Chicagoland is a non-scripted, eight-part series covering our hometown Chicago. The series is produced by Robert Redford and Laura Michalchyshyn of Sundance Productions, and filmed by the award-winning Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin of BCTV. It explores the politics and policy of an evolving city trying to address complex issues in the spheres of education, crime, and inequality. In this Gate series, University of Chicago graduate student, Allen Linton II, will provide a review of each episode and a personal perspective on a controversial portrayal of Chicago. The original posts can be found on Allen’s blog. These posts have been adapted and edited for our readers.
Rahm Emanuel likes to call Chicago “the most American of American cities.” If Chicago represents what America is at its core, America looks bleak: The city struggles with a high crime rate, inequality, and a failing public schools system. The third episode in CNN’s Chicagoland series, “Fireworks,” provided a welcome perspective into the lives of the powerless as well as the powerful.
We began with Rahm Emanuel, again, but not in city hall. In this episode, he’s in the streets with the people walking in the Gay Pride parade in Boystown. Emanuel has a history of fighting for equality and civil rights. These visuals set the tone for the episode. If you’re a supporter of the mayor, you’re inclined to see the Mayor as a strong-willed Democrat fighting the tough fight to fix society based on beliefs instilled in him from his youth. If you are not a fan of Emanuel, these scenes came off as a political advertisement promoting Emanuel as a visionary and can seem to lower the reputation of the series as a whole to a political puff piece. In this episode, unlike in episode one, I did get the feeling of a conscious effort to promote the mayor in a positive light, to humanize him and connect him (literally) to people: He’s seen walking in parades, at graduation, overseeing the naturalization ceremony, sitting face-to-face with principal Dozier, and listening to music. And in this episode, we learn that Rahm Emanuel still uses a flip phone and that Police Chief Garry McCarthy is using a Blackberry. (Author’s note: I use a Blackberry and am a big fan). Flip phones in 2013…always amusing.
On the school front, we actually see that progress is being made in the fight to improve schools on the Southside. Fenger High School’s graduation rate on the rise and the impressive students from Urban Prep highlight what resources and hope can do for young, black students historically unsupported in the educational space. Recently, Rahm Emanuel went on MSNBC’s Daily Rundown with Chuck Todd to discuss Chicago’s education reform challenges, politics, and future. In that conversation, the focus remained on charter schools and graduation rates. Fine, but what about schools that aren’t under the charter umbrella or schools that haven’t been turned around like Fenger High School? (For more on turnaround schools, check out http://cps.edu/News/Press_releases/Pages/02_14_2012_PR2.aspx). Most schools fall in the space of being non-charters and non-turnarounds. The optimism of improving graduation rates and college readiness is tainted considering that we haven’t seen progress at these schools.
The introduction of people of color and the explicit references to these communities of color helped to show why Chicago is perhaps the most American of America’s cities. The Albany Park Theatre Project symbolized the melting pot of the city and nation with over forty languages spoken but also people from all backgrounds working and socializing together. Immigration entered the conversation reminding the nation at large that our cities, states, and country thrive on inclusivity and togetherness. It also reminded folks, if only briefly, that our immigration system is broken and we still don’t have a solution from D.C. (If UChicago students are interested in this work, the Institute of Politics’ “New Americans UChicago” initiative is perfect for you. Learn about it and our other student civic engagement projects here.).
Perhaps the episode’s most powerful moments were inside Stroger Cook County Hospital. Getting a first glance into the world of Dr. Andrew Dennis, a leader at Stroger, threw the audience knee deep in the human element of mass homicides. His ability to live “in people’s worst nightmares” sent a shiver down my spine. The inclusion of people like Dr. Dennis who are usually the faceless characters serialized in television fiction, added tremendous realness to a show that eschews detail in favor of telling a larger story. (The best example of this was Emanuel talking to principal Dozier about supporting Fenger but needing to fix this pension situation…a situation that is beyond explanation here.).
Summertime in Chicago is second to none and this episode shows that. The festivals throughout the city, music, culture, the lakefront, warm weather, life—nothing can beat it. It is unbelievable how electric the city becomes as a whole and it provides an environment for all sides to celebrate. The angst around rising temperatures and rising crime is real too but, unlike last week, we saw that all parts of the city could enjoy themselves. The annual Chosen Few Picnic in Jackson Park brings together House music fans from all over to dance, eat, and have fun as crowds easily top 30,000 fans. Though it doesn’t get the same attention as the local music festivals to the north, it was nice to see people on camera discuss the media’s portrayal of the Southside along with positive visuals of the city on display.
The real work going forward is ending citywide segregation. Both principal Dozier and Mayor Emanuel lamented how kids (referring to South and West side kids) don’t ever make it Downtown, to North Ave beach, or Wrigley Field. It’s true. But instead of finding a way to expose kids South to go North, we should also put work into having people on the North head South to the gems in these neighborhoods. Witnessing the lengths that aspiring chef Derious Smith took to get a job in a kitchen speaks to the drive of Chicagoans. It also speaks to the narrative about Americans. Chicago may accurately represent America today in its challenges but it also speaks to the optimism of tomorrow. “Fireworks” covered a ton of difficult topics but ends on a warm note offering viewers hope for the future. Hopefully Smith opens up his “Pleasure Pallet” after mentorship from Chicago’s array of five star chefs but wouldn’t it be amazing if he did that in Englewood and if people commuted south for world-class culinary fare? It’s a hope as American as apple pie is on the fourth of July.
Table of Contents: A Chicagoan Reviews Chicagoland
1: Episode 1
2: Episode 2
3: Episode 3
4: Episode 4
5: Episode 5
6: Episode 6