By Ben Joravsky
It's been over a year since David Simpson finished his movie about Halsted Street.
He had a showing at the Chicago Historical Society and earned several complimentary articles. After that the movie figured to drop out of sight, the way most documentaries do.
But Halsted Street, USA is not fading away. The 60-minute journey along what Simpson calls the "heart and soul of Chicago" is being used by activists and educators to combat prejudice. "This is not the sort of movie we can afford to let gather dust on a shelf," says Jeryl Levin, director of the Illinois Ethnic Coalition, the not-for-profit organization that's championing the film. "It's a great metaphor for all that we love and hate about Chicago--the tolerance and provincialism, the diversity and segregation. For better or worse, it captures our city."
Simpson got the idea for his film from an old 15-minute silent documentary he saw while a film student at the School of the Art Institute in the mid-80s. "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.
"I love that film. It's a time capsule. It gives us a wonderful and simple window onto life on the street in the midst of the Depression. I put it on the back burner of my mind to update it. As I got toward the end of the century I felt more inspired to do it."
In 1995 Simpson, who earns his living as a TV and movie editor, completed the PBS documentary When Billy Broke His Head, a study of a disability-rights activist. A little later he began his Halsted Street project.
He decided to begin his film downstate, tracing Halsted Street to its origins as Route 1, a two-lane road that runs along the eastern edge of Illinois and starts in a ferry village called Cave-in-Rock, just across the Ohio River from Kentucky. "As soon as I found out that Halsted Street starts out as Route 1, I thought it would be too nice to overlook," says Simpson. "Route 1 is the traditional route from the south. It's the highway from Kentucky, so it has symbolic significance as the route for the great northward migration. The street literally crawls out of the water at that ferry stop in Cave-in-Rock. The pavement begins with this evolutionary start. My film's about contrast and juxtaposition, so starting in the south adds an important contrast between rural and urban. The interesting thing is that a lot of people along Route 1 are aware of their Halsted Street connection. I met a corn farmer in Hoopeston who claims he has the best corn on South Halsted."
After a prologue delivered by Studs Terkel, Simpson travels north in the movie, zipping around Cave-in-Rock with some boys on bikes, joining a Fourth of July parade, walking through cornfields, and eventually pushing into Chicago. Route 1 becomes Halsted near 127th Street, and the movie continues through Englewood, Bridgeport, Pilsen, Cabrini-Green, Lincoln Park, and Lakeview.
Simpson resists the temptation to stereotype, patronize, or demonize the people and neighborhoods he documents. He visits barbershops and barbecues, rides in a urine-soaked elevator in Cabrini-Green, and walks lots of sidewalks. "I went into many neighborhoods I'd never visited and generally people were very open to me," he says. "It was one of the revelations of working on this film, just how comfortable I felt in every neighborhood I visited. I think that people's perceptions and fears about the wrong side of the tracks tend to be exaggerated. It was interesting to me to hear people talk about their stretch of the street. They'd say, 'Right around here it's safe, but don't cross over there.' Then I'd go over there and the people would say the same thing about the place I had just come from.
"A lot of African-Americans would say to me, 'You'll be a lot safer in my neighborhood than I would be in yours.' The first time I heard that I said, 'Yeah, maybe not.' It sounded like rhetoric. But the more I thought about it the more I started to understand the real fear of black people going into other neighborhoods. I thought about the context of the civil rights era and I started to understand their perspective."
The neighborhood he found hardest to crack was Bridgeport, which he visited in the summer of 1997, not long after several white teenagers had been arrested there in the beating of a black youth. "Most of the apprehension I felt about going into Bridgeport was in my head--I mean, you hear so many stories," he says. "People were already very guarded due to the media circus that had erupted over the Lenard Clark beating. Here I was, coming in a few months after they had been inundated with prowling journalists looking for racists. I could feel their caution and suspicion. It took a while to feel I was cracking the veneer of Bridgeport. I don't know if I ever did."
He filmed some kids playing basketball there, a man grilling hot dogs, a few elderly Chinese men and women practicing tai chi, and a Christian monk who lives in a monastery where silence usually reigns. "The city is filled with so much noise, so it's very important to us to keep the spirit of silence and prayer because once you leave here you don't have that," the monk says.
"I really walked a tightrope in Bridgeport," says Simpson. "It would have been easy to skewer Bridgeport, but I didn't want to do that. I wanted to somehow get a glimpse of the underlying tension, this feeling of privilege and security that people there are afraid of losing. I also wanted to show the diversity of the place. Yes, there's a hint of racism in the air, but I also wanted to show the humanity there."
If he ever appears to lose sympathy for his subjects, it's in Lincoln Park, where he wanders into a pricey cigar bar and records several yuppies. "I didn't have any evil ambition--I wasn't looking for people to hammer. I'm sympathetic with everyone in the film. I'm trying to embrace everybody on the street. But OK, the cigar guys are pretty shallow. I guess part of what makes them so shallow is that we see them just after we leave Cabrini-Green. Like I said, the film is about juxtapositions and contrasts, and the most striking juxtaposition is the experience of going underneath the el at North and leaving Cabrini-Green for Lincoln Park. It's like, bam, you've crossed the Berlin Wall and you're into another world. So we see a junkyard dealer talking about hard times in Cabrini and then some guys in this bar sampling expensive cigars and drinking cognac."
The movie closes with the gay pride parade in Lakeview. "I love that event--it's the closest thing to Mardi Gras we have. People let their hair down. They scream and love each other and have fun. It's yet another culture on Halsted Street. It's a perfect bookend to where the film begins with that Fourth of July parade downstate. You know--two parades, one road. Maybe we have more in common than we think."
For the last few months Simpson has been editing other movies in order to pay off his debts from Halsted Street, USA. "You can say that a big chunk of this one came out of my pocket," Simpson says. He hopes to see it aired on public television.
In the meantime, Jeryl Levin's making plans to show the film in Chicago this spring. "The initial idea was for David to go to every community he filmed," says Levin. "But the more we talked about it the more that approach bothered us. The more interesting thing to do would be to pull those areas together. So the plan is to give the film a showing for residents of Englewood, Bridgeport, and Pilsen at some neutral site on the south side. Then have a showing on the north side.
"The point is to use it to break down barriers of segregation. You know, you see both sides in the film. There's that scene in Lincoln Park where we have all these white folks lined up outside a blues bar to hear a black guy sing about how bad the blues are. That's the weird provincialism, the segregation. Then there's that Asian man in Bridgeport who confesses that he can't tell the difference between Hispanics and whites. That's a funny moment when you think about it, because it shows how hung up we are. We concentrate so much on the things that make us different and here's a fellow who says that to him we're all pretty much the same."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): David Simpson photo by Dan Machnik; "Halsted Street, USA" film still.