Raised up West Side (2023)

March 26th, 2023
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Brett A. Schwartz; Documentary with Darius Jones,Liz Abunaw, Jahmal Cole USA 2022, 86 min.

Chicago is best known for its cultural heritage of Frank Lloyd Wright and striking skyline punctuated by modern architecture and the famous Lurie Garden at Millennium Park on Lake Michigan’s shoreline.

The predominantly Black western part of the Illinois capital is the focus of this new documentary from Emmy-nominated filmmaker Brett A Schwartz who follows a group of men – some of them interviewed – whose childhood friends have long left  and whose lives now fail to match up to the city’s glittering image of prosperity.

Daily shootings and killings are the norm, sometimes babies and small children are killed in the crossfire. Offenders end up in jail and upon release have no chance on the job market. Food plays a mayor role in this social malaise: an unhealthy lifestyle and cheap junk fare contribute to mass obesity in this place of deep-seated segregation. The demise started in the late 1960s with the murder of Martin Luther King in 1968. Mass riots were commonplace, not only in Chicago. Businesses moved out, estate agents kept upwardly mobile Black families out of the districts now reserved for Whites. Raised Up West Side is a chronicle that explores positive efforts to improve this sad state of affairs.

In an effort to address both food crisis and unemployment, the Farm of Ogden, a farmers’ market in the North Lawndale neighbourhood of the Westside now co-exists with “The Chicago Botanic Garden’s Windy City Harvest Program”. This runs a thirteen week transitional jobs programme giving ex-offenders the chance to learn a trade and secure long-time employment. The figures might not be impressive but of 212 enrolled, 152 men finished the course, and 119 found full-time jobs.

A modern aquaponics-based indoor farm, which yields fresh produce, shares the facility. Local entrepreneur Liz Abunaw, one of the leaders of the co-op, feared the Covid lockdown would lead to crisis, but instead the turnover improved because fast-food outlets shut down so people had to start cooking for themselves. Students from the ‘My Block My Hood My City’ project offer tourists a tour through the ghetto. Founder Jahmal Cole (who plans to run for Congress) is proud of the recent developments: West Side has found a new way of fighting back.

Jahmal is writing a novel about the history of the district, and has now found a full time job in a gym in Washington DC. But perhaps the story of Darius Jones is most typical for the Westside: his mother was unable to keep him away from the East Garfield Park neighbourhood, where he joined his first gang at 13, owned the first gun at 15 and was convicted age 18 for aggravated car jacking. In the Maximum Security Facility of Cook County Jail, he joined a programme to learn farming skills and this allowed him to spend some time outside jail. After his public lawyer found discrepancies in the police reports leading to Darius’ conviction he was released after only two years. Darius joined the Windy City Harvest Corps group, with life giving him a second chance.

Despite some enlightening archive clips and the worthwhile nature of the story it tells, Raised Up West Side is often let down by a scattergun approach to editing, Schwartz sometimes loses the thread of his narrative, and we do too. AS



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