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.
“We live in a world where capital can go anywhere so a mayor like Rahm [Emanuel] needs to deal with this upsurge in violence and crime. This is a central issue.” - Bruce Katz, Brookings Institution
I don’t believe that Bruce Katz thinks crime needs to be reduced only in order to ensure that wealthy residents stay in Chicago (and not because crime should be reduced in the interest of public safety). The above quote captures the essence of episode six of Chicagoland from multiple perspectives. Economic vitality is key to a city’s growth, no matter whether that city is Chicago or Roseland. Every mayor is obsessed with finding the next thing or the first thing in order to ensure a city’s success. Rahm Emanuel: visionary, pit bull, or both, remains a focal point for decision-making around crime and safety issues as much as he is a focal point for issues concerning economic development. We get that.
One of the reasons I liked this week’s episode, admittedly the first one I’ve liked in the past three weeks, was the show’s deeper honesty around tough issues. I opened this piece with an optimistic reading of Bruce Katz’s words, but it’s hard to ignore that Katz’s words are painfully true: In order to grow in the 21st century, Chicago needs to address its problem with crime. Chicago, the crown jewel in America’s heartland populated by people from around the world, is not assured a seat at the table of global cities. Crime isn’t the only problem – the city’s pension system is unstable and the city’s infrastructure is outdated. The fact that Mayor Emanuel acknowledged this reality points to his ability to speak honestly and candidly about the city’s problems. (Although some might attribute his ability to speak honestly to media suaveness.) In this light, the “Building A Better Chicago” initiative came off more much more refreshing than the “Chicago’s great with a few rough areas” feel of previous episodes.
I am pretty done with the crime narrative too. Half of the episode was devoted to covering crime on the Southside – a narrative which, I guess, works for some viewers but I find show’s obsession with racialized violence disturbing. Part of me worries that the constant and unrelenting exposure to violence will desensitize Chicagoans (and the country as a whole) to violence in the inner city. But I don’t think so. I care about the stories of violence and the lives lost, but because violence on the South Side appears in every episode, these scenes are less powerful than they could be otherwise. It cheapens the experience of the show, the city, and the affected communities.
Still, the most powerful moment from the episode came when we saw the specter of gun violence at Fenger High School. The concern over an unfamiliar face walking the halls paralyzed the entire school’s administration. Principal Dozier, staff, and security thought an unknown student may have a weapon and responded. The student, a freshman who entered through the wrong door, wasn’t a threat at all. Nonetheless, observing what the possibility for violence from the unknown can do to a school was powerful. And troubling.
Mayor Emanuel’s community development initiatives around public transit and food desserts were in the spotlight this episode. Rebuilding the crumbling tracks and outdated stations wasn’t a very popular decision. Emanuel opted to shut down the entire Southside line in order to complete repairs, thereby rerouting nearly 200,000 daily commuters. Rahm and other community leaders and politicians were happy to celebrate its completion (on-time and under budget). While the gamble to rebuild the Red Line appeared to be a smart move, more questions surround Wal-Mart moving into the Pullman/Roseland neighborhood and the Whole Foods coming to Englewood. The benefits of bringing some jobs and closing a huge food dessert make Wal-Mart, a lightning rod for controversy on a good day, a decent option for lower income residents. I’ve driven past the location several times and it is always packed no matter the day or time. Whole Foods, which does not face the same scrutiny as Wal-Mart, is usually outside the price range of residents in Englewood.
The moment that troubled me most concerned Mayor Daley’s comments about gentrification. After running Chicago from my birth to my 22nd birthday, Daley reflected on what Chicago – or any major city – needs to be successful: a viable wave of young professionals. Then, in a rare moment of honesty, Daley said, “Gentrification is the best thing to happen to cities.” Wow. In an episode where the arrival of Whole Foods in a neighborhood served as a signal to many residents that they were being priced out of their neighborhood, I couldn’t believe that he said it. Sure the literal meaning of gentrification may be the transformation of a poor neighborhood into a thriving one. In an all too familiar reality for Chicagoans, gentrification means people moving out, taking over a community, pricing out residents, and the destruction of a way of life. The line is between gentrification and community development/empowerment is unclear and probably does not exist in a meaningful way. It’s a puzzle we need to continue to solve if we want to address rampant inequalities through community engagement rather than community destruction. Still, I couldn’t believe “gentrification” was followed by the words “is the best thing to happen to cities.”
I was energized as a Chicagoan, watching this complicated if not flawed episode. In many ways the show did feel like part of a slick PR campaign with the programs on display (Did YOU know Chicago had the fastest growing downtown residential area in America?), but it also brought some surprising levels of reality and honesty to thorny questions of crime and gentrification.
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