HBO's 'Class Divide' Cuts Right into America's Education Crisis

At 10th Avenue and W. 26th Street, in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, two worlds coexist; one is a world of industrial spaces turned high rises, glass-walled museums and the newly renovated High Line. The other is one which has existed far longer, which represents a disappearing New York as the gap between rich and poor residents widens yearly.

The Elliott-Chelsea Houses function as public housing for 2,500 people. It's located on the East Side. But on the West Side is Avenues, an elite pre-K-12 private school. At Avenues, tuition exceeds $40,000, more than the average annual income of Elliot-Chelsea Houses' working-class residents. The former slaughterhouse reopened as a school in 2012, giving the locals mixed feelings about where the neighborhood was headed. 

Class Divide director Marc Levin was at home in executing his ambitious venture—literally. Having lived in Chelsea for decades, Levin witnessed the neighborhood's transformation from seedy underbelly to must-see tourist destination. 

"They say they giving us a break by giving us a little bit and we still have to pay 20-something, 30-something thousand dollars," Juwan Stone, a 21-year-old resident of Elliott-Chelsea Houses says in the film. "We live in the projects," he continues. "How you helping us? We don't even have $20,000 in our savings account or we wouldn't be here."

Watch an exclusive clip from Class Divide:

Stone wished for a peaceful coexistence among the neighborhood's classes. 

"I want everyone to just get along," Stone says. "It's a community, right? But once you go to 26th Street and 10th Avenue, it automatically splits."

Yasemin Smallens, a 16-year-old student at Avenues, agreed. 

"I notice this kind of irony that these two communities live right next to each other," Smallens says. "It just kind of made me wonder, how do they coexist? I wanted to start the conversation, so I talked to the Hudson Guild [where Stone worked] and they suggested meeting Juwan."

Watch the extended trailer:

Stone and Smallens' meeting inspired Smallens to start 115 Steps, an online photo diary project for kids from Avenues and E-C Houses to share their experiences with one another. 

In making the film, Levin wanted to know, from the students' perspectives, how money propelled their daily lives and how this generation is exceeding expectations, on both sides of the street. 

The HBO documentary Class Divide will debut on October 3 at 8pm. 

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