Tales of Belair at Bowie

Filmmaker Jeff Krulik’s new documentary, Tales of Belair at Bowie, shares many sweet memories from early residents of the 1960s Levitt and Sons-constructed subdivision where he grew up. But it also contrasts those warm stories with a range of other views, depicted via old home movies, a German documentary, and new interviews. Krulik, who is best known for the documentaries Heavy Metal Parking Lot and Led Zeppelin Played Here, interviews some of the first families who purchased the famously affordable no-basement tract homes there (initially, the development was named “Belair at Bowie”). Between those interviews, he shows subtitled clips from the 1965 German film Suburbia USA, which takes a scathing and often hilarious look at American suburban life. A moderator’s deadpan description of early Belair residents is translated via subtitles: “Women are the only adults the children see during the day,” “in suburbia the intellectual life is at its lowest,” and “a long lawn is a sin.” Krulik (who is a friend—we both grew up in a Levitt home in Bowie and went to the same high school) also addresses the reprehensible aspects of the Belair Levitt development: Contracts initially contained restrictive covenants that only allowed homes to be sold to Whites. The idyllic Bowie lifestyle was explicitly unavailable to all until the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The law enabled the federal government to ban discrimination on FHA and VA loans; a few original homeowners later sold their houses to Black purchasers. Karl D. Gregory, a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), is shown at a counter in 1962 trying in vain to buy a house. Viewers see Black and White protesters picketing against this racist approach; they’re confronted by White counter protesters with “keep ‘em white” signs. Decades later, he’s heard recounting the experience to Krulik. The film is available to stream at pbs.org. Free.