The Downtown Community Television Center is one of New York City’s most venerable cinema institutions, founded by filmmaking partners and spouses Keiko Tsuno and Jon Alpert in 1972. For most of its history, the organization has been based in the landmark Engine Company 31 Firehouse in Chinatown. They took over the handsome 1895 chateau-style building in 1979, a few years after it ceased working as a firehouse. While the historic exterior has remained the same, over the decades, DCTV has gradually built out and refined its operations within — carving out offices, editing suites, equipment storage, classrooms, studios, meeting rooms, and more. DCTV has hosted educational programs for the public, held workshops for veteran and aspiring filmmakers alike, and rented out equipment and working space to various productions, in addition to filling innumerable miscellaneous needs for indie creators. For many years, episodes of the progressive news show Democracy Now were taped in an upstairs loft. This September, in its 50th year, DCTV finally realized a longtime goal: opening its own theatrical exhibition space. Their hope is that the Firehouse Cinema will be one of New York’s premier dedicated theaters for documentary.
Prior to the grand opening of the Firehouse, I got to tour it alongside Alpert and Dara Messinger, DCTV’s director of programming and engagement. The space is well-furnished and features cutting-edge projection and sound tech — Alpert was particularly keen to show off the programmable colored lights in the theater. The lobby area is filled with acknowledgments of the building’s past, paneled with wood that once constituted the fire department’s stables (from the days when they had horse-drawn firefighting wagons instead of trucks) and with a concession stand incorporating the cab of a decommissioned fire engine graciously donated from Virginia.
By now, the way DCTV operated without the firehouse space is a distant memory, but that early going was rough. Alpert remembered: “When we started, our ‘theater’ was an old mail truck that we bought for $5, with two black-and-white TV sets on the side. We parked it around the corner, on the worst, noisiest corner in the city. We learned our most important filmmaking lessons as we tried to capture a moving New York city audience.”
“Everything we learned on that sidewalk, we built into this theater,” he continued. “This is a theater built by filmmakers, for filmmakers, and their community.”
Alpert has seen the building through a great deal of evolution; touring an attic lounge, he recalled when there was a huge hole in the ceiling. “When we bought the firehouse, we owned it; we just didn’t have access to it,” he explained. “We’ve been fixing it up bit by bit over the years, gradually integrating the building to make it a palace for documentary filmmaking.” He calls the theater “the crown on top.” Capturing that crown had been a longstanding goal. “We’ve been trying for 20 years, and we had some false starts,” Alpert said. “We began construction in earnest just in time for the pandemic to shut it down. But once it became safe … there’s nothing good about the pandemic, but the building was mostly empty, and we could do the heavy construction work without bothering anybody.”
The DCTV staff are hoping the theater not only lets them showcase great films and bring together the community, but also helps get the word out about their mission and services. “We’ve always been kind of this secret,” Messinger said. “A lot of times, people have heard of DCTV and know I work there, but they don’t know it’s in this building. Everyone knows the building itself, but not what’s happening in it. It’s a registered historic landmark, you need permission to do A, B, and C. We can’t have proper signage — we can’t put posters for upcoming films on the façade, like any normal cinema.”
As Alpert puts it, “Running a 67-seat theater is a path to financial ruin,” but the theater is just one facet of DCTV. They are hoping it serves not just as a normal screening space, but one that can facilitate more active discussions after showings, as well as collaboration between artists. “We have a new membership program that allows people to get 50% off to come to the cinema,” said Messinger. “And hopefully it’s just another way people come in and then learn about our educational programs and all the productions we’ve made throughout the years.” Alpert elaborated: “We have four cameras in here, everything is fully interactive. If you are sitting in Ohio and want to participate in a discussion with a filmmaker, with your fellow documentarians, if your grandma wants to say something, we’ll see you picture up on the screen … We’re trying to connect every part of the documentary world. And that technical infrastructure was difficult to achieve.” DCTV envisions this more easily facilitating screenings for young people, helping them interface with filmmakers, subjects, and/or experts immediately after seeing films.
Messinger was reflective on what special purpose a documentary-dedicated theater can serve. “In an age when people can now just sit down and watch Netflix, documentary has become a mainstream thing. But people have been making them for a long time, and I think it’s important to show the breadth of what documentary can be,” she mused. Asked about her goals as a programmer, she said, “I want to show formally ambitious films. I want to share perspectives from different makers who can tell their own stories. I see the cinema serving the documentary community, Chinatown, and New York. It allows us to speak to a more general audience and not just filmmakers.” One of the theater’s inaugural programs is Reid Davenport’s I Didn’t See You There. The film lacks a distributor, and so DCTV’s exhibition will mark its first run in theaters. “If a film like that can screen at Sundance and then not get theatrical distribution, what does it take? But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t deserve to have a run. So I reached out to them about it.”
Part of DCTV’s engagement with its neighborhood has entailed participation in activism on its behalf. Both Alpert and Messinger stress their historical and current need to be a positive force within Chinatown. “Mayor de Blasio’s parting gift to the city, specifically this neighborhood, is the world’s tallest, most expensive jail,” said Alpert. “We haven’t built a single unit of affordable housing here, we haven’t built any new schools, the hospitals are horror shows, and we’re getting iron bars. We’ve been filming this [story], and have been using this theater as an epicenter for organizing the community’s fight to not to waste all our money on that.” Messinger adds, “We would love to be able to have programs in other languages, and to have different membership partners. We’re going to be working with Think!Chinatown, which does the Chinatown Arts Festival — they’ll be doing two screenings with us.” With its new cinema, DCTV looks poised to be an active player in both documentary and local activism, continuing a multifaceted mission to marry craft, education, and outreach.