What happens when a once-in-a-century public health crisis threatens a community’s renaissance? That’s what the wife-husband filmmaking duo Jessica Taylor and Nick Taylor, and their firm MenajErie Studio, set out to explore in the summer of 2020. This was when the Covid-19 pandemic seriously laid siege to the development that was beginning to transform Erie, Pennsylvania.
In the first installment of their four-part short docu-series, the Taylors surveyed Erie’s industrial and civic continuities, amid changes. The city’s 20th century economy was built on “legacy” industries, rooted in manufacturing. Its new identity, like that in many former-industrial centers, was shaped around new sectors like “eds and meds” (and Erie’s iconic homegrown Erie Insurance company) and bolstered by high-value advanced-manufacturing firms. Before the pandemic, it was being rounded out with new restaurants, shops, and breweries and the evolving role of the community’s arts and culture sector, library, and also home-grown think tank.
“I’m afraid that some of these businesses that just started within these last couple of years are not going to be able to make it – and without those businesses that will absolutely change what Erie has been working towards these past few years,” Jessica says in the first installment.
In part Part 2, the Taylors tightened their camera’s focus, to examine the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Erie. They interviewed Hannah Kirby of Ember+Forge, along with Jason Lavery of Lavery Brewing Company, Pineapple Eddie Southern Bistro’s Karen Thomas, Bridgeway Capital’s Cathryn Easterling , and the city’s mayor, Joe Schember.
Now, in Part 3, they shift to offer a look at the cultural impact in the summer of 2020. They ask: What do arts, entertainment, education, and recreation do for a community as a whole? And their answer, simply put: These cultural features dramatically improve the quality of life in communities, in various ways highlighted throughout the film. By the same logic, the loss of such amenities—as Erie and other cities contemplated during the pandemic – can threaten a community’s improvement just as profoundly as more measurable bricks-and-mortar, dollars-and-cents setbacks can.
In this third installment, Jessica and Nick highlight the reflections and insight from Dr. Parris Baker, a Gannon University professor; Dr. Ferki Ferati and Angela Beaumont, president and director of operations at the Jefferson Educational Society; Erie Mayor Joe Schember, as well as the city’s New American Liaison Niken Astari Carpenter; Blane Dessy, director of the Erie County Public Library; and Patrick Fisher, director of Erie Arts & Culture to image the impact of the pandemic on the arts and culture sector in Erie.
The most immediately noticeable change in public life involved physical separation, because of social-distancing restrictions. Banning or limiting in-person gatherings strikes right at the heart of what cultural organizations had been endeavoring to do: Bring people in a community together.
Before the pandemic, Erie’s library—like those in many other communities – was built to be a place where, as Blane puts it, “everyone regardless of their status, their rank, or their resources could come to a place like this to learn and socialize and improve their lives.” He said, “before we were thinking: ‘How do we get as many people as possible into the library with community spaces and collaboratories?’ Now we’re thinking: ‘Maybe we’re not quite ready for that.’”
“People talking to each other – there’s something about that that engages community change,” Dr. Ferki Ferati, of the Jefferson Society, says in the film about in-person gatherings.
How are cultural organizations responding and which are do so effectively? According the film, success now is based on preparations in the recent past.
“Across the nation, the organizations that were the quickest to respond where the ones five or ten years ago were examining equitable delivery models,” Patrick Fisher says in the film. “How do you get out to individuals who might not be the ones directly coming for live experiences and how can you use technology to innovate what you’re doing?”
In the film, we find illustrations of the shift from in-person to virtual civic life. These include: a growing number of people using Erie’s library as a purely digital access point; the think tank’s programming and publications reaching a wider audience than ever before digitally; and an increased civic connectivity between citizens and the government that serves them – a digital connection the mayor says he wants to continue into the future.
But there are also illustrations of functions that can’t so easily make that shift. Erie has been notable in the number of “New Americans”—immigrants and refugees—who have made it their new home. Niken Astari Carpenter, herself originally from Indonesia, says that that many of these newcomers, who have strengthened Erie’s vitality through launching of restaurants and buying homes, have struggled with the technological divide. Dr. Parris Baker, who’s written about social issues on the national and local levels here, acknowledges that inequities pre-dating the pandemic are even more evident now.
“Community, itself, actually shows strength and commitment,” Angela Beaumont says, in this look at the cultural impact of the pandemic in one representative American town.