Gentrification on the Big Screen
Two celebrated 1980s comedies chart Chicago’s changing class structure.
The Blues Brothers and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, two seminal 1980s comedies, both set in Chicago, foreshadow the profound changes that would soon sweep over some of America’s big cities. Made just six years apart, they present strikingly different visions of Chicago.
Both films’ plots are farcical. In The Blues Brothers (1980), directed by John Landis, Jake (John Belushi) and Elwood Blues (Dan Akroyd) need to come up with $5,000 to pay a delinquent property-tax bill and save the orphanage that they grew up in from closing. Jake hits on the idea of putting their old band back together, and a series of adventures ensue, including run-ins with the state police, a group of neo-Nazis, and a country-western band. A successful benefit concert ends with an epic car chase to the county assessor’s office to pay off the tax bill in the nick of time. In John Hughes’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), charming high school senior Ferris (Matthew Broderick) and a pair of friends skip class and spend an enjoyable day in downtown Chicago. Ferris’s friend Cameron “borrows” his father’s Ferrari, and along with Ferris’s girlfriend Sloane, they feast on a five-star lunch, visit the Sears Tower observatory and Art Institute, and take in a Cubs game at Wrigley Field. All the while, they’re stalked by dean of students Ed Rooney, determined to punish Ferris for playing hooky and hold him back for another year of school.
Both films celebrate Chicago, but their visions of the city are as different as their opening shots. The Blues Brothers begins with an aerial view of Chicago’s historic industrial complex of oil refineries and steel mills. It’s an industrial hellscape, with fire and smoke belching into the sky. This Chicago is still a City of Big Shoulders, a place that makes things. Ferris Bueller, by contrast, opens in a pristine, leafy suburb. The first shot of the city is its gleaming skyline. The later film’s Chicago is a postindustrial metropolis of the intangible economy, scrubbed free of the grit of a vanishing era.
This different emphasis carries through to nearly every element in these films, illuminating several key shifts in the life of Chicago and other cities: from an industrial economy to a knowledge-based one; from a working-class city, in which blacks held serious political and cultural power, to a gentrified, multiracial city, in which, paradoxically, whites regained hegemony; and from a city focused on the aspirations of adults, primarily through work and opportunity, to one that caters to the aspirations of upscale young people, primarily through entertainment and creature comforts.
The postwar industrial urban metropolis showcased in The Blues Brothers is a working-class, biracial city, but the world that the film portrays is fundamentally that of black culture. The Blues Brothers are an R&B band, and the movie boasts cameos from black musical icons such as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Cab Calloway. Black-centric institutions such as a South Side church and the legendary Maxwell Street Market feature prominently and reflect a rising Chicago black community that in 1980 was nearing the apex of its influence. The city was then 40 percent black; in 1983, it would elect its first black mayor, Harold Washington. Chicago was then only 14 percent Hispanic, and about half of that population had just recently arrived.
The key problem in the city remained that of the color line, but The Blues Brothers offers a fundamentally optimistic take on race relations in Chicago. The movie’s working-class and marginalized whites and blacks lead similar lives in the city and are socially integrated. As if to underline this, the police duo out to get Jake and Elwood are a pair of state troopers—one black, one white—who might as well be twins. Only the Nazis and the country-western band, the Good Ole Boys, are exclusively white.
This vision of an integrated Chicago, however, was true only in the movies. The city was then, and remains today, hyper-segregated and racially polarized. The early 1980s were a time of political gridlock that would become known as the Council Wars era, as a white-controlled city council refused to do business with Mayor Washington. Still, The Blues Brothers accurately depicts a Chicago that was essentially biracial.
