Spilkin's film, Above Brooklyn, is an entertaining and insightful look at a subculture populated by a very New York group of characters. Some of the men, nearly all in their 40s or older, treat their pigeons like pets, possibly naming each of their 2,000-odd birds; some try to capture birds from other coops, selling them at a shop along Broadway, as a type of competition. The film takes us to the New York Combine, a group dedicated to breeding the American Domestic Show Flight, a fancy pigeon first envisioned by the Combine in the 1940s, and finally achieved through precise breeding.
Why did you decide to do a documentary on pigeon breeders?
It was about six years ago the first time I saw someone flying birds in Brooklyn. I was standing outside of my friend's apartment in Williamsburg when hundreds of colorful pigeons suddenly appeared and began to circle the sky in beautiful formations. I could see a man standing on a nearby rooftop, guiding them with a black flag, and I was instantly intrigued. I started asking around the neighborhood if anyone knew the local pigeon flyer, and some people had no idea what I was talking about even though this was going on literally right over their heads. So it was appealing to me as an old school, semi-secret subculture that I wanted to learn more about. I was also kind of looking for an excuse to get up on the roof and hang out with the pigeon guys. Making a documentary is a great way to ingratiate yourself with a group of people you may not otherwise encounter in your daily life.
I loved the different approaches the people in your film have to pigeons (sport, pets, hobby). Can you tell us a little more about some of your favorite characters?
All of the guys I interviewed could tell me the detailed histories for many of their pigeons without even looking at the leg bands. They would point out a particular bird and tell me its backstory, and I wondered how they could recognize it because to me, it looked just like hundreds of other birds in their stock.
Where is the densest cluster of coops?
The most dense cluster of coops is in Bushwick. There used to be many more pigeon breeders in Williamsburg, but they've been pushed out along with the gentrification of the neighborhood. Some people don't like the idea of a pigeon coop on the roof because they think it lowers the property value, while others really like it, because the breeders are up there all the time caring for the birds, so they can help watch over the building and keep things safe.
Is there anything we should know, that didn't make it into the film?
Up until until 1957, the US army used homing pigeons for communications and reconnaissance purposes. My favorite historical pigeon is Cher Ami, who saved the lives of 194 soldiers in WWI by flying across enemy lines to successfully deliver a message after having been shot in the chest and leg during the journey.