You don’t have to be anti-development to feel a little queasy about the rapid changes transforming the Lower east Side. That’s one of the key points driven home in director Clayton Smith’s nearly finished short film, “Off Track Betty,” which was literally shot as pieces of Delancey Street were crashing down around him.
As the Kickstarter pitch explains, the film tells the fictional story of Betty Kaminski, “a longtime resident of the Lower East Side who begins to question her place in the city she calls home.” Earlier today, we spoke with Smith, an actor who has lived on the Lower East Side for about 15 years. This is his directorial debut. The idea for the film came during his morning walk past Delancey and Essex streets. Smith became fascinated by a building on the southwest corner that featured a faded OTB (Off Track Betting) sign on the top of its facade. He wondered who lived there. “In my mind I had an image of a woman,” he said. “It was a flight of fancy.”
Long after writing the script, he realized that the setting for the film was very much an endangered place. The shooting locations were all in and around the former Seward Park development site. One scene takes place in front of the old Jade Fountain Liquors, which was swept away along with the rest of the former Essex Street Market building on the south side of Delancey Street. Another scene was partially shot inside the former shoe store at 402 Grand St., a building that will be demolished in a matter of weeks. “Every frame of this short,” said Smith documents a landscape that will be totally changed. “It will serve as a kind of archive” of the Seward Park site as it looked before a nearly two-million sq. ft. residential and retail complex rises from the rubble.
The subject matter obviously touches a nerve. Speaking of the dizzying changes on the LES, Smith said, “It’s like turning the corner and thinking you have early onset Alzheimer’s” because nothing is recognizable. Sometimes, it’s a building that vanishes, but Smith said he really wanted to acknowledge through his project that people are displaced, too. The film, he added, asks the question, “What is progress?,” and explores how we balance “holding onto the past and moving forward.” It’s not a documentary, but Smith’s own artistic way of “wrestling with these tensions.”
The film is almost complete. The crowdfunding campaign will help pay for post-production. This is a short shot on 16mm film (it’s going to be one of the last film’s processed in New York).
if you’d like to learn more about Off Track Betty, visit Smith’s Kickstarter page here.