MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

Digital Nation: The Other City

Contrary to much circumstantial evidence, AIDS isn’t gone … it isn’t even hiding.

That’s the primary message of Susan Koch’s documentary The Other City, which takes a look at what may be, to some, the surprising fact that HIV/AIDS has not gone away. In fact, in our nation’s capital, practically within shouting distance of the White House and Capitol —  where many deaf ears on HIV/AIDS have been turned — HIV/AIDS is at epidemic proportions. Washington, D.C.’s, unique status as a city without state funding to bolster it, combined with a higher-than-average at-risk population for HIV/AIDs have, the doc reveals, have contributed to a higher-than-average prevalence of HIV/AIDS.

“At least 3 percent of all residents of Washington, D.C., are HIV positive,” she emphasizes. “That’s even higher than in some parts of Africa. In the U.S., when 1 percent of the population is affected, it’s considered to be an epidemic.

“Millions of tourists visit the monuments and museums, but they don’t see the ‘other’ Washington. In every city, there’s another city.”

Koch’s documentary argues that the District of Columbia is especially vulnerable because of its concentration of residents in the groups most likely to be infected with HIV: gay men; African Americans who have served time in prison; and intravenous drug users. In a 2009 report by the District of Columbia Department of Health, it was reported that HIV prevalence was as high as 7.2 percent for all adults 40-49 years old and 6.5 percent for all black males.

Koch points out, as well, that women of color represent the fastest-growing risk group, and younger African-American women have been the hardest hit. Today, AIDS is second only to cancer and heart disease as the leading killer of all these women, and first among black women 18-34.

It’s in this regard, that the appearance of normalcy is so deceiving.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, almost everyone living in a large urban area knew someone who died from AIDS-related illnesses. Today, however, the same could be said about knowing someone who’s been diagnosed HIV-positive, but survives. Celebrity-backed educational campaigns, along with condom giveaways and needle-exchange programs, helped keep infection rates in check, while promising pharmaceutical regimens, have kept people alive.

According to Koch and others interviewed for the film, this very good news has also led to a false sense of security among young people. The media no longer treat each new death of a prominent person with sense of shock and alarm, while flues named after animal species make for sexier headlines than those reporting the continued threat of HIV/AIDS.

“We don’t hear that much, anymore, about celebrities and artists in the most visible industries dying of AIDS,” said Koch, whose previous documentary, “Kicking It,” followed a team of homeless soccer players to the world championships. “Magic Johnson’s success has given lots of people false hope.”

Other reasons given for the recent increase in unprotected sex include “condom fatigue,” widespread alcohol and drug abuse, and consciously reckless behavior. AIDS activist Larry Kramer cites the number of sex workers and potential customers soliciting “bareback” encounters as evidence of a breakdown in the education process.

Studies that have focused on the continued rise in teen pregnancy, as well, reveal that many of the young people surveyed were fully aware of the consequences of unprotected sex, including the transference of HIV and STDs, but decided they’d take the risk, anyway. Being under the influence of alcohol and drugs was a major contributing factor, as was a feeling that AIDS had become a treatable disease, not a death sentence.

According to a report released this year by the Centers for Disease Control, more than 1 million people are living with HIV in the United States. More than 20 percent of those people are unaware of their infection and are unconsciously threatening the lives of their sexual partners. Indeed, an estimated 56,300 Americans become infected with HIV each year, with another 18,000 people succumbing to AIDS.

Among those we meet in The Other City are several homeless and potentially homeless people grappling with poverty and HIV; a young man dying in an AIDS hospice and his care-givers, who, themselves, could become the victims of budget cuts; and survivors working to spread the message of hope and prevention.

“Among African-Americans in Washington, AIDS was associated almost exclusively with gay white males,” Koch says. “As long as it was indentified with homosexuals, the churches and other community groups weren’t interested. Today, however, it’s become more identified with poverty.

“I’m a Washingtonian and wasn’t aware of the extent of the problem until my co-producer, Jose Antonio Vargas, wrote a series about the situation in the Washington Post.”

And, yet, there it was all along. Despite the fact that Washington was one of the first cities to have an AIDS administrator, the program never found traction. The agency has experienced much turnover at the top and there been no accounting for billions of dollars in funding. The fact that the nation’s capital is governed, in large part, according to the whims of Congress also slowed down the machinery.

For example, last year, before Congress acceded to the evidence provided by researchers and scientists, no federal money could be allotted to needle-exchange programs attempting to combat the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C. Absent funding for these efforts, the District’s unusually high number of previously incarcerated males, many of whom had shared needles in prison, have been able to spread their diseases on to new victims back home.

One example of Congress’ low regard for residents of the “other city,” in which they work, was provided by Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who offered an amendment that would ban funding for distribution of syringes “in the District of Columbia within a thousand feet of a public or private daycare center, elementary school, vocational school, secondary school, college, junior college or university, or any public swimming pool, park, playground, video arcade or youth center or an event sponsored by any such entity.”

“That would eliminate most of Washington,” observed one volunteer, who spends his time trading syringes with junkies in known drug haunts. The money for the exchange was provided through private contributions.

In another example of government inefficiency, an HIV-positive mother is forced to jump through bureaucratic hoops to find another home, after losing her subsidized apartment, through no fault of her own, due to the sale of the building. In her case, losing her apartment would mean one of two things, moving to a shelter and losing the ability to store her HIV medicine in a refrigerator, or agreeing to shack up with a man willing to support and her children.

Most of the shelters in Washington, reports one resident, require occupants to leave the building by 7 a.m. each day and not return until mid-evening. Ostensibly, this is to encourage the men to seek gainful, if non-existent employment, but, in reality, it drives them to parks and vacant lots where drugs and prostitution are most prevalent.

The Other City is getting a slow roll-out across the country. It opened to enthusiastic audiences in Washington and New York September 17, and in Los Angeles this past weekend.

Although some would argue that ending poverty in the District is about as likely as ending corruption in the House of Representatives, Koch remains optimistic that positive change will come through the extraordinary generosity and determination of Washingtonians, like those we meet in the movie.

“The movie is about sharing our common humanity and not allowing people to be seen as mere statistics,” she concludes. “Epidemics don’t exist in a vacuum. There are several American cities that have reached the 1 percent HIV rate, which denotes an epidemic.

“I hope we can re-energize the dialogue and awareness of HIV/AIDS and people will discover the other city in their cities.”

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Digital Nation

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon