PBS visits Park Avenue for story of rich vs. poor

Regular readers of ReadTheSpirit know this story alreaday. As reported in an October OurValues column by University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker: “The gap between rich and poor is now at its widest ever. From 1997 to 2007, income grew by 275% for the top 1 percent of households.”

Dr. Baker cited an unimpeachable source for that statement—a report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. On Monday, November 12, the PBS Independent Lens series debuts Park Avenue: Money, Power & the American Dream, by Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney. (Here is the PBS Independent Lens website, where you can check local listings and learn more about alternate viewing options.)


Gibney’s most striking religious connection is this: He is the stepson of the late Rev. William Sloan Coffin, who defined the role of the crusading liberal preacher in the 1960s and 1970s from his pulpit at New York’s Riverside Church. Coffin fought in the heart of the civil rights and anti-war movements.

Gibney is a layman, but no less of a prophet. He preaches through his documentaries and, now, is an award-winning filmmaker whose body of work makes him a voice well worth hearing. His 2005 documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room got rave reviews from top movie critics and also scored an Oscar nomination as Best Documentary, although it lost the statuette to March of the Penguins. Two years later, his Taxi to the Dark Side won the Oscar for Best Documentary by telling the chilling story of an Afghan taxi driver who was ensnarled in American detention and was beaten to death by American soldiers.


The stretch of Park Avenue near Central Park is New York’s richest neighborhood—and 740 Park Avenue is the home address of some of the world’s super rich, including one of the Koch brothers who just poured startling sums of money into Republican causes.

Here is a bit of the opening narration in the documentary, which sketches the storyline for this hour of national reporting on America’s ever-widening gap in income: “This street is about a lot more than money. It’s about political power. The rich here haven’t just used their money to buy fancy cars, private jets and mansions. They’ve also used it to rig the game in their favor. Over the last 30 years they have enjoyed unprecedented prosperity from a system that they increasingly control.

“But if you head north about 10 minutes, this Park Avenue comes to an end at the Harlem River. On the other side of the river, there is another Park Avenue. This is the South Bronx, home to America’s poorest congressional district. There are 700,000 people in this district. Almost 40 percent of them live in poverty, making less than $40 a day. From here, the last 30 years have looked very different than the view from Manhattan’s Park Avenue.”

If those lines have stirred your conscience—then make a point of tuning in or finding an alternate viewing option for this thought-provoking film. If those lines make you yawn, because you understand this crisis already or because you doubt that it’s really a crisis, then this probably is not your best viewing choice.

The documentary does, indeed, show us some fascinating details about 740 Park Avenue, its luxurious apartments and the ultra wealthy tenants who call this building home. But, beyond that, most of Gibney’s film is a crash course in understanding the historic income gap. While Gibney clearly blames the very Republican power brokers who just laid down vast sums in Election 2012—he also targets some prominent democrats, including Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York. It’s no accident that Schumer is called the Wall Street Senator.

This is a terrific choice, post election, to discuss in your small group in coming weeks. Invite members of your discussion group to view the film and you’ll have no shortage of spirited conversation.

Review by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm

Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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