By contrast, Ferris Bueller presages gentrification, ethnic change, and the decline of black influence in Chicago. The film’s suburban milieu is almost entirely white and upscale. The primary divide in this universe remains present in today’s Chicago: that between the comfortable upper middle class (Ferris’s family) and the genuinely wealthy (Cameron’s family). Ferris, Cameron, and Sloane visit a postindustrial, seemingly all-white Chicago. The characters they meet there are white. Yes, we see black people on the streets, but they’re merely part of the scenery. White people are the film’s principal focus. In one of the film’s iconic scenes, Ferris mounts a German-American Steuben Day parade float and performs the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout,” a white band’s cover of a song first made popular by the Isley Brothers, an African-American group.
Ferris Bueller accurately predicts the return of white political domination of Chicago. The city has never elected another black mayor after Washington, and today, African-Americans make up just 31 percent of Chicago’s population. The city lost 177,000 black residents during the 2000s, accounting for the lion’s share of the city’s population loss. (See “Black Residents Matter,” Spring 2016.) Another 53,000 blacks have left since 2010. Black urban flight is a national trend. “The magnitude and pervasiveness of black [population] losses in cities during the first decade of the 2000s were unprecedented,” notes Brookings Institution demographer William Frey.
What Ferris Bueller missed was the city’s emerging diversification, driven by renewed high levels of immigration. The parade scene practically mocks diversity; by 1986, European immigration to Chicago had happened so long ago that the city’s white ethnic communities were approaching kitsch status. Chicago’s Hispanic population share more than doubled between 1980 and today, to 29 percent. Its Asian population nearly tripled, going from 2.3 percent of the city in 1980 to 6 percent today.
This increased urban diversification has corresponded with the dilution of black political influence and resurgent white control in some cities—certainly in Chicago. A few years after The Blues Brothers was released, a 40 percent black city created the conditions for an alliance between working-class blacks and white lakefront liberals to put a black mayor in city hall. Today’s one-third white, one-third black, one-third Hispanic city creates a divide-and-rule dynamic benefiting white mayors such as Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel. Blacks and Hispanics haven’t found a way to make common cause. Chicago’s black neighborhoods voted for Emanuel in his runoff against Mexican progressive Jesús “Chuy” García, who was supported by Hispanic voters. Similarly, New York and Los Angeles also have white mayors despite being one-third or less non-Hispanic white. New York elected its first black mayor, David Dinkins, in 1989, but the city hasn’t elevated another black politician since. Los Angeles elected a black mayor, Tom Bradley, in the early 1970s, but he left office in 1993, the same year that Dinkins was voted out, and the city hasn’t elected another.
In short, black population loss and demographic diversification, as much as white population growth (more limited than is popularly believed), made it possible for whites, who had always retained control of Chicago’s key business and civic institutions, to become culturally and politically dominant again. Perhaps unsurprisingly, educated white urbanites are the most enthusiastic bloc supporting high immigration levels. Ferris Bueller accurately shows us a city in which whites are back in charge but makes no mention of the demographic shift that made it possible.
The films’ contrasting social milieus illustrate another shift—this one having to do with how the city sees itself. Ferris Bueller anticipates the suburban youth orientation of the gentrified city—a city coming to see itself as “an entertainment machine,” as University of Chicago sociologist Terry Nichols describes it. “For Ferris, the city represents freedom,” says cultural critic Lee Bey. “Almost all the authorities—schools, police, etc.—are in the suburbs.” Other than some hide-and-seek with Ferris’s oblivious father, the city is a playground for the film’s young people. Chicago’s freedom makes the city above all a place to have adventures and to be entertained, whether by visiting architectural landmarks, enjoying the arts, attending a sporting event, or crashing a parade.
Soon, American cities would be flooded with well-educated, relatively affluent young people like Ferris. Urbanist Richard Florida dubbed them the creative class, and they put a high value on entertainment. “They crave stimulation, not escape,” Florida writes. “They want to pack their time full of dense, high-quality, multidimensional experiences.” This desire for diversion isn’t limited to those who choose to live in cities like Chicago. Both Chicago and New York now draw more than 50 million tourists per year. (Some global cities such as Barcelona have even seen a major backlash among locals, who fear being overwhelmed by the tourist hordes.)
