Midway through the 1974 documentary "Now We Live on Clifton," which captures the early gentrification of Lincoln Park, a group of boys fling themselves off the roof of a house onto a flimsy mattress down below. The diversion has "broken ankle" written all over it, but no one seems worse for wear.
"That's one of my favorite scenes in the movie," co-director Jerry Blumenthal said when I reached him earlier this week.
He describes Lincoln Park in those years as a "down-and-dirty inner city neighborhood." Even so, an old mattress left abandoned like that in an empty lot next to someone's garage was unusual. "But it was OK. It wasn't the end of the world. It was a place for the kids to jump off the roof and test their courage. That's what urban neighborhoods are all about."
You don't see preteens left to their own devices in quite the same way any more. The 26-minute documentary screens Sunday in a program of 16mm films called "Vanishing Neighborhoods" curated by the Chicago Film Archives. It's a real find.
The lineup also includes "Good Night, Socrates" (34 minutes) a black-and-white educational film from 1962 that looks at the residential upheaval in Greektown when immigrant families were edged out to make room for expressways and the University of Illinois at Chicago.
It's a staged documentary of sorts, with narration that lays it on thick. Though formal and occasionally a bit hokey, there's footage here that captures the imagination, such as the noisy coffeehouse where the floors are hardwood and the conversation centered on politics and Turkish coffee. "It was a world of men," the narrator intones. "A world of which I was not yet a member. A world I would be expected to join." Well. Not in this particular location, at any rate.
The third film in the program is 1968's "A Place to Live," a 28-minute industrial film from the City of Chicago's Department of Urban Renewal..
Rethinking blight is the overall message. Initially you wonder the film might be something of a spin job. Architecture critic Lee Bey wrote about the doc last year on his blog for WBEZ: "The city of Chicago in 1968 had to know what people — particularly black people — were calling urban renewal then: Negro removal."
Filmmaker DeWitt Beall was in no hurry to sweep that subtext under the carpet, though he does feature white people affected, as well: "Each year, 3,000 families are displaced by urban renewal," says the film's narrator. "This is only 1.7 percent of the 175,000 Chicagoans who move in a year. Still, those displaced rarely find it easy. This film is about some of those people. Real people, who will tell the story in their own way."
One of those families is a couple living in a rundown building at Garfield Boulevard and LaSalle Street. The exterior is gray stone and red brick and looks pretty good. Things are less inviting inside, where the couple lives with their 12 children. (Per Bey's blog, that corner is "now a driveway to that cheesy mall at 55th and the Ryan that has a Checkers drive-through restaurant in it. The site was vacant for decades.")
The deplorable conditions captured on camera are accompanied by a groovy soundtrack. The dissonance is hard to shake. "You have 12 children?" a city relocation worker says once she gets inside the apartment. "Well, needless to say, that's a problem."
Of the three films screening Sunday, "Now We Live on Clifton," with its shaggy-haired preteens, feels the most personal. It is an early work from Kartemquin Films (the production company that is currently home to Steve James, director of the new Roger Ebert documentary "Life Itself") and it chucks the omniscient narrator altogether and lets the kids — 10-year-old Pam, her 12-year-old brother, Scott, and their pals Wally and Mario — tell their own story.
"Kartemquin was this fledgling group," Blumenthal said. "Some of us had come up from Hyde Park out of an academic world that was not very welcoming to the kind of thing that we wanted to do. They wanted to see sociological studies that were very quiet and middle of the road and objective. And we wanted to do films that advocated change and taking a new look at the world."
Economic shifts were just started to affect Lincoln Park. "It had been a very gritty, working-class neighborhood that was in some ways gang-infested in the '50s and '60s and was now being gentrified in a gentle but nonetheless insidious way. That was having an impact on a lot of families who came from that working-class stock, who made the neighborhood what it was."
The kids are seen roughhousing. Roller skating. Dancing to the radio in their bedrooms and scrambling on a grassy field nearby that would soon become valuable real estate.
"DePaul (University) was flexing its muscles and growing and taking over what had been residences and play fields for the kids in the neighborhood," Blumenthal said. "There's a scene where Pam and her brother are playing catch in a playground that becomes Schmitt Academic Center just a few years later."
Their house on Clifton looks like a typical middle class home from the '70s. It is plain but comfortable. The period details are terrific. Saddle shoes! Nixon on the TV! No granite or stainless steel in the kitchen; instead what you see are warm pale yellow walls and drab maple cabinetry. It looks seriously inviting. Or maybe it just reminds me of family photos from my own childhood.
Mom works as a secretary. Dad is a cab driver. "We chose this family because it's like they were from central casting. The kids are handsome and smart and appealing and funny. And the parents are very cool people. But they're regular, you know?
"From our point of view," Blumenthal told me, "you cast people in a documentary the same way that you would in a feature film. People who are the part."
The Kartemquin filmmakers lived and worked in Lincoln Park during the early '70s. "I don't think we paint gentrification as being black or white in that film, but we certainly show one side of the story. What is lost when families like this are displaced out of a neighborhood?"
At one point, the boys stand in front of a house on Scott's newspaper route. "I delivered to that guy. I think they're rich," he says, pointing to the rehabbed building behind him. "They have a Mercedes-Benz and two motorcycles." Also, two dogs. But no kids.
At 12, Scott is surprisingly well-informed about the situation.
"Pretty soon this block is going to be families without kids because people with kids are just going to be kicked out. 'Cause a regular old family can't afford some of the houses that they're remodeling. People are paying high prices for it."
Blumenthal: "We were, in effect, making a film about our own demise in the neighborhood." It wasn't long after that Kartemquin moved to Lakeview, where gentrification was still a few years off.
"Now We Live on Clifton" screens as part of the "Vanishing Neighborhoods" program curated by the Chicago Film Archives. 7 p.m. at Cinema Borealis. Go to chicagofilmarchives.org.
TV pilots from Chicagoans
Second City veteran Brian Gallivan, who has been working as a writer in LA (including on "Happy Endings") has created two pilots in contention this year.
The first is a reworking of a pilot he created for CBS last year called "The McCarthys," about a sports-obsessed Boston family and their gay son (based loosely on Gallivan's own life). Steppenwolf ensemble member Laurie Metcalf has been cast as the mom.
The second is a single-camera comedy at ABC called "Bambi Cottages," starring comedian Paul F. Tompkins and "Saturday Night Live" alum Molly Shannon as a married couple who uproot their family to New Hampshire to run a resort.
Gallivan's old boss on "Happy Endings," Glencoe native and New Trier grad David Caspe, has a couple of pilots of his own in the works: "Marry Me" at NBC (starring Caspe's real-life fiance and "Happy Endings" star Casey Wilson) and "Cuz-Bros" at CBS (an "Odd Couple" set-up pairing mismatched cousin roommates).
More pilot news
"Saturday Night Live" alum Nora Dunn, the Chicago native who lives the Ukrainian Village, has been cast in the CW pilot "iZombie" from "Veronica Mars" creator Rob Thomas. The show is a supernatural crime procedural, with Dunn as the mother of a med student-turned-zombie.
Pilot goes to series
The Amazon half-hour pilot "Transparent" from former Chicagoan Jill Soloway has been picked up to series, Variety reports. Soloway came up through the Annoyance Theater with Jane Lynch in the '90s before moving to LA to write for shows that included "Six Feet Under." This is the first series she's created, a low-key but well-observed comedy starring "Arrested Development's" Jeffrey Tambor as the father of three self-obsessed adult children (including Chicago native Amy Landecker). In recent interviews Soloway has said if the show gets picked up, she hopes to have episodes ready for streaming by August.