Innovative Stanford class project turns urban studies students into filmmakers

A spatial documentarian, an urban historian and a film editor team up to teach students the power of storytelling and how to communicate their understanding of history through filmmaking. The student films premiere at East Palo Alto City Hall.

A spatial documentarian, an urban historian and a film editor walk into a bar …

Rather, they walk into a Stanford classroom to teach Urban Studies 166, East Palo Alto: Reading Urban Change, an innovative course that blends traditional academics, community service and art.

Olatunde M. Sobomehin

Students in the course learn to combine historical film footage and hip-hop music videos with an original soundtrack composed and performed by kids in the History Through Hip Hop (HHH) program in East Palo Alto.

The result is a hybrid music video/documentary film project that examines the transformation of an economically depressed urban landscape that neighbors the Stanford campus.

Story idea

Before there was the Four Seasons Hotel in East Palo Alto there was Whiskey Gulch, a struggling commercial district of small businesses and nonprofits approximately 3 miles from the university. In 1997, East Palo Alto city officials made the difficult decision to raze Whiskey Gulch and redevelop the area with a luxury hotel and office park now known as University Circle.

The students in URBANST 166 were asked to examine the recent history of East Palo Alto through a variety of traditional sources, including government documents, maps, census data and reports by nonprofit agencies, as well as historic photographs, interview transcripts and video footage to reconstruct the redevelopment of Whiskey Gulch.

Their final project: a short music video/documentary focusing on an aspect of the history of redevelopment in East Palo Alto.


Michael Levin and Michael Kahan are the masterminds and co-instructors of the course, which is a collaboration with the HHH program of East Palo Alto’s Mural Music & Arts Project (MMAP).

Among the footage used in the student films is this scene from Mural Music & Arts Project’s production “Takin’ It Back.”

Levin, a filmmaker and spatial documentarian, and Kahan, an urban historian, set out to design a course in which students would read and discuss primary and secondary sources as they would in a conventional urban studies class, but also communicate their understanding of history through film.

Levin captured much of the transition from the Gulch to the Circle and his film footage was a primary source for the course film project.

In addition to teaching URBANST 166, Levin is associated with Rebooting History, an East Palo Alto-based research partnership with the Spatial History Project at Stanford.

Elements of the course were funded through grants from Stanford’s Haas Center for Public Service, theStanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts (SiCa) and the new Curricular Innovation Engaging the Arts grant, including the engagement of an expert film editor with a special interest in films that involve music, Maureen Gosling.

“I was the editing supervisor on this project, teaching students who had little or no knowledge of film editing in Final Cut Pro, an industry program for editing films,” said Gosling. “The project was multidisciplinary, as well as connected to the community – with the involvement of MMAP – and an incredible and richly satisfying undertaking.”

Olatunde M. Sobomehin

She said the biggest challenge for the students was to wade through dozens of hours of Levin’s footage of Whiskey Gulch, mostly shot in the 1990s, to find images and comments from people that affected them emotionally in some way.

Securing Gosling for the course was critical to Levin.

“The class was a wild idea but I would never have seriously considered doing this without the involvement of someone like Maureen with her abilities and sensibilities about music, film and culture,” said Levin.

Sarah Curran, the programming director at SiCa, says she is thrilled to support projects like the music video documentary.

“The project is a model for using the arts as a tool for innovating pedagogy as well as connecting to the community through arts practice,” she said.

That’s a wrap

Marco Medellin, a student in the course, discovered that filmmaking is not a solo endeavor.

“I knew that I was embarking on something new when it came to the artistic component. However, what I wasn’t expecting to learn was leadership. There is so much group work in this course that I was forced to learn collaborative working skills very quickly,” said Medellin.

Filmmaking was not entirely new to classmate Dora Duru, who has interned with film production companies before. But she said the urban studies course was her first real exposure to the technical side of filmmaking. She believes film has the potential to change lives and shape public opinion.

“As filmmakers on this project, we tried to stay true to the stories of all the characters featured in our documentary while keeping in mind the overall historical context of redevelopment, but it is not always an easy process. A balance must be struck between content and visual impact,” she said.

Reflecting on some of the teaching highlights during the course, Kahan said: “The other day in class one of the groups was creating the conclusion of their video and they had the option of ending it with an archival film clip saying ‘nothing is left’ or with a different clip saying ‘East Palo Alto will never be the same.'”

This dilemma required the students to draw on their knowledge of the recent history of East Palo Alto in order to make an interpretive decision.

“It made it clear to me that the decisions you make as a film editor are not that different from those you make as an historian: Through your choice of examples, images and quotations, you communicate your interpretation of change over time,” Kahan said.

You will have to watch the film to see which ending the students chose.

East Palo Alto City Hall will host the premiere of the student films on Monday, March 19, at 6:30 p.m. The film screening is free and open to the public.