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March 3, 2014

Online Launch of DeWitt Beall’s Earthkeeping series

Opening title card of Earthkeeping

Over the next six weeks, CFA will be presenting episodes of Earthkeeping, a series produced in the early 1970s for WTTW that explores environmental, ecological and sociological issues. In presenting this series, we hope to reintroduce DeWitt Beall, a Chicago-based filmmaker primarily active in the 1960s and 70s.

Earthkeeping was written, directed and produced by DeWitt, who himself professed a personal interest in the same topics examined in the series. Originally born in Sherman Oaks, CA, DeWitt moved to Chicago after graduating from Dartmouth College in 1962. His filmography illustrates a balance between ‘filmmaker-for-hire’ works (commercial work for Sears, educational films for the National Safety Council and the National Dairy Council) and the projects closer related to his interests.  These more personal projects include a documentary about the formation of the Conservative Vice Lords (“Lord Thing”, a film that provided the Vice Lords with a platform to tell their own story), and a sponsored film about the challenges black Americans face in entering the workforce (“Making It”).  Further evincing his commitment to social change, DeWitt was a co-founder of a scholarship program called Foundation Years.  This program provided disadvantaged black Chicagoans the opportunity to attend his alma mater with a chance to matriculate (two of the interviewees in “Making It” were participants in this program). [1]

Although the footage in Earthkeeping is largely rooted in Chicago, the series also travels to other Midwest locations (and even makes a quick jaunt down to Dalton, GA in the “Greenbacks” episode).  The series features interviews with prominent scholars from different fields, including economist Robert Heilbroner, ecologist Barry Commoner, and sociologist/urbanist Lewis Mumford.  Additionally, the series utilizes topical interludes written and performed by members of the Second City, including the recently departed Harold Ramis and pre-SNL John Belushi.  This gives us an opportunity to glimpse performances from these comedians that would go otherwise unseen.  Just like network programming, we will upload and stream one episode of Earthkeeping per week for the next six weeks.  Please feel free to share your thoughts and comments on the series below.

[1] The Foundation Years program was, regrettably, short-lived.  In 2011, Chicago Magazine did an in-depth piece on the program, which can be read here.

This week’s episode: City Life

“City Life” focuses on the sociological consequences inherent in the rapid growth of urban landscapes.  The episode first orients the viewer by explaining how city growth has transformed the concept of ‘community’: the transition from village life to city life has necessitated the development of neighborhoods, which are established in order to retain the same sense of community once found in the village.  Without these new forms of community, the narrator asserts, the city would be nothing more than “…a collection of strangers; an anonymous and faceless place,” despite its size and population.

Additionally, the narrator makes the claim that our cities “have been built for profit, not people,” and the episode employs two architectural examples to evidence this.  The first is the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, MO, a thirty-six building development which is equated to a “prison for the poor.”  The design of Pruitt-Igoe favored minimizing expenditure over benefiting its citizens – for example, designing the development without a single playground, despite the projected high number of children that would be living there.  This idea of housing projects as a ‘prison’ is reinforced through interviews with urbanist Lewis Mumford and economist Robert Heilbroner.  Both interviewees elaborate on the effect of large-scale migration from rural to urban environments:  whereas the first generation to move to the city had family in the country to fall back on should things not work out financially, that is no longer the case for most impoverished city dwellers.

On the other side of the socioeconomic scale is the architectural example of waterfront properties developed along Chicago’s Lake Michigan waterfront.  “City Life” documents the efforts of the Chicago’s Citizens’ Action Program (CAP) as they seek to prevent further impediment on the city’s waterfront.  Lewis Mumford, among other interviewees, encourages citizens to engage in their local politics, as doing so is the only way that positive changes may be affected within a city.  In a fiery hearing, CAP representative Paul Booth testifies that the construction of new waterfront high-rises would benefit only a small minority at the cost of destroying the lake’s beauty for the rest of the city. The hearing eventually devolves into a screaming match between CAP members and Illinois State Senator Hon. John L. Knuppel.  However, the episode concludes with an empowering message, returning to the idea of the ‘village’ and the duty of the citizen to politicize and participate in city affairs:

“At the heart of a healthy city is the village, the small community, the neighborhood.  At the heart of the neighborhood is the individual who feels that if something is wrong, he can do something to change it.  A healthy city is one in which the people, all the people, have a stake in the functioning order; something to lose if that order breaks down; a sense that it is responsive to their needs.”

Stay tuned next Monday (March 10th) for our next episode, “Greenbacks”….

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