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'The Area' Director Talks RR Expansion That Bulldozed Entire Community

By Stephen Gossett in News on Dec 8, 2016 3:21PM

A twin house is demolished on 57th Place in October 2012 / Photo: David Schalliol

“What does it mean to lose and displace a community? How do we evaluate the different aspects of good?”

Those are the questions on documentary filmmaker David Schalliol’s mind in putting together and speaking about The Area, his years-in-the-making chronicle of Norfolk Southern’s major expansion of its intermodal rail yard into Englewood.

A version of The Area was released as a celebrated short film (see below) in 2013, and now, with principal photography complete for a feature-length doc, Schalliol and his crew are hosting a preview fundraiser celebration on Friday to help cover post-production costs. Since the short’s release, the Norfolk Southern expansion has driven deeper, making the films’ central question— commercial interest versus the rights of residents, tied up in the complicated history of black home ownership in Chicago—even more pronounced.

Five years ago, there were more than 400 families in the neighborhood, Schalliol estimates. Now there are “three or four parcels that have not been sold” and only two families remaining within the expansion’s largest swath, the four blocks between Garfield and 59th. In total, the expansion encompasses a whopping 84 acres and 557 parcels of private property. “You’d be surprised to learn they were occupied just a couple of years ago,” Schalliol said. “It’s a total transformation.”

Eminent domain was only invoked this year for the expansion, long after much of the vast majority of acquisitions were made, and it’s a slow process, Schalliol said. So the many battles over previous years for fair compensation extended directly between Norfolk Southern and the residents. “In some cases, people were extremely disappointed by the amount of money they were offered, particularly if a family homestead left say, four children dividing up a relatively small sum of money. Others were unwilling or uninterested.”

Residents enjoy an evening on their porch in May 2012 / Photo: David Schalliol

Schalliol recalls a woman who spent some 55 years in her home, which she needed to anchor her memory as her dementia worsened. “No offer would have been sufficient” for the family, he said.

Throughout the expansion push, many held out for years, particularly with black pride of ownership and community—pushing back in a city infamous for redlining and housing discrimination—rarely seems far from the surface.

“This is an area where participants in the Great Migration would establish themselves in Chicago,” Schalliol said. “This would be the family home. There’s story after story about people living in this pocket of Englewood, feeling a deep attachment. The tremendous history and deep personal connection to place was pervasive.

There’s been an experience of loss that isn’t clear if you’re just thinking about what compensation is being offered.”

And even though private property transactions took place between homeowners and NS, the Mayor’s Office, the Chicago Plan Commission and the Housing Authority all either tacitly or directly supported the extension. So it would seem to dovetail within Chicago’s larger narrative of “large-scale institutional interventions,” as Schalliol puts it. He invokes the Obama presidential library, the Michael Reese Hospital, South Works, the UIC development and Mayor Daley’s highway expansion.

“How do we balance economics infrastructure development against people’s lives, experiences and communities?”

The Area: Sneak Preview and Fundraiser happens Friday (5:30 to 10 p.m.) at Lost Arts (1001 N. North Branch St.). There will be a multi-screen video installation, sneak peeks of new scenes, drinks, an exhibition of Schallioli’s photographs and music by DJ Damon Locks (The Eterenals). Suggested donation is $10, which funds post-production and includes raffle entry.