For the past few years, Chicago photographer David Schalliol has been telling us—showing us—that Chicago’s West and South Sides are disappearing. Building by building; block by block.
As a native South Sider, I see Schalliol’s haunting photos of clipped rowhouses, single-family homes standing alone against wide vacant lots and I am reminded of Johnny Ola’s great and wistful line in Godfather II: “One by one, our old friends are gone. Death—natural or not…”
Earlier this week, I told you of a beautiful old printing plant in the Washington Park neighborhood that is now being demolished to make way for a Northfolk Southern Railroad truck depot. But look above and check out The Area, the fascinating mini-documentary that appeared on Gapers Block The Grid series this week. Here, Schalliol and his team tell the story of an entire quadrant of Englewood—just bit northwest of the doomed printing plant—that’s being wiped away by the same railroad company.
It’s not building by building, here. It’s the disappearance of an entire neighborhood. Natural or not.
After watching the video, I caught up with Schalliol for a quick Q&A:
Q: What drew you to this story—and when?
A: I first became aware of Norfolk Southern’s plans to expand into the neighboring community while working on my To be Demolished project, for which I photographed 100 buildings threatened with demolition in 2012. To that end, when I visited the neighborhood in February of last year, I immediately noticed wrecking companies exercising three demolition permits within eyesight of each other. It was the only time while working on the project when that happened, and it was clear that something bigger was going on than simple demolition. I saw it both as an important story that wasn’t being told and an opportunity to explore understudied social processes. Additionally, while I am used to approaching issues as a photographer or a sociologist, this seemed like a project that required a documentary film component. I reached out to The Grid‘s Brian Ashby, who could advise me on the filmmaking and Dave Nagel, who edited this short. Having that support will be instrumental for the development of the feature-length film about the situation.
Q: What do you want people to take away from this?
A: I hope that the documentary short and the subsequent film can provide a new way to frame the conflicts introduced by solutions to freight transportation problems and open a window into the community affected by the process. Eventually, I also hope to be able to inform the discourse about the relationship between sociological and documentary work. This is a complicated situation, and I am happy to have the opportunity to work towards any additional clarity.
Q: But isn’t this about bringing jobs to the city? If a marginal neighborhood is cleared away, isn’t that actually progress?
A: Of course, the mayor is right to trumpet new, quality jobs, but as is seen in the short, many residents are skeptical that they will have the opportunity to fill them. Their expectation is that while the jobs will be South Side jobs, they won’t be jobs for South Siders. As such, they believe they will bear most of the costs of the projects and receive few, if any, benefits. Additionally, residents who live near the expansion project but will not be displaced by it are concerned about the health and environmental consequences of a major expansion to the intermodal facility. As for clearing away the neighborhood, clearing it doesn’t mean solving its problems. This is particularly challenging for those with teenagers, who can be marked by their association with their previous neighborhood, even if they are not involved in gang activity.
Q: Will you follow this story in the future?
A: Yes, my plan is to follow the events in the neighborhood at least until all residents have moved from the area; however, I won’t necessarily stop then. Since early in the project, I have been keeping in touch with families who have already moved to other communities, and I plan to continue following their experiences as they establish roots elsewhere. Those experiences will be part of the sociological and documentary work.