Rhode Island documentary filmmaker Marc Levitt, left, at Bates Mill in Lewiston on Saturday afternoon at Museum LA. At right, videographer Will Lepczyk checks the lighting before they begin filming. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)
LEWISTON — Marc Levitt doesn’t so much see the city’s tenements for their flat roofs, their porches, their sometimes-distressed look so much as he sees landmarks that have housed generations of immigrants — and act as another character in his upcoming movie.
“I joke (that) you guys like triple-deckers so much you even made them five-deckers, often,” said Levitt.
He had lived in New York, Seattle and San Francisco before moving to Rhode Island in 1985 and being quickly struck by the proliferation of triple-deckers — buildings that are usually three stories high with an apartment on each floor — around Providence.
“As I began to ask questions, I realized they were sort of points of entries for many immigrant groups dating back 100 years,” Levitt said. “At the time, there was some pushback against immigration, it was the Reagan era, and I’d always been interested in immigration by being second-generation born in America with a grandfather who came from Russia.”
He discovered triple-deckers’ importance to New England’s economy and urban landscape.
The design was popular architecturally for a number of reasons, according to Levitt, including an abundance of local wood, a regional population boom tied to the industrial revolution and lowered costs.
“Services were billed to frontage size, not height — consequently more people, more rent, less cost,” said Levitt. “Triple-deckers created opportunities for families to stay together and for creating affordable housing. People would build one, live on the first floor and have tenants who were strangers, friends or relatives on the second and third floor to pay the rent.”
With help from a grant, he created a musical ode to a triple-decker, imagining families from six nationalities living in one building over an 80-year-span.
“I had musicians from all those different ethnicities, as well, that played music that paralleled the psychological states of immigration and acculturation and celebration,” said Levitt.
The group has performed it about 30 times since 1985.
“All of us started as relatively young people and now our oldest is 84,” he said. “It’s amazing. The stories are amazing — one of the people emigrated from Armenia, another from Cambodia, another from Dominican Republic.”
Levitt said he was familiar with Lewiston through work with L/A Arts years go. He returned here three weeks ago to scout and do pre-interviews for the film, connecting with people such as former city councilor and filmmaker Craig Saddlemire.
“I hadn’t thought about the tradition of the design itself, and to what extent these types of buildings were designed to foster the type of community we are building with our model of cooperative housing,” said Saddlemire. “I think it certainly does encourage residents to know their neighbors, and it also promotes operating in an energy-efficient and cost-effective manner, so it is very fascinating to speak with someone from another part of New England who is researching the history of this type of building and connecting its origins to what is happening today.”
Phil Nadeau, who retired as Lewiston’s deputy city administrator in 2017, said he’s been talking to Levitt for about a year and helping to connect him with local people.
“He has a deep interest in what’s going on in New England,” said Nadeau. “It’s an interesting way to catalogue and memorialize the history of communities like Lewiston that have this common connection with other communities connected to its immigrant past. Lots of members of my family lived downtown — my grandparents were first generation immigrants when they moved here.”
Levitt said he was “quite amazed” by the level of activity in the city now compared to what he saw in the 1980s.
“There’s really an openness in Lewiston to want to talk and to see how much the Somali resettlement has done not only for the Somalis but for the non-Somalis here,” he said. “I think it’s done a great deal for Lewiston, personally.”
The cities of Providence, Worcester, Boston, Fall River, New Bedford and Lawrence have also been picked for the project.
According to Levitt, depending on the location, in some cities triple-deckers have been kept up — “like if you’re in Worcester, they look like Victorians and Queen Anne houses” — and in others, they’re showing more wear and being torn down.
Levitt, who has previously made two documentaries on the Narragansett Indians, said funding will determine how quickly the film comes together. He’s had project grants and is still fundraising. He’s already created a movie trailer.
“What I’m doing is finding ways in which the building itself became a character in not only the lives of individual people, but in social history and cultural history,” he said, adding that he hopes people walk away from the documentary appreciating “the importance of affordable housing and the importance of the immigration experience, as well, and what it brings to America.”
Filmmaker Marc Levitt left talks with Rachel Desgrosilliers at Bates Mill in Lewiston at Museum LA prior to filming Saturday afternoon. Leavitt is shooting here for three days as part of his film, “Triple Decker — A New England Love Story.”