The city on film, 35 years ago: Chicago, 1978--with a little bit of jazz

March 6, 2013

My first good taste of downtown came in 1978. I was 12 and caught the Jeffrey bus to the Loop with some buddies to see second-run (if not third-run) kung fu flicks at the Oriental Theatre.

I missed most of the movie because I was instead staring at the theater's ornate interior. And look where that got me.

Downtown was different then. There were the still-young postwar skyscrapers, but they shared the streetscape with aged buildings, time-warped restaurants, men's shops with Superfly-grade clothes and other places. Randolph Street was a faded rialto where rats were as plentiful as the cheap double-features. And across the river, Michigan Avenue seemed swank and cosmopolitan to my young eyes.

Pardon the flashback. But it comes courtesy of the above clip, posted on YouTube by user Anila from Poland. Shot in 1978, the nine-minute Super 8 film appears to begin somewhere in the Northwest suburbs, then finds its way downtown--along the way, a nice shot at 0:56 of the Howard Johnson's restaurant that once spanned the O'Hare oasis. The Old Country by the Michiel Borstlap Trio provides the score as we see the new downtown coexisting, and yet emerging, from the old.

Some scenes are surprisingly unchanged since then. That overpriced BP station on Congress & Dearborn was there then, too--flying the colors of Amoco Oil. Other sites are long gone: The United Artists Theater (showing Black Godfather on the day the camera rolled); the neon-Magikist sign; the old Chicago Sun-Times Building.

What the film could not capture was the concern in City Hall and within the business community that the downtown of 1978 was failing--its luster dulled by Michigan Avenue and suburban malls  poaching shoppers from State Street, and by the old movie palaces and stores increasingly catering to primarily young, black audiences. The intersection of race and urban development that had left it mark on so many neighborhoods in the 1960s and 1970s had made its way downtown as well.

In the following decade, most of the movie palaces were demolished or shuttered. The northeast corner of Randolph and Clark was bulldozed to make way for the Chicago Title and Trust tower. Block 37 was razed in 1989 only to famously sit vacant for almost a generation.

The skyline would grow taller and more dense in the years that followed. People live and work downtown now. Cities change. Or they die.

Still, it's fun looking back 35 years to see what once was.