70 Acres in Chicago: Cabrini Green explores the effects of Chicago’s 1.5 billion dollar Plan for Transformation, an order requiring the demolition of the city’s public housing high rises, and the building of mixed-income condominiums. The film chronicles the demolitions at the Cabrini Green Homes, a development erected from 1942-1961 as a housing solution for the working poor. Located a mile from Chicago’s world-famous lakefront, the neighborhoods adjacent to Cabrini Green are some of the most conspicuous and symbolic reminders of income inequality in the city.
In the following UNFILTERED blog post, 70 Acres in Chicago: Cabrini Green director Ronit Bezalel credits the people that helped her stick to a story for 20 years.
People often ask me why I created the documentary 70 Acres in Chicago: Cabrini Green – a film that took 20 years to complete.
I’ve always been interested in issues of gender, race, class and gentrification. To me, this is the natural outcome of feeling like an outsider. My father is Israeli, my mother is British, and I was born in England. Growing up with immigrant parents and identifying with three countries, I felt like I didn’t quite fit in. I think about my own white privilege and ways I can use it to help create racial and class equality.
When I arrived in Chicago in 1994 to study film at Columbia College Chicago, I was dismayed by the city’s segregation. I had moved from Montreal, a city divided by language. But Chicago was totally different. I had never lived in such a racially segregated city.
I was immediately told to avoid Cabrini Green – an African-American low-income housing development located in the city center adjacent to some of the most expensive Chicago real estate.
This didn’t sit well with me.
Cabrini Green in the 80s (photo: Hellen Shiller).
I couldn’t avoid Cabrini. I saw the buildings from the train windows while taking the Brown Line “L” train to school. I wondered who lived behind the brick walls and gated windows. I was curious about the community and wanted to know why this African-American neighborhood was so stigmatized. This was 1995, and the first buildings were beginning to be torn down. I needed to know more.
I was in a documentary class taught by filmmaker Judy Hoffman, and I decided to make a film about Cabrini Green. I was introduced to fellow Columbia College student and Cabrini resident/activist Mark Pratt who welcomed me into the community.
Director Ronit Bezalel interviewing Jenner Elementary Student Janae Durr (photo: Brenda Schumacher).
I teamed up with fellow student and budding documentary cinematographer, Antonio Ferrera. We spent four years filming at Cabrini, including interviewing Mark Pratt and his family, spending time with local barber George Robbins and documenting community activists as they fought to save their homes.
We shot over 100 hours with a simple camera set up. From this footage, Voices of Cabrini: Remaking Chicago’s Public Housing (1999) was born — a 30-minute documentary looking at the Cabrini demolitions from the perspective of small business owners and residents.
Voices of Cabrini helped create dialogue about issues of race, class and housing. But the story was far from over. We were not done filming, nor were the residents done advocating and fighting for their rights. The story was still unfolding.
In 2006, producer Brenda Schumacher came on board. We initially were going to make an epilogue to Voices of Cabrini. However, we realized that to do justice to the story we had to listen and observe, intentionally.
As we set out to make a sequel to Voices of Cabrini, we were committed to follow the redevelopment story over the next decade. We witnessed families struggle with the impact of social engineering on their community and personal lives. In particular, we focused on the stories of Mark Pratt, Raymond McDonald, and Deidre Brewster. We filmed at Jenner Elementary in Cabrini and interviewed educator Tara Stamps. Our shooting finished in 2011, and this coincided with the demolition of the last Cabrini Green high-rise.
Cabrini building demolition (photo: MJ Rizk).
Altogether, 400 hours of footage was shot, spanning 20 years. Writer/editor Catherine Crouch masterfully edited this into a one-hour film 70 Acres in Chicago: Cabrini Green. The film uses some footage from Voices of Cabrini, and Mark Pratt’s story is followed over the entire 20-years.
It takes a village to make a film. Mark Pratt, Robyn Epstein and Madaliene Schalet joined as additional producers. Judy Hoffman was the Executive Producer for both films. We had contributions of hundreds of people – everyone who helped out on the crew, to people we spoke to at Cabrini, to our funders.
Gordon Lake filming Old School Monday in July, 2007 (photo: Ronit Bezalel).
70 Acres in Chicago: Cabrini Green honors and mourns a community that no longer exists in the same way. While there are still some occupied row houses along Cambridge Street, all of the Cabrini high-rises have been demolished.
This unfortunate story focuses on Chicago but is relevant to communities like it all over the United States. The displacement hurts families. Communities of color are disproportionately being pushed outside of the city center because the land where they live has become too valuable in the real estate market.
70 Acres in Chicago: Cabrini Green is touring across the country and being shared with communities facing similar issues. In the fall of 2016, we screened the film at UCLA in Los Angeles and spoke with residents of the Jordan Downs public housing development. Like the families in 70 Acres, they are fighting to save their homes from gentrification.
Mayor Daley press conference at Jenner Elementary. Student Deral Willis watches (photo: Kevin O’Dowd).
As the film continues to screen in communities, and now on public media’s America ReFramed series, we hope it will continue to serve as a catalyst for discussion. As a filmmaker, my greatest hope is that the documentary can in some way inspire and inform these disenfranchised community residents as they fight for their right to live in the place they call home.
Ronit Bezalel has been creating social issue documentary films for over 25 years. Bezalel began her career at the National Film Board of Canada, where she directed When Shirley Met Florence (1994). Her award-winning film, Voices of Cabrini: Remaking Chicago’s Public Housing (1999), received a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Award to catalyze dialogue about affordable housing issues in Chicago neighborhoods. Newsweek magazine selected Bezalel as one of the “Top 10 Women of the 21st Century” (Jan 8, 2001) for this work. Bezalel holds an MFA from Columbia College Chicago and a BA from McGill University in Montreal. In addition to her film work, Bezalel is also a photographer and freelance journalist for publications including The Times of Israel Chainlink.
70 Acres in Chicago: Cabrini Green will have its U.S. television premiere Tuesday, February 21, 2017 at 8 p.m. on WORLD Channel (check local listings), as part of the award-winning documentary series AMERICA REFRAMED.