Documentary explores history of once-segregated Mesa neighborhood - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Documentary explores history of once-segregated Mesa neighborhood

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Posted: Thursday, February 9, 2012 4:30 pm

A filmmaker will screen an unfinished documentary about a segregated black neighborhood in Mesa in hopes of raising the funds he needs to finish the project.

Bruce Nelson will show the rough cut Saturday of "North Town," which was an early name of what is now known as the Washington-Escobedo Park Neighborhood. The Mesa native grew up in the neighborhood and has worked 1 ½ years to unearth little-known history through research and interviews with longtime residents.

Aside from fundraising, Nelson hopes the screening will spur others to share untold tales or encourage reluctant neighborhood residents to tell their stories before he makes the final cut. He'll have an audience of up to 300 when showing it at the historic Nile Theater in downtown Mesa.

"The Nile Theater, I thought was the perfect place to do this," Nelson said. "It was the segregated theater."

The documentary explores the neighborhood's history from the early 1900s to the 1980s, telling of residents' experiences with the Civil Rights movement, church life, segregation, racism and politics. The neighborhood is northeast of Center Street and University Drive, just north of Mesa's original town site.

Nelson wouldn't reveal his budget or how much he wants to raise. He said the film is 90 percent done and needs additional music, special effects to bring historic photographs to life and perhaps additional on-film interviews.

Nelson said his documentary has revealed information on how much entertainment was going on in the community, the history of the neighborhood's first black families and documents such as posters and the blueprint of a weigh station that matter-of-factly label the "colored bathrooms." Residents he interviewed were candid about the past, but researching documents proved harder, he said.

"There wasn't a lot because unfortunately so often in these cities, black history just does not get preserved," Nelson said. "Most communities really don't sort of embrace it, so it was really challenging to find some of the old information I wanted to find."

Nelson grew up in the neighborhood in the 1960s. He's a writer and has had parts in movies that include "No Code of Conduct," starring Martin Sheen and Charlie Sheen. He's also appeared in "Arizona Summer," "Neatherbeast Incorporated" and "Take Me Home Tonight."

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