This month a film I produced was screened at the Trenton Film Festival. I spent most of the festival weekend in the downtrodden city, sheltered from gang gunfire in the NJ State Museum and the adjacent State Street buildings deemed safe for festival-goers. Underneath the degenerate condition lies beautiful architecture and an important, historic city - it was the site of Washington's first military victory in 1776 and the national capitol of the United States for a brief two month period in 1784; the site of the first professional basketball game in 1896, a major manufacturing center in the early 1900's. Ultimately, the city ended up on the same path many other American cities did in the 60's - overpopulation and poverty led to riots and Trenton never recovered. In 2005, the city was ranked as the fourth most dangerous city in the US.
Filmmakers from places as far away as India wondered why a festival would be held in such a place. Speeches and award ceremonies glossed over the revitalization efforts in favor of cheerleading ("Go Trenton!"). The local fervor was lost on those from out of town, especially when the realities of the city could not be escaped. During a festival party one night, gunfire was heard in the distance and one guest said to another "Must be a car backfiring." The other guest replied knowingly, "When was the last time you heard a car backfire?"
It would have been smart and thoughtful to include pertinent information about Trenton in the festival packets so the attendees - theoretically creative thinkers, risk takers and people who speak aloud about important issues - would know how important it is to have a festival in a city struggling to revitalize and rebuild. Wouldn't it be interesting to use tourism as a way to inspire action to repair our cities, similar to the way that Ecotourism inspires environmental action?