The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Thoughts on "Chicagoland"


First, a few housekeeping notes.  Since starting this blog two years ago I’ve done little in the way of updating it.  I did a redesign nearly a year ago but few new features were added.  Thanks to some kind constructive criticism from loyal readers (really, thanks for making me realize I don’t write in a vacuum), I’ve added three features that should help make things easier for readers of this blog: 1) I’ve added a subscription feature so that readers can keep up via e-mail or RSS feed when things pop up; 2) I’ve added a “most popular” tab (to be updated) so readers can see what’s gotten a lot of recent notice; and 3) I added a link list so readers can see what I read regularly that’s shaping my opinions, and can inform your own.  Thanks to all who prompted me to do this, and I hope this improves the reader experience.  Look for more soon.

So, I’ve watched the first two episodes of CNN’s Chicagoland series.  For the uninitiated, Chicagoland is an eight-part documentary airing on Thursday evenings on CNN, produced by the team that did the “Brick City” series about Newark and mayor Cory Booker, with generous support from actor/director/producer/Sundance founder Robert Redford.

So far I’ve found the narrative of the first two episodes to be pretty gripping.  The focus has been on two of Chicago’s biggest stories in 2013, the deep-rooted crime and violence plaguing large parts of the city, and the controversy surrounding the closure of more than 50 Chicago public schools.  The stories are told principally through the characters of mayor Rahm Emanuel, Chicago police commission Gerry McCarthy, and Fenger High School principal Elizabeth Dozier, supported by a mosaic of Chicagoans.  The first two episodes demonstrate the passion around the fight to save the schools, and highlights the incredibly difficult work of principal Dozier.  It also scratches a little deeper than most sources to explain how Chicago’s crime problems may differ from that of other major cities (a long-standing gang culture that has fragmented in recent years due to, ironically, police success in locking up gang leaders), and even gives viewers an up-close perspective of the impact of crime in communities like Roseland and Englewood.  These issues are juxtaposed against scenes of the Chicago Blackhawks’ run to the 2013 Stanley Cup championship, including scenes of celebrations in the “Global City” parts of Chicago: the Loop, Rush Street and Wrigleyville.

Through the first two episodes, I think the desire to establish the “Two Chicagos” narrative, which I in fact believe, means that an awful lot of subtlety and nuance is being missed.  I know Roseland and Englewood well, having done a lot of work in both neighborhoods.  They are indeed troubled communities and the pressure that residents of either community feels is intense.  Yet they don’t represent the entire South Side, nor do the areas shown so far in the documentary represent the entirety of either neighborhood.  I wish more was shown featuring neighborhoods that perhaps weren’t directly under siege, but are suffering from the threat of it, or its expansion — Chatham, say, or Avalon Park.  A great deal has been shown so far to paint a very strong black/white dichotomy in Chicago, even though Chicago has a rich racial and ethnic tapestry that includes a Hispanic population that is among the largest of any city in the nation.  That’s missing so far.  And I can’t believe I’m saying this, but there could be more shown about “Global City Chicago” — the things many Chicagoans know and enjoy about the city, but the rest of the nation may be unaware of.

I guess I’m saying there could be more balance to what I’ve seen so far, even though what’s been shown has been pretty strong in its own right.  In an effort to show a gritty and visceral immediacy to Chicago, a lot of the complexity of the city is lost.  Perhaps more of that will come out in later episodes.  I’ll be watching .

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