Born and raised in rural Alabama, I never imagined that I would work as an architectural historian, urban planner, filmmaker, photographer, or children’s book author in New York City! And yet, all the pieces of my ever-changing career fit neatly together.
Studying architecture and the nature of cities continues to be a passion for me and has proven to be a most sustaining and at times exhilarating inspiration for my work. These interests led me to photograph the Statue of Liberty during its restoration (I was on the scaffolding surrounding Miss Liberty– a breathtaking way to see New York harbor!) and to tunnel thousands of feet below ground in a copper mine in Butte, Montana, where I lived while writing a history of the buildings and copper mines in Uptown Butte.
My first job in New York City was to review grant proposals dealing with architecture, urban design and city planning in New York State, some of which were film projects. This sparked an interest in using film as a tool to reach thousands of people with important information about our built environment. My role as an urban planner led me to Williamsburg, Brooklyn where I worked with Hispanic and Hasidic communities to develop low and middle income housing.
These work experiences broadened my interests and introduced me to new neighborhoods, to new ways of life, and to important political issues. Working as a city planner, I witnessed firsthand how economic and political forces shape neighborhoods and cities, dramatically affecting people’s quality of life. I then turned to filmmaking to try to democratize the development and planning process—to get the voices of people not usually heard out into the forefront. I use film to inform communities and civic leaders of the larger truth behind what creates, and sometimes, destroys neighborhoods. The stories I tell are local, but the implications and issues themselves reach beyond neighborhood borders to cities, states, and even other countries. My two documentaries about Brooklyn, Made in Brooklyn and Brooklyn Matters, have been shown on public television stations across the country and in Canada.
Blind Faith, my newest documentary, is somewhat of a detour from previous work. It took 15 years of filming to complete this personal film about my daughter, Anna, and her blind father, David.
Anna has not only influenced my work as a filmmaker, she has also inspired me to look at the city in a different way—through the eyes of a child. For several years, I have been conducting “unofficial tours” to teach children about architecture because I believe it is a wonderful first step toward neighborhood preservation. It is really amazing to see how a child’s attention to her/his own neighborhood sharpens just by looking at buildings. They begin to develop enthusiasm and concern about their own neighborhoods and to notice what makes their streets unique and special. They start to feel good about their community and care about making it cleaner, safer, and more beautiful. Urban Animals, my first children’s book about architecture, was my way of jump-starting this appreciation for our built environment. Children learn architectural terms by looking carefully at animals on buildings throughout New York City. Followed by Building Stories, Urban Animals of Washington, D. C., and most recently Counting Colorful Shapes-Art Deco Style, these books teach children to observe their surroundings and to appreciate the beauty around us. It seems so important that this pride and caring of place start early!
"What Jane Jacobs was to the 1960s, Isabel Hill may well be to the 1990s—the provider of common sense urban analysis that sends conventional city planners scurrying for cover. Her hour-long video documentary, Made in Brooklyn, effectively challenges and refutes current conventional wisdowm promoting service sector development at the expense of urban manufacturing."
- John Loomis, OCULUS
“I love bringing Isabel Hill into the classroom with her beautiful books about New York City architecture. Isabel uses her books to begin an important conversation about first observing, then preserving our neighborhoods! Her books are wonderful for reluctant readers because they take big ideas and make them accessible. Her presentations and activities are interactive and engaging.”
- Jo Umans, Executive Director, Behind the Book