Wednesday, November 6th, 2013
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.
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.