Full Frame Movie Review: The Area

If you live in an up and coming hip city, you face the constant fear of gentrification. Sure it seems fun at first watching stories about how hip your neighborhood has become. But it comes at a price. Mostly that price involves property values soaring. Home flippers quickly buy property so they can make a quick buck by slapping down a granite countertop and fake wood floors. The house they bought for $200,000 in May sells for $500,000 in September. Those who rent find themselves looking at a renewal contract that’s doubled. Being hip and popular costs more than an order of avocado toast and a Whole Foods chicken. The Area finds out that there’s something more frightening than gentrification.

The Southside Chicago of Englewood is not a hip neighborhood. This is a rough living place full of single unit houses with a nearby row house. The Financial Crisis of 2008 hit many of the residents hard as they woke up realizing that the mortgage bubble popping left them with massive monthly loan payments and house values hit rock bottom. Many of the residents gave up dealing and walked away from their houses letting the banks foreclose. But the banks didn’t want the houses back so they would sit empty. The bank was letting the cities take over because nobody was paying property taxes. This brought in even more squatters and druggies looking for shelter and fresh victims to rob. The neighborhood which had already had crime issues just got worse. What could the city of Chicago do to save the neighborhood? Turns out that there was a solution for decaying neighborhood. Nearby Norfolk Southern railroad had a center where they put trailers on and off freight trains. They business is going well. Instead of moving further out of the city to build a new facility, Norfolk Southern wants to expand. They basically want to turn the entire neighborhood into a giant parking lot. The city is more than ready to sell the lots they have acquired over the years in a low ball package deal.

But longtime resident Deborah Payne isn’t read to take the money and run. She has sworn to be the last homeowner standing as she watches demolition claim her neighborhood. She does her best to rally her friends and fight back against the encroaching corporation. She feels pain as she watches those around her take the offers from Norfolk Southern. She tries her best to fight City Hall which isn’t easy since it’s hard to know where her local representative stands in watching his district disappear.

Director and cinematographer David Schalliol gets in deep with Payne and the neighborhood. He follows the plight of other residents as they have to move to other parts of the city. You get a sense of loss as heavy equipment tears down houses. He makes sure we don’t over sentimentalize the neighborhood as the crime element is always there. One of the people he meets is a young guy who had been shot and paralyzed. Later that person gets arrested for stealing a car and going on a chase with cops. He shows how the system can turn against the residents on so many levels. A woman is talked into short selling her house to the railroad by the bank by not paying her mortgage twice only to discover the banks won’t give her a mortgage when it’s time to buy a new house. He gets the footage from a closed door city council meeting where this project gets reduced down to an amazing project that will improve the environment and reduce crime rates without really discussing the people within that expansion zone.

The Area lays out the struggle and human cost of knocking down houses and paving everything over.

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