'A Place to Live': Newly resurfaced '60s film sought to humanize Chicago's urban renewal efforts

January 17, 2013

The city of Chicago in 1968 had to know what people--particularly black people--were calling urban renewal, then: Negro removal.

At the time, portions of the near South, West and North Sides, especially those closer to downtown, were being demolished and replaced with lower density housing and higher density middle-class white or racially-integrated dwellings. The new places had idyllic names like Lake Meadows. Prairie Shores. An early Puerto Rican neighborhood was uprooted to construct Sandburg Village. Still more poor and working-class black and Italian neighborhoods were cleared to build the University of Illinois-Chicago, expand the Illinois Medical District and more.

The tenor of the times gives some context to the above 1968 film A Place to Live. The 16mm documentary was commissioned by the city's Department of Urban Renewal Commissioner Lew Hill to explain and humanize the controversial policy. The always fascinating Chicago Film Archives uploaded the entire film to YouTube a few days ago.

The well-done color film shows the Department of Urban Renewal's efforts to relocate families whose apartments and substandard homes were being demolished by the city. Director DeWitt Beall included interviews with residents who are openly questioning the urban renewal process. The film also showed  poor and working class white people being relocated.

"Me? [moving] after 72 years and the old man after 76?" one older white woman says. "Hey--that ain't very nice, you know? Where are we gonna go. You gonna find me a place?"

The film records a good deal of blight and some rather ghastly living conditions. There is footage of Old Town, the new and barrier-like redevelopments in Hyde Park. At one point the film settles on the Bey family--no relation to me, but it got my attention--who live in a virtually abandoned apartment building at Garfield and LaSalle. Mr. and Mrs. Bey have 12 children and relocation worker has to find them a new place to live.

"You have 12 children?" the worker says.

"Yes, I have," Mrs. Bey replies.

"Well, needless to say, this is a problem," the worker says.

The city is able to help the Beys purchase a house in what appears to be Englewood or Roseland--if you can pinpoint the neighborhood, leave a comment below. There's a great shot of the family heading down the Dan Ryan Expressway with the furniture and the kids riding in the open trailer. 

The documentary is one of several made in the 1960s and early 1970s by DeWitt Beall during his time in Chicago. Beall, who was about 28 when Place was made is himself an interesting figure. While making Lord Thing, a documentary on the Conservative Vice Lords street gang on the West Side, the Dartmouth graduate persuaded his alma mater to create a special program that allowed 15 members of the gang to attend the Ivy League school--and seven of them graduated.

Then Beall moved to the West Coast, stopped making films and became a noted designer of high-end kitchens. He died in 2006. Beall's widow gave a collection of her husband's films to the CFA.