized community. To a community that was overlooked,” says Ross, who has since graduated from the law school. “At least that’s the sense I got from the residents after spending time with them over the last couple of years.”
Another family connection helped inspire the idea to make a documentary. “I was making dinner or something, thinking, What else could we do?” Fritz says. “I was stirring something, and I thought, ‘What if we make a documentary film?’”
He credits the inspiration to his sister-in-law. Ramona Díaz directed A Thousand Cuts, an acclaimed feature-length documentary about an independent news website battling to do uncensored reporting in the Philippines. The film was accepted by the Sundance Film Festival and aired on PBS as part of its Frontline series.
“Every spring I try to find an organization or nonprofit to help” by making a short film, Levner says.
The collaborations began in 2018 with Splashing the Streets, a film about water conservation made with UNLV’s department of civil and environmental engineering and construction. These projects give students the experience of working for a client, while such partner organizations as the theater troupe Broadway in the Hood get a film they can use for promotion. “It just seems like a win-win situation,” Levner says.
When the law school team laid out the whole Windsor Park saga in the spring of 2021, students responded with “a whole bunch of questions and a whole bunch of ideas,” Fritz says. “It seemed like at the end of the class, everyone thought, ‘Wow, we want to do this’” — even if the class seemed “a little overwhelmed by the seriousness of the task they’d been given.”
Levner adds, “As soon as the lawyers pitched the story to us and left, the students were like, ‘We’re scared, Brett. We don’t want to mess this up. These residents — we feel like we’re responsible to them.’
“Which was good,” Levner says. “There’s actually more pressure when you’re working to help others. It helps incentivize them, bring them together as a team.”
Because of the pandemic, the team only met in person for the first time when it assembled at Windsor Park to film the neighborhood and interview residents in their homes. The resulting images speak volumes in conveying the blight of the abandoned area, especially when compared with historical photos showing its 1960s promise. The interviews with Windsor Park’s “matriarch,” Annie Walker, and other longtime residents bring the problem home on a gut level that years of newspaper clippings couldn’t match.
“I watched it on my computer, and I cried,” Fritz says. “I still cry sometimes when I see the film. Ms. Walker really gets to me. It’s a complicated story, and to boil it down into 14 minutes, it seemed extraordinarily skillful to me.”
The film was officially unveiled at a screening and panel discussion on campus that drew more than 100 people in September 2021. “I think the film has moved the ball forward,” Fritz says. “It got people’s attention. After the premiere, several elected officials called up Senator Neal and asked how they could help.”
The documentary helped open the door to ongoing talks between Neal, city officials, and the Dallas-based Lincoln Property Company, which recently received the OK to build a light industrial park on the neighboring 86 acres. (Lincoln is different from the developer that proposed, but failed to get approval for, an industrial park in 2019.)
“I think one of the routes you take in trying to find a solution is spreading the message as wide as you can, just so people are at least aware of what is going on,” says Ross, the research assistant who also ended up as the film’s voice-over narrator.
On a practical level, “the film tells the story in a compact way you can share easily,” Fritz says. “Any time we need to interact with somebody about the site, we can just send them the film and say, ‘Here’s the story.’ It has an effect on the conversation, because people can get an incredible amount of history in a very short period of time. It’s important to feel the tragedy and suffering of the people in the neighborhood.”
Beyond that, “It’s important that the residents have their stories immortalized. They have their voices and their opinions heard,” Ross says. “It’s hard to create a community moving forward that’s going to be inclusive and efficient without understanding some of the mistakes that we made in the past.”