Chicago filmmaker David E. Simpson calls his latest work a love poem to his native city.
This reporter wishes to stretch the metaphor. If Halsted Street, U.S.A. is a love poem, it’s a ripe ditty scrawled in ballpoint on a bathroom wall. No moldy sonnet ticking off indulgent cleverness in a neglected book, Simpson’s independent documentary selects one teeming morsel of America and makes it available to everyone.
“I always considered [the film] to be a piece that would speak to people on a national level, as well,” concedes Simpson. “The issues you find on Halsted Street are, to a great extent, common with the rest of the country. [The film] is kind of a microcosm, a snapshot of our whole country, not just Chicago. … Part of the project’s interest for me was that you could do the same sort of film about the same stretch of street once a decade, and you would end up with a different film every time, because the city’s constantly evolving. A different way of looking at it: Two people could [document] the same [area] in the same month, and end up with completely different films.”
Inspired by a 1932 documentary by socialist filmmaker Conrad Friberg, which chronicled Depression-era Halsted Street, Simpson’s look at the storied Illinois thoroughfare begins almost 400 miles south of Chicago, where the street starts out as Route 1 — literally rising from the Ohio River.
“Right here is where the ferry docks,” reports one of a gaggle of bike-riding little boys at the road’s point of origin. Another gestures toward the approximate territory of a notorious three-legged dog. “I don’t know if it’s here right now. … It bit my Aunt Linda,” he drawls sweetly.
“I’ve lived in Chicago most of my life, but, like a lot of Chicagoans, I rarely venture downstate. … I had no idea that the southern tip of Illinois had such a Southern character to it,” Simpson admits, pointing out that the state’s lower regions have way more in common with neighboring Kentucky than with the meat-packing metropolis immortalized by native son Carl Sandburg.
From there, Simpson drops in on a few more small-town folks. One reverent, oddly loaded segment features a farmer examining his rows as he delivers a lecture on the pollination of sweet corn. We then meet an electric-guitar-wielding man — plucking out “Yankee Doodle” beneath the shade of a covered front porch and the critical gaze of an unidentified woman — who offers his portion of the state as a “kind of Mayberry.”
Fairly quickly, the filmmaker reaches the city limits. The first stop is Englewood — a black neighborhood — where a young man addresses Simpson’s camera in full orator mode, as if he’d been waiting for this opportunity.
“If something happens here, it just happens,” he says with a meaningful smile. “[But] if [a shooting] happens in the suburbs, you see it on TV.”
Soon after, we are led inside the African Hair Braiding Salon, where patrons and hairdressers alike watch a TV-news update about a recent violent incident in Bridgeport, a predominantly white section of the city. A sober anchorperson reports that 13-year-old Leonard Clark remains in a coma after his beating at the hands of three white Bridgeport teenagers (Clark is black).
A while later, Simpson films a white Bridgeport restaurant worker, who aims to exonerate his neighborhood by submitting alternative incarnations of the ugly event: “It could have been three black kids beating up a white kid, or three Hispanic kids beating up a black kid, or …”
“Ironically, the hardest nut to crack of all the [Halsted Street neighborhoods] was the Bridgeport area,” Simpson reveals. “I say ‘ironically,’ because I’m white. … [The negative reception] was very much because of [recent] media [attention] — though, of course, my purposes were a bit different.
“I felt much more welcome in some of the neighborhoods that you’d think would put up barriers to me,” he adds.
The Clark beating is a hot topic at another restaurant, as well. A black cook dismisses Chicago’s melting-pot reputation in one disgusted sentence: “This is one of the most segregated cities in the country.”
After a stop in the Pershing Road stockyard district, we arrive in Pilsen, a Hispanic neighborhood. A woman keeps thoughtful pace with the strolling filmmaker, musing as she walks, “Anything you can get in Mexico, you can get in Pilsen.” Later, another resident laments gang infiltration in the area, as kids light sparklers during a nighttime street party. Simpson’s camera pans slowly over the neighborhood, like a news camera recording after-storm footage. In the starl relief of day, the lens lights on a Latino muralist who’s busily brightening a decades-old work in a shade he terms “scandalous green.”
Coincidentally, Halsted Street’s next stop is Cabrini Green. A mother recalls the time a bullet narrowly missed her as she stood at her apartment window — telling her story from inside the same apartment. The area features an ever-diminishing cluster of housing projects, systematically being replaced by the needs of white, affluent Chicago (in the form of university parking lots, among other interlopers).
Another resident, filmed outdoors, insists that the changing neighborhood is not driven by racial issues: “It’s all about money,” she says simply, before resuming her walk.
Two blocks away, we land in ritzy Lincoln Park. Portly businessmen compare stogies at the high-dollar Fumatore, and a disgruntled homeowner holds forth about the neighborhood’s desperate lack of parking opportunities.
The movie (like the street itself) ends in a gay neighborhood nicknamed “Boys’ Town.” Here, an annual parade — featuring, among other attractions, a synchronized dancing routine by grown-up boy scouts; an earnest Miss Illinois dispensing P.C. homilies; and a strong showing by PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) — is in full swing.
A memorable scrap of narration by author and political commentator Studs Terkel closes the film. Just as that famous Chicago figure has historically stood for the rights of blue-collar folks, Simpson’s film likewise empowers the people.
“They are the stars,” declares the filmmaker. “I may have certain things I was interested in, certain agendas that I came with — but I tried to sense what the reality of the people I was meeting up with and filming was … and let them provide the lead as to what the story of that neighborhood was about.”
As one Boys’ Town parade watcher enthuses, turning from the festivities with a glowing face: “This is bigger than Christmas — bigger than my birthday.”