Early in Rachel Rinaldo’s 2002 video Division + Western the camera pans across an alley from a mural of a fist raised in a salute to Puerto Rican pride to a newly constructed condominium building outfitted with balconies and barbecues. Another shot captures an assortment of developers’ signs advertising new projects including an “Artists Village Condominium.” “All this marketing is targeted at people just like me,” says Rinaldo, seen on camera in the middle of Wicker Park. “I like sushi. I like going to record stores. So I participate in these things. But I also know that just five blocks down that way–in fact I can almost see them from here–are the Puerto Rican flags.”

Rinaldo’s 28-minute video–named for one of the two Humboldt Park intersections marked by giant red-and-blue steel flags–uses interviews with neighborhood activists, statistics charting the area’s shrinking Puerto Rican population, black-and-white footage from an old newsreel on Puerto Rico, and clips of Fourth District congressman Luis Gutierrez on Meet the Press to draw a parallel between the Puerto Rican struggle for independence and the current rhetoric surrounding gentrification. While the political message is familiar–westward-pushing developers and new Anglo residents are cast as colonialists by the activists she interviews–Rinaldo’s tactic of turning the camera on herself grounds the video in her own experience as someone who’s both part of the problem and trying to be part of the solution.

“I’d been interested in gentrification for a long time, since it was a huge issue in New York City,” says Rinaldo, a Columbia University grad who wrote her senior thesis on antifascist and antiracist groups in England and Germany after spending a summer visiting squats in Berlin, Amsterdam, and Zurich. “I saw the East Village and Lower East Side go from a dynamic neighborhood of immigrants and artists to becoming a Disneyland for white hipsters and, eventually, no different than SoHo or any other upscale neighborhood. It sounds kind of silly now, but it was personally painful to me because I felt such a strong connection to that area….However, in hindsight, I think I was also not very critical about the role young white people like myself played in the gentrification of that neighborhood. I was pretty clueless about the Puerto Rican community.”

Rinaldo, who’s 31, was raised in Ann Arbor and then up and down the east coast by academics who got to work broadening her cultural horizons when she was very young. “I went to a radical nursery school run by the White Panthers,” she says. “I spent a year in Dakar, Senegal, with my parents doing their PhD research in economics when I was three and four. And I skipped first grade, which contributed to my being a complete outsider throughout my school years.” Politicized by mid-80s punk as a Connecticut teenager, she started a zine called Sounds of Suburbia and later spent a year of high school in East Java as an exchange student.

She enrolled at the University of Chicago to pursue graduate work in sociology in 1996, after a four-month stint backpacking through Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand, and wrote her master’s thesis on the history of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center and its role in Humboldt Park politics. Currently she’s back in Indonesia on a Fulbright-Hays fellowship, doing research for her dissertation on feminism and globalization.

Life in Jakarta presents contradictions oddly similar to those she’s grappled with in gentrifying neighborhoods. “There’s a huge and rather glittering business district here, a gigantic wealthy class with massive houses and expensive cars, and the military is very strong,” she assured her worried mother in an E-mail shortly after terrorists struck a Bali nightclub last October. “Good for me,” she says. “Not so good for democracy.”

She hopes that her video “can speak to people like myself, who may be living in places similar to Humboldt Park, and get them to think a little more about the communities in which they are living. I’m not saying they shouldn’t live there; I just think they have a responsibility to try to find out more about those communities and try to respect them.”

Division + Western screens at 6:30 PM on Friday, March 14, at the LaSalle Theatre, 4901 W. Irving Park, as part of a program called “Homegirls: New Work From Chicago,” which kicks off the 22nd annual Women in the Director’s Chair International Film & Video Festival. Tickets are $8, $6 for students and seniors. For more information see the sidebar in Section Two or call 773-907-0610.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Wyrod.