1,000! Clarence Eckerson’s Streetfilms Hits the Ultimate Milestone
The 'Orson Welles of the Streets' looks back on the advent of his 1,000th installment.
Next week, Streetfilms, our sister outlet, will be posting its 1,000th film — the fruit of an epic 15-year run by the Orson Welles of the streets, Clarence Eckerson. On the eve of the landmark achievement, we asked Eckerson to give us his highlights.
It’s been a unique journey. Over these years, I’ve gotten to see so many cool places around the world — me, who never took a plane flight until after age 30, never went to film school or got any sort of urban-planning degree, and still doesn’t have a driver’s license as I head toward age 55. But somehow, through chance and moxie, I found a way to merge my hobbies and documentary skills with observations of transportation policy and a desire to learn into the alchemy that became Streetfilms.
It has led to a satisfying career filled with wonderment, a small amount of fame, and the hope that we are changing our streets for the better. Many fans still don’t know that I’ve mostly been a one-person show — serving as producer, editor, writer, filmmaker, and publicist. Yes, it’s sometimes physically exhausting, but it is the only style of filmmaking I know, and it is efficient. That said, there is no way I could have done this all on my own.
First, I’d like to thank Mark Gorton of Open Plans for making this possible, by trusting my story hunches and giving me creative control to do it my way. Also my wife Fatima and son Clarence III and family and friends. But, beyond that, what has made all of this possible is the people I’ve met in almost 100 cities who have helped me. Some have gone way beyond what is expected, scheduling interviews, connecting me to elected officials, taking me on walking and biking tours — and, in a few instances, providing lodging.
Over the years, I have compiled a few “Best of” lists, including, “The Most Influential Streetfilms,” “Best Films From Europe,” and “Best Protected Bike Lane Designs,” but rarely have I done anything on my personal favorites. So, as we approach 1,000, here are my “Top 10 Favorites of All Time”:
1. “Utrecht: Planning for People & Bikes, Not For Cars” (2019) — I’ve been to the Netherlands many times, visited many cities, and made many films — and even though I’d heard the stellar advance praise of how the city of Utrecht was transforming itself, once I started biking around it was completely heavenly.
One reason this film is so great is because I got to interview and hang with so many great people, including Mark Wagenbuur and Chris Bruntlett. Even though it’s only a few years old now, it’s already the most watched Streetfilms of all time! I’ve heard from dozens who have visited Utrecht because of my film and essentially they say the same thing: “Your film is great. It made me want to visit. But it is even better in person.”
2. “Bogota’s Ciclovia” (2008) — This was really the first video that put Streetfilms on the map and helped give advocates across the world a video tool to show their communities that open streets were wonderful things. Both Gil and Enrique Penalosa were generous with their time, showing off their city to me and a small group of folks from New York City I felt a little like a movie star.
3. “Cycling Copenhagen thru North American Eyes” (2010) — I started gaining lots of notoriety, so I decided to attend my first VeloCity conference using the people in attendance as the stars in order to reflect on how far behind the United States was compared to Copenhagen. The goal was one big Streetfilm. I ended up with four! Fun fact: I badly sprained my ankle within minutes of arrival of my hotel. It swelled up like an egg. I couldn’t walk well but, amazingly, bicycling was fine and residents bike everywhere more than they walk. So it all worked out.
4. “Barcelona Superblocks: Change the Grid, Change your Neighborhood” (2018) — I kept reading articles about the superblocks and the great concept it was but never saw a good video. So, I figured it was up to me to make it happen. I was actually only on the ground in Barcelona for about 36 hours, which I spent with some involved residents. The film was voted “Streetfilm of The Decade” (2010-2020) by fans.
5. “Veronica Moss in Times Square” (2009) — Legendary “Saturday Night Live” star Kate McKinnon is reborn as Veronica Moss, a manic auto lobbyist who loves cars. We gave her a few bullet points and suggestions — but most of the rest is her improvisational hating on the newly pedestrianized Times Square. Not only was the film a mega hit, it was the best time I’ve ever had shooting video in my life! (It was so hard to keep from laughing while shooting.)
6, “Groningen: The World’s Cycling City” (2013) — I will never forget getting off the train and walking agape to my hotel, “It feels like Candyland for bikes!” I texted someone. At a mode share of almost 50 percent bikes it was the most tranquil place I’d ever been. At 15 minutes, it’s the longest Streetfilm ever!
7. “San Francisco (Park)ing Day” (2006) — I was dating someone in SF and found out while visiting that this event was taking place. So I spent a full day visiting a dozen eclectic parklets all over the city. Over the next few years, dozens of cities got in on the act, which helped motivate many to re-think how we use our streets.
8. “Miracle on 34th Avenue: NYC’s Best Open Street is in Queens” (2020) — In the midst of the COVID-19 nightmare, New Yorkers needed space to be outside, social distance and deal with the emotional rollercoaster of the epidemic. Advocates asked for open streets and smart elected officials believed that this would prove to be a big winner. It ultimately brought 23 blocks of open streets to Jackson Heights.
I live there, and thus it was a convenient film to shoot. It was an honor to tell the story of the inspiring advocates and intrepid volunteers who give so much time to support it. The 34th Avenue open street will soon enter its 20th month of daily 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. operation.
9. “The Innovative Way Ghent, Belgium Removed Cars From The City” (2020) — I asked Vancouver’s Brent Toderian about what he thought were current cool city stories around the globe. He told me, “Go to Ghent!” Open Plans founder Mark Gorton joined me, and we discovered that Ghent had cheaply retro-fitted its city using tactical urbanism, instituting a circulation plan and prioritizing pedestrians and bikes. We got a two-hour bike tour from Vice Mayor Filip Watteeuw, which ranks highly on my cool list.
10. “Oslo: Journey to Car-Free” (2017) — When the absolutely beautiful City of Oslo, Norway, boldly announced in 2015 that it would make its downtown car-free in four years, I wanted to see the progress. Now, was it ultimately fully successful? No, but the city did some really ambitious things. As I told many people when I was headed there, if you achieved 50 percent car-free that would still be a great story! Can’t wait to return one day.