Shared history: A portal to the past runs through West Main Street

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As Charlottesville development races ahead, the documentary West Main Street gives us a reason to pause and evaluate how we define progress. Friday’s screening will be followed by a brief Q&A with filmmakers Reid Oechslin and Chris Farina (pictured during the making of the film in the ’90s). Courtesy  subject As Charlottesville development races ahead, the documentary West Main Street gives us a reason to pause and evaluate how we define progress. Friday’s screening will be followed by a brief Q&A with filmmakers Reid Oechslin and Chris Farina (pictured during the making of the film in the ’90s). Courtesy subject

From 1988 to 1992, two recent UVA graduates, Chris Farina and Reid Oechslin, set out with a camera, 16mm film, little money and no lighting equipment, to interview residents of Charlottesville’s West Main Street. They wanted to learn more about their newly adopted hometown by inquiring into the lives and histories of the people tethered to this stretch of land.

Under the production company name Roadside Films they had already made one film together, Route 40, about the residents of Pulaski Highway in Baltimore, near Farina’s childhood home. Back then, UVA didn’t have filmmaking classes, so Farina and Oechslin took film criticism and fell in love with the medium. Farina says, “We were basically self-taught and [Oechslin] was the one who had the capacity to learn how to use the camera and editing table.”

In West Main Street, “The people, themselves, they tell the story,” says Farina. The film—which premiered in 1995 at Vinegar Hill Theatre, where Oechslin was the manager—features Jefferson School teacher Rebecca McGinness, funeral director and civil rights activist George Ferguson, teacher Sonny Sampson, Greek immigrant and entrepreneur Pete Stratos, Barrett Early Learning Center Director Cindy Stratton and barber Milton Via, among others.

West Main Street
Vinegar Hill Theatre
April 27, 7pm

At the time, “A bunch were older residents, so in a way it was capturing the 20th century through their perspectives,” says Farina. McGinness was born in 1892 and was about 98 when they interviewed her. Ferguson was born in 1911 and grew up on Main Street. And Stratos, the owner of the Chili Shoppe restaurant, “was almost the classic immigrant story,” Farina says.

Barber Milton Via is one of the fixtures of West Main Street featured in the film. Courtesy photo

While their intent was to represent the everyday lives of their subjects, it was impossible to tell the story of West Main Street without talking about the destruction of the historically black neighborhood Vinegar Hill. “The beauty of it was, it wasn’t our agenda going in,” says Farina. “Our agenda was to listen to these people who had lived here for a long time who really contributed to the community.”

As a result, the film documents both the shared humanity of the black and white residents and the prejudices that directly affected black residents. Ferguson, the funeral director, was the head of the local chapter of the NAACP when the public schools were desegregated, and his daughter was a member of the first integrated class. In the film, he speaks not only of his identity as a black man, but as a funeral director, too. “We talked to him about his perspective on death and he spoke from his real sense of faith,” Farina says.

Similarly, McGinness—who taught at the Jefferson School from 1915 to 1960—“one of the matriarchs of the black community,” Farina says, “talks about why she got into teaching…expressing the importance of a teacher to a community.” Teacher Sampson recounts the devastation of Vinegar Hill, where his uncle owned a business, and also reminisces about growing up in Fifeville, where he picked and sold peaches for his grandmother.

Farina doesn’t want the film to be politicized for its documentation of some painful aspects of Charlottesville’s past. “In many ways I feel like our films were kind of anthropological,” he says. “Here’s a community that people drive by and walk by. Stop and think about it.”

More than two decades later, Farina has digitized the film and will screen it again at Vinegar Hill Theatre on Friday. The original impetus for his desire to share it with a new audience was the commercial and residential development that has drastically changed the cityscape. “I just feel we’re racing ahead and not looking back,” he says, adding that we’re more concerned with who’s coming than with who lives here. “Mrs. McGinness remembers when the streets were dirt and you had to close the windows ’cause of the dust,” says Farina. “So you can say that change has always been part of things. I just don’t feel like the people who live here get as much respect as the money that’s being made.”

The events of August 11 and 12 gave him even more reason to digitize and share the film. He remembers the integrated audience at the premiere in 1995. Now, he says, Charlottesville is segregated. “That’s one of our problems in this town.” But the film doesn’t preach, he says. “I genuinely have a real affection for the subjects in the film,” says Farina. “If the affection I feel is shared with the audience, then it’s going to be successful and that’s kind of the real purpose.”

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