Even those of us who think we have a good understanding of local history could learn a thing or two by watching “America’s First Park: River Common,” a 52-minute documentary by Wilkes-Barre resident Scott Spinucci.
Spinucci, 44, is a graduate of E.L. Meyers High School, Slippery Rock University and Marywood University and is president of AppleCart Cinema, which has been headquartered in Wilkes-Barre since 2007. His film, available on DVD and streaming at rivercommondocumentary.com, traces the history of the city and its riverside park along the banks of the Susquehanna.
The film is set up like a History Channel program with a combination of archival footage, new video and re-enactments and is narrated by Wilbur Fitzgerald, an actor who recently appeared in “Hunger Games: Catching Fire” and “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues.” It also contains original music by Bret Alexander of The Badlees and George Wesley.
The first part of the film is devoted to the history of Wilkes-Barre from its founding in 1769 and notes that the River Common was designed as a park right from the beginning. This section also tells of the Yankee-Pennamite Wars, a series of disputes between settlers from Connecticut and Pennsylvania over who rightfully owned the land that stretched over 30 years.
The film contends that because of these wars between two states, the founding fathers convened to draft the Constitution in 1787 and clearly lay out the laws of eminent domain. However, this new document ended up nullifying an earlier agreement that gave the Connecticut settlers parcels of land in Ohio to relinquish their claims to the Wyoming Valley, and the wars continued until 1799.
The next part of the film talks about the River Common through the years, including its redesign in 1905 and its opening to the public in 1910. It also traces the history through the great floods of 1936 and 1972 and states that by 1975 the people of Wilkes-Barre and the Wyoming Valley had had enough of the river.
It is in this part of the film where the claim to “America’s First Park” is made as it briefly talks about how the River Common was designed and used as a park a few years before Boston Commons, which has traditionally laid claim to that designation. This section is so brief, however, that the title ends up being a bit misleading, as there is not enough substance in this part of the film to adequately make those claims (and the title of the film) clear to the viewer.
The final part talks about the renaissance of the River Common, culminating in its rededication in June of 2009, as part of the levee-raising project.
Confusingly, the film then abruptly changes tone to questioning why officials “lied” about the levee and how high the river actually crested in September of 2011 without fully developing that theme, then shifts back to boasting about how great the River Common is and how it is a boon to the local economy for the film’s final moments.
Because of the two sections that seem rushed and underdeveloped, the 52-minute version of “America’s First Park: River Common” seems a bit unfinished. There is talk of an expanded version, which would only help in telling these fascinating stories in full and would ultimately make this fine but flawed film even better.