“Who is willing to try to save a community that’s destined to die?” When I heard long-time Englewood resident Deborah Payne utter these desperate words near the end of the new documentary The Area, my stomach clenched and my heart sunk. Payne was one of hundreds of homeowners who were forced out of Chicago’s South Side neighborhood during a five-year period that saw the Norfolk Southern Railway buy up, home-by-home, 85 acres of property to expand its intermodal freight terminal. The resulting operation would see tens of thousands of trains and trucks go through the community every day, increasing pollution and traffic, while also boosting the economic worth of the area.
Payne belonged—and often led—several community groups that sought to either stop the project from happening or at least get better deals for those whose homes were being purchased by the railroad at ridiculously low prices—all of which was done with the blessing of 20th Ward alderman Willie Cochran, the City Council, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. But what director David Schalliol does with The Area is put a face on practically every homeowner who was forced to move out, by giving us slices of their lives, at a time when many are at their lowest because they must leave a community they love, understand and have lived in for decades, in some cases.
The word that Payne brings up repeatedly is “respect.” In reality, there’s no doubt how the story of this neighborhood is going to end—during the course of the film, we see dozens of row houses being demolished, and seeing it never gets easier—but the true drama of this ordeal is how disrespectfully the residents are treated at every step of this process, culminating in Alderman Cochran’s bold-faced lie to the mayor about how smoothly the relocations are going and how his office has received zero complaints.
Schalliol never forgets that his story is about people and not just buildings or property; this is a chronicle of the systematic disassembling of a community in which those being scattered to the wind have very little say in their own fates. In fairness, the filmmaker shows us that some of those forced to move land up in nicer homes or safer neighborhoods, but as these people say, there is a comfort and security to being in a place you know intimately. The director is invited into these homes to see them before they must be packed up and destroyed, and we get to feel immersed in the community in ways we would never be just walking or driving through it.
Exposing any level of corruption and bad faith in the halls of Chicago politics is certainly nothing new, but The Area makes certain that we’re aware of the deeply human cost of such actions. It’s a film that is both about holding onto and restoring dignity in the face of insurmountable odds, and audiences will alternate between being heartbroken and enraged. And the only thing keeping us afloat are the many examples of people who hang on because to give up would be as reprehensible as those trying to tear them down. It’s a profoundly emotional work that should be seen by all.
The film opens today for a two-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center, with director David Schalliol appearing at many of the screenings for Q&As, with various moderators. See the Siskel Film Center’s event page for the full schedule.
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