Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

Chicago: City of Necessity

Chicago architecture critic, photographer and cultural commentator Lee Bey unearthed this gem of a 1961 video of Chicago called “City of Necessity” that is well worth watching. I know most people don’t watch videos online, but despite the 22 minute length, this one is a must for the serious urbanist. Among other things, it fills in part of the historical gap that exists in a lot of people (often including myself) about how our cities actually evolved to where they are today. According to Bey, this film was produced by local religious institutions in order to showcase the benefits of city living, while calling for a more fair and inclusive urban sphere. It’s shot in Chicago but is really about cities generally. Here’s the video, then a couple of my own observations after the embed. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

Given the post yesterday on timelapses and last week’s gorgeous timelapse of Chicago itself, I can’t help but contrast this short documentary with the time lapse genre.

It’s clear that portions of this film would have transposed well to a timelapse film. Construction scenes, for example, frequently feature in timelapses. But what sets this apart from the contemporary timelapse, possibly because of its production by religious institutions, is the overwhelming focus on people. And not just crowds of people, but actual individuals and small groups. Last week’s time lapse is almost entirely about Chicago the built environment, with the people existing in the abstract to some extent (inhabiting it like scurrying ants) though not in the sense that we find any of the living, breathing human beings that make Chicago the city that it is. This film, by contrast, gives us a peek into the lives of a many Chicagoans, not just a look at the city in abstract.

Terry Nichols Clark once described cities as “entertainment machines.” The notion of the city as machine rather than a habitat for people permeates the time lapse genre. It also seems to be an implicit part of how a lot of people process the city, something I’ve always tried to caution against by saying that cities are about people, not buildings – you can’t say you love the neighborhood if hate the neighbors. Today more often perhaps its simple indifference to the neighbors.

Also, this film depicts a Chicago that’s much less diverse than today. It’s predominantly, though not exclusively, shown as white and black. That may be an artifact of what they chose to include, but my sense is that Chicago is much more diverse today, which perhaps shows the changes that an increase in immigration in the current era has brought.

In any event, this film is well worth watching.

Topics: Urban Culture
Cities: Chicago

8 Responses to “Chicago: City of Necessity”

  1. Racaille says:

    “I know most people don’t watch videos online”

    How else would one watch a video?

    From the video.

    “the suburbs are bastions of virtue, decency, and peace”

    Yep. No ones goes to the city, there are too many people there.

  2. pete-rock says:

    I think you’re right to say that this video focuses on people, and that the city is much more diverse now than it was then. But that’s hardly the message I got from it.

    The focus on people in the video also put a focus on how deeply ingrained Chicago’s race and class disparities are. One could say this was 50 years ago and that we’ve made a lot of progress since then, but all we’ve really done is expanded both the prosperity and the despair, while widening the gap.

    It’s an excellent video and I think the religious community that produced it back then was right to highlight the stark differences. Is there anything more provocative in that video than hearing Old Mayor Daley say, “we don’t have a ghetto in Chicago, and we don’t have a Negro ghetto,” and then seeing that girl on the most dilapidated swing I’ve ever seen?

  3. qwertyuiop says:

    Based on all the scenes of building demolition, the film’s central argument seems to be that it’s bad to destroy historic neighborhoods to make room for high-rise housing projects (like Cabrini-Green). The filmmakers were certainly right about that, but the problems with projects ran a lot deeper than architecture. The project buildings shown in the film were new and clean, and there was no mention of crime. Maybe the reason this film had to be unearthed was that it made trivial points at the expense of serious ones.

  4. Stéphane Dumas says:

    Thanks for sharing this video. :-)

    It could be interesting to compare it with the one about Detroit titled “Detroit: City on the move” then the Urbanophile mentionned in January 2012.

    Also, I spotted this video from an amateur film who showed views of Johannesburg landscape and skyline in South Africa, circa 1970-71 titled “Up the City”

  5. That Johannesburg video is just plain freaky.

  6. Stéphane Dumas says:

    Less freaky is this film showing Montreal in the 1960s.

  7. Joe Beckmann says:

    As a suburban kid of those same ’60’s, this was a dramatically progressive film – a lot ahead of its time. In the ’70’s, when I consulted to the Chicago schools on “desegregation,” they enrolled over 70% in black only schools and … were a little … late to “solve” a problem of their own making.

    But racial differences are only a shadow of the real, economic differences of today, where those same suburbs are but pallid samples of the locked towers and gated communities of real wealth.

    Thanks for the opportunity for insight. Good history.

  8. Shane Menken says:

    Thanks for posting this film. It was made a decade before I was born, but I noticed the mentalities seem to be the same. In particular, the fear of muslims. The smog, oh the smog, mostly gone now, thanks to the Clean Air Act and such.

    Might I suggest a book. One of the best books on black and white in Chicago is called “Making the Second Ghetto” about the politics of public housing.

    Thanks gain for posting, I enjoy your blog.

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