The Friday Flashback: Halsted Street, the backbone of Chicago
By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 7, 2011 8:20PM
Beginning on the banks of the Ohio River at the tip of Illinois and marching 400 miles through 14 counties north to Chicago, Halsted Street is America in microcosm. Follow it from downstate, through the suburbs, along the central swathe it cuts through many of Chicago's most integral neighborhoods and you'll get a great idea of what this state and this city are all about. 13 years ago, that's just what filmmaker David E. Simpson did, and he took his camera. The result was Halsted Street USA, which you can watch online in its entirety.
Simpson got the idea for a documentary of Halsted while a student at the Art Institute in the 1980s, when he happened upon a 15-minute film of Halsted Street made by Conrad Friberg in 1932. As he told The Reader's Ben Joravsky in 1999:
The original Halsted Street was made by Conrad Friberg in 1932," says Simpson. "He was trying to document the conditions of the working class during the Depression, and he did this beautiful film which traces the length of Halsted from the city's southern border around 127th to the point where Halsted merges with Broadway. The first couple of shots are cornfields with horses plowing the land. He takes us through the stockyards and Maxwell Street and to a workers' rally on Randolph. Actually, he took a little liberty and ends on Clarendon. He wanted to depict the big mansions up there so he could contrast the money class with the working class.
Simpson incorporated Friberg's archival footage, updated the reportage and broadened the scope. A mere 13 years later the result already feels like a time capsule, probing under the skin of Englewood and Bridgeport mere days after a racially charged murder, caputring the last vestiges of the stockyards and Maxwell Street, showcasing a Pilsen that seems to be always-about-to-be the next big gentrification, cigar-fetishizing yuppies in Lincoln Park, the Pride parade in Boystown, and everything in between.
I first caught Halsted Street USA airing on WTTW pretty soon after moving to Chicago 11 years ago. It immediately exploded my rather narrow conception of the city and spurred me to leave my own cookie-cutter Lakeview digs behind. When anybody asks me why I love living in Chicago, I may just tell them to watch this documentary. Bookended by narration from the voice of Chicago himself, Studs Terkel, this is not to be missed.