here’s fastback Mustangs, there’s tight pants, there’s Afros, there’s
ancient Dutch farmers walking along with palsy . . . it’s the human
comedy,” says Paul Petraitis. He’s describing the 45 minutes of film he and
John McNaughton shot in 1970 in their south-side neighborhood of Roseland
and have recently started digitizing. “Fifty years in production and we
just started last Thursday,” their editor, Bob Brandel, jokes. These 45
minutes will be the centerpiece of a documentary the three old friends hope
will explore Chicago’s history and culture and the way race and economics
have affected the city.
“You knew that if you went out into the streets of Roseland with a camera,
you were gonna see something,” McNaughton says. It was summer when they
shot the film, and Roseland’s commercial strip on Michigan Avenue between
111th and 115th Streets was festooned for Old Fashioned Days, an annual
celebration of commerce—and a staple of McNaughton’s and Petraitis’s
childhoods. Little did they know what they were capturing was the end of an
era. Petraitis calls it “the last cruise down the Ave.”
Today, perhaps the only positive association outsiders have with Roseland
is Old Fashioned Donuts, a beloved staple of the African-American community
and a destination for foodies nationwide. But in 1970 that shop was yet to
open; the neighborhood institutions were places like Gately’s Peoples
Store, which called itself “the biggest store on Michigan Avenue,” and the
area was populated by the last of the progeny of the Dutch, Polish, Irish,
and other European immigrants who’d settled the area more than 100 years
before and had’t yet fled to suburbia.
Petraitis traces Old Fashioned Days back to 1949, when local Dutch
merchants staged a centennial celebration of the founding of Roseland. It
proved popular enough to become an annual event for the next 20-plus years.
Merchants would dress in old-timey garb and flog their wares on the
sidewalks, and there was music and food. It was a chance for the
neighborhood to toast its prosperity. People who had jobs in the nearby
steel mills had some extra spending cash, and they wanted to flaunt it.
“It wasn’t just a neighborhood like all the others,” Brandel recalls. “It
was like a small, cohesive, self-sustaining town, but still Chicago. It had
everything needed, everybody knew everybody, most everybody grew up there,
and all identified with Roseland—unified in a way, even though the
assortment of different nationalities would rival Queens, New York, today.
In fact, I can’t remember street gangs of one nationality because everybody
you turned to was from somewhere else. I guess that’s America. Or was.”
“You could get the shit beat out of you in those days,” McNaughton muses,
“but you wouldn’t get shot.”
McNaughton and Petraitis met in the mid-60s in the art program at Fenger
Academy High School. Both were chosen to study in the summer arts programs
at IIT and the Art Institute in 1965 and 1966. McNaughton remembers trips
to the museum and having his mind blown by the work of Ivan Albright and
Rene Magritte. Petraitis recalls being overwhelmed by all the beautiful
girls downtown. Through those arts programs they got to meet kids from all
over the city—African-American, Latino, Jewish kids they might not have
readily made friends with in Roseland—and their world expanded.
Meanwhile, their own neighborhood was changing. Sixty thousand residents
left between 1966 and 1976, Petraitis says. He calls the families who moved
away “Roseland refugees.” “[White flight] is a mappable phenomenon. Fenger
High School went from 5 percent black to 5 percent white in four years.”
McNaughton believes he grew up during a golden age in America, a narrow
window in which working-class families had “small prosperity.” When the
factories started to close and African-American families moved in,
McNaughton’s kin and that of most of his friends moved away. The reasons
for these migrations are not simple, but Petraitis lays a fair share of the
blame at the feet of businesspeople who profited from poor people’s fears.
“There’s gotta be a special place in hell for a real-estater who does panic
peddling and scares little old ladies into selling.”
They didn’t realize any of that, though, when they shot the footage of Old
Fashioned Days in 1970. McNaughton was studying TV production and still
photography at Columbia, while Petraitis was studying photography at IIT.
Their weeklong shoot was done as a final project for Charles Sharpe’s IIT
film class. Their crew also included a third cameraman, Bruce Quist. They
shot on the 16mm Bolex that Petraitis’s father had given him as a high
school graduation present, along with a variety of 35mm still cameras. They
also added a few scenes on a Super 8. Petraitis and McNaughton had no
larger purpose or narrative in mind at the time. They just knew that the
streets were teeming with life and characters of all kinds and that they
were bound to capture something of the flavor of where they grew up.
Perhaps that’s why they’ve sat on the footage all these many years. It’s
taken them most of a lifetime to begin to see the beginnings of a story
emerge from this document of their youth.
Unlike the vast majority of the people he grew up with, Petraitis has
stayed close to his old neighborhood, settling in Pullman, just east of
Roseland. He has worked at the Chicago Historical Society and as a
photographer and historian for various concerns. “I was lucky,” he says.
“Found the right girl, found the right street, found the right block; my
neighbors are cool . . . my, uh, intellectual turf is my zip code, you
know, in terms of history.”
Neither Brandel nor McNaughton has lived anywhere near Roseland for many
years. Brandel recently retired from a career in TV production and lives in
New York. McNaughton has had a long career directing film and TV and lives
in Bucktown. He often drives through their old neighborhood, though, after
visiting his parents’ graves in the South Holland area. He wonders whether
the economic and racial shift of the neighborhood could have been averted.
After rereading James Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy recently, McNaughton
was struck by how history keeps recurring. Though it’s set in the run-up to
the Great Depression, he sees that book as mirroring his own family’s
story. There has to be a better way for people of different backgrounds to
live together, he says, thinking out loud.
Nearly 50 years after Petraitis and pals shot Old Fashioned Days, they
finally have the inklings of a story. In the late 60s, they fully believed
that by 2018, racism, war, and poverty would all be in the past. The film
they’re making, while having that 1970 footage as its centerpiece, won’t
just be a nostalgic look back to a fabled yesteryear. Instead, it’s a
chance to grapple with history and an attempt to look ahead. After Brandel
became involved in the project, they decided to interview their old friends
who cruised the Ave along with them and also talk to current Roseland
residents. They know that the time they look back on so fondly wasn’t as
rosy for every Chicagoan who lived through it.
The original footage, which has gained legendary status amongst their old
friends, will soon finally see the light of day. Petraitis has done some
preliminary editing over the years but says he’s not the editor Brandel is
or the director that McNaughton is. “It’s a project,” he says, “whose time
has come.” v