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Chicago women filmmakers collaborate on Cabrini-Green film
by Micki Leventhal
2011-01-19

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In 2000, the Chicago Housing Authority launched its 10-year Plan for Transformation, a $1.6 billion overhaul of public housing. The goal was to reduce the total number of public housing units in the city from about 38,000 to about 25,000, replacing failed and dilapidated housing with racially and economically mixed communities.

On Dec. 5, 2010, CBS' 60 Minutes presented Cabrini Green to Close, a news story on the scheduled demolition of the last of the "notorious..high-rises," coming down to "make way for new row houses, mixed-income apartments and multimillion dollar condos." Reporter Cynthia Bowers stated that, "no place was worse than Cabrini Green," where "gangs ruled entire buildings," "residents were terrorized by violence" and where wire fencing along balconies made the building seem "more like a prison than a place to live."

The demolition of the 23 Cabrini Green high-rise buildings began in 1995, although Chicago real-estate developers had been, in U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush's words, "salivating" over that piece of land for years before the first wrecking ball hit the first brick. The last resident has now left, but the last high-rise still stands, with the plan over budget and behind schedule.

Estimates vary as to how many people lived in Cabrini in its heyday; the numbers are 15,000-20,000. By 2004 there were about 4,500 residents. Today fewer than 1,000 people live in Cabrini's rowhouses, many of which are now empty and boarded up. These 550-plus low-rise residences are not formally scheduled for demolition, but it is unclear who owns the land and what will happen when the current economic situation turns around.

Critics assert that the plan does not eliminate the problem ( poverty and the systemic causes of poverty ) but merely displaces people and disperses the poverty around the city. Janet Smith, co-author of the report "Where are Poor People to Live," told Bower that only about 15 percent of the displaced Cabrini families are living in the new mixed-income developments that replaced Cabrini. Smith wondered on camera, "who will actually benefit from the Plan for Transformation when it is complete?"

Cabrini resident Kenneth Hammonds told Bowers that what pubic housing residents want and deserve is the opportunity to be involved in the process of relocation and to have a voice in their own future.

Ronit Bezalel, a Canadian documentarian who directed the LGBT-themed films When Shirley Met Florence ( 1994 ) , You Can't Beat it Out of Us ( 1992 ) and Tearing the Veil ( 1990 ) , came to Chicago in 1994 to work on her MFA in film and video. Riding the Brown Line to school each day, she became aware of Cabrini Green as the first high-rises began falling. A social activist, she quickly identified a need to tell the story behind the stereotypes. "Cabrini was kind of a mystified place," she said. "I'd always been told, 'don't go there!'. I had always been interested in issues of displacement, gentrification and home—and what home means. I'd just come here from Canada, but grew up in England and the States, didn't feel as if I had a home. There was just something that really resonated for me. I wanted to know more."

The result of that desire was 1999's Voices of Cabrini: Remaking Chicago's Public Housing, a 30-minute documentary that examined the politics and economics of what many activists and residents call a clear "land grab." The film also allows the viewer an opportunity to get to know the people and community that was Cabrini and understand that many of the residents never wanted to leave. Bezalel's interest and dedication created not only her graduate thesis project, but an award winning documentary that was aired on WTTW and has been screened at festivals nationally. Newsweek Magazine called Voices a "touchstone in the debate on public housing" and in 2001 honored Bezalel as one of the Top 15 Women to Watch in the 21st Century. Voices of Cabrini can be viewed at www.ronitfilms.com

Bezalel has continued to chronicle the Cabrini story, and has teamed up with former Cabrini resident Mark Pratt, who was featured in "Voices," and Chicago organizer, filmmaker and marketing-communications maven Brenda Schumacher ( Gay Games VII documentary, Decibelle Festival, Fresh Dish Productions ) on a new, feature-length documentary, Cabrini Green: Mixing it Up.

They have about 200 hours of film including archival material from the first film and new footage shot since 2006. A "fine cut" is close to post production after the addition of music, graphics and "a few more interviews." Pratt, an educator at Jenner Elementary School, and Schumacher are co-producers for a project that the team describes as highly collaborative. Other key players are Melissa Sterne ( editor ) , Janet Smith ( academic consultant/scriptwriter ) , Brad Hunt ( academic consultant ) and Judy Hoffman ( content adviser ) .

Cabrini Green: Mixing it Up features students at Jenner Elementary school, one of whom confronts Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley; the Stamps family of educators and activists; and a woman who is one of the few Cabrini residents that qualified to return to live in the new mixed income development. Academics Janet Smith ( University of Illinois at Chicago ) , Mary Pattillo ( Northwestern University ) and Mark Joseph ( Case Western Reserve University ) provide political and historical analysis.

"If you look at the location that is Cabrini, it is a gold mine," said Schumacher. "The land was very valuable for many reasons, but it was also valuable to the Cabrini community. It's walking distance to free recreation, the public transportation is right there. There were informal inter-community support networks."

The hope and perceived promise to residents that they would be relocated close by has not panned out. "We found that many families were moved far from their social support networks and even city support networks and are living far from the city center. People are in Austin, Roseland, Englewood, Rogers Park, South Shore," said Bezalel. Less than one-third, they said, have "returned," that is, have been successful in securing subsidized housing in the centrally located Cabrini neighborhood. Many families simply cannot be found.

"The people who built Cabrini [ beginning in 1942 ] were liberals. It was one of the first racially integrated housing developments in the country," said Bezalel. "How did it get from there to here? There has been a lot of blame on residents, but it's a very complicated story."

"One of our big hopes for the film is that it will help to break down some of the negative stereotypes," said Schumacher. "That through the eyes of the residents, it will demonstrate a thriving, supportive community that people really were proud to call home. It's very different than you perceive, with people dying to get out. There's a legacy there, they know their neighbors and they support one another. It's a very different look from the inside and that's the perspective we're trying to bring."

"We also hope people will come away from this with an understanding that housing is a human right and everyone is entitled to live with dignity and opportunity. The way this situation went down did not include the community. The community could have helped to create its own solutions. There was no community process and there was arguably neglect, and why was there neglect."

Mixing it Up has received funding from Chicago Instructional Technology Foundation, Polk Bros Foundation, the Illinois Humanities Council, Fire This Time Fund, Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts and a CAAP Grant from the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, but more funds are needed for completion.

Almost 75 percent of the team's Kickstarter fundraising goal has been reached, but the site's all-or-nothing deadline looms on Jan. 28. Less than $2,000 is needed to successfully kickstart the film. Go to www.kickstarter.com and search Cabrini Green to donate to this project.


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