From network sitcoms to landmark documentaries, taking a critical look at mass media can be instrumental in understanding both the nuanced social contexts and the broader history of the past. This certainly holds true in the case of Cabrini-Green. For example, with the 2014 documentary “70 Acres in Chicago,” filmmaker Ronit Bezalel presents her 20 years spent following the lives and realities of Cabrini-Green residents throughout the neighborhood’s process of redevelopment.
In a recent phone interview with Bezalel, she remarked being drawn to the topic of Cabrini-Green out of a peculiar curiosity in the mid-90s. With the neighborhood’s unique architecture, persistent news coverage, and then-pending redevelopment, this comes as no surprise. Bezalel’s documentary mainly focuses on individual lives and perspectives of the residents, preferring not to come down hard with any conclusions or condemnations. In fact, “70 Acres in Chicago” doesn’t force you to think anything. Rather, it lets the footage and interviews speak for themselves.
In the time since the film, however, she did have some takeaways about how the whole process of redevelopment has turned out. When presented with the issue, she responded that there are almost too many groups and situations to look at — ever the response to questions about Cabrini-Green — but, in general, a lot of lives haven’t improved. The residents who were able to move into mixed-income housing are doing alright for themselves, but still with their fair share of readjustment challenges. The property developers are doing remarkably better, being the ones who built that mixed-income housing. However, those unable to find newer housing either joined the trending black diaspora out of Chicago or found a new home in another likely beleaguered area of the city — that is to say, almost certainly not better off for it.
“70 Acres in Chicago” has boasted a robust series of film screenings across the Chicago area and beyond, and nothing would be more helpful to this column’s mission of spreading Cabrini-Green’s story to this next generation than hosting the film on Illinois Tech’s campus. While Community Affairs did host the documentary on campus last June, most students were likely home for summer break; Bezalel, who helped present the film, reported low attendance.
I would love to host a well-publicized and student-focused screening this spring semester with all the trappings of a full campus event — that is to say, plastered all over the Illinois Tech Student Community (ITSC) Facebook page, on posters across campus, with free snacks and drinks both provided and advertised, with the full sponsorship of TechNews and possibly other interested student organizations.
The mission of this screening is to draw as much attention possible from the generation of Chicago that seems to have been forgotten, or have never been told, the story of Cabrini-Green. I look forward to doing everything I can to make this vision, both with the screening and beyond, a reality.