Florida might regard some of Ferris Bueller’s traditional settings for diversion—the Art Institute and Chez Quis, a fictional fancy French restaurant—as stodgy relics from the city’s older, pre–knowledge economy era. But the scene in which Ferris bluffs his way into Chez Quis for lunch, claiming to be Abe Froman, “Sausage King of Chicago,” is perhaps the most revealing one in the film—and it marks another contrast with The Blues Brothers, in which a French restaurant also figures prominently. In the earlier movie, when Jake and Elwood show up at the legendary Chez Paul, they behave boorishly on purpose, to compel a former bandmate now working a legit job as the maître d’ to quit and rejoin them. By contrast, when Ferris and friends crash Chez Quis, they foreshadow a changing of the social guard. The hip young friends are destined to become Chicago’s new proprietors. They will soon be remolding the city, and its restaurants, in their own image. Chez Paul closed in 1995. Today, the city’s highest-end restaurants—like Alinea, a sleek, uber-hip purveyor of innovative cuisine—represent the culmination of this transition. A 48-year-old Ferris might well be eating at Alinea today.
The films’ protagonists also illustrate the shifting focus to youthful priorities. While The Blues Brothers takes place in a fully adult realm, Ferris Bueller is a film about high schoolers that portrays most adults as a mix of fool and square. Though Ferris and his friends are Generation X-ers, we can see in their story the antecedents of today’s urban obsession with catering to young upscale millennials.
It is also telling that Ferris and friends hail from the Chicago suburbs—where people like his parents moved to get away from guys like Jake and Elwood. Raised in the pristine North Shore, Ferris and others like him are bored. They look to the city for relief from suburban ennui. Jake and Elwood grew up in a suburb, too, but a very different one: the decidedly working-class town of Calumet City, which resembles adjacent city neighborhoods. The location filmed as the orphanage is actually in Chicago proper. The environment of the brothers’ youth and adulthood—seedy, polluted by industry, and with mostly lower-end economic prospects—is one that middle-class people sought to escape.
Ferris and those who recolonized the gentrified city ended up bringing their suburban sensibilities with them. They were not content with the traditions of neighborhood urban life, such as the everyman’s diner where Aretha Franklin belts out “Think” in The Blues Brothers. (Diners, in fact, are disappearing rapidly in cities like New York.) Instead, their tastes trend toward the upscale—but they also seek the proliferation of certain chain establishments that they remembered from their youth. This fusion of upscale tastes with standardization reached its apotheosis in Starbucks, the quintessential marker of gentrification. Urban hipsters speak of desiring “artisanal” products, but they often purchase these products from corporate outlets like Whole Foods. Instead of working out at an independently owned, black-iron gym full of scary-looking blue-collar dudes, they enroll as “members” in high-end gym chains like Equinox. While upscale urbanites often bemoan the loss of local businesses and the arrival of ubiquitous bank branches, drugstores, and chain supermarkets in their neighborhoods, they fail to see that it is their own tastes—deriving from their suburban origins—that helped make it happen.
Watching these films today, viewers under the age of, say, 45 would be struck by how alien Jake and Elwood’s Chicago seems and how familiar Ferris’s Chicago has become. The vibrant working-class culture, tough old nuns, SROs, and Maxwell Street Market of The Blues Brothers have all either disappeared or survive only as shadows of what they once were. With a bit of cultural updating to cars, hairstyles, fashion, music, and phones, however, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off could be remade today, virtually shot for shot. Modern proto-hipsters might well still skip school to visit Wrigley Field, the lakefront, the Sears Tower Skydeck, or the Art Institute. Three decades after Ferris Bueller played hooky from the suburbs, the triumph of the gentrified city is complete.
Top Photo: The Blues Brothers’ Chicago is still an industrial, working-class, essentially biracial city. (PHOTOFEST)
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