A Year of Community Responses to THE AREA

Deborah Payne and friends at a screening at No Studios in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Excerpts from conversations near & far — reactions, histories, relevances, & calls to action — from a panoply of perspectives.

January 29, 2019 — Chatham Studio Movie Grill

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Deborah Payne, Naomi Davis, Amara Enyia & David Schalliol

Deborah Payne, subject & co-producer of The Area:

I’m always saying that I was only being a good neighbor. And I was told that I was an activist. At all the Q&As, generally the audience asks me, “how would you start being an activist?” I say, it wasn’t until I did this documentary, and did my Q&As, I knew I was an activist! [laughter] I always thought I was just being a good neighbor. I thought I was gettin in where I fit in. I thought I was embracing my community. Lovin it to life. Just keepin it safe, being involved with our children, all the way until the seniors. Just knowing your neighborhood! And when it was difficulty in the neighborhood, you fought for the rights of the neighborhood. And I just always thought that was what you were supposed to do. Later on I found out I’m an activist. [laughter]

Naomi Davis, founder, Blacks In Green:

I’ve seen this film a number of times. But the impact is so profound. And it’s as if a sacred rite was taking place. One of the [final shots of the film] — it was the landscape, with an arc of trees, and down the center there was a smaller tree. And it reminded me, that human beings live together with life forms that speak. That contribute something, that’s really beyond words, to the existence of family and tribe. And I could hear the trees speaking, in that moment — like their testimony, their love of the people. Their own heartbreak. And then that shot of you [Deborah] toward the end, when you were sitting out, in that same empty milieu, and you had made your move. You had landed successfully [in your new home]. But there was still something, that just called you back. To the place. Because, we are beings of place. We really are. And so I just wanna say that you know, we’re very clever in America, about ways to make money. And of course, making money isn’t bad. And there are many of us who went to college on those home Re-Fis. And we value the home in lots of different ways. But the commoditization of real estate when we are divorced from our belonging. And the spiritual values of being bound together, as people in place. That’s what some folks say, is “too clever by half.”

Amara Enyia, lawyer, policy consultant, & Chicago mayoral candidate:

So just responding to the film, and to what it means to be an activist — which is really just when people have decided people find themselves in circumstances that are unacceptable. And it’s really the actualization of your rights. Your right to live, on that land. Your right to your home. Your right to be — your right to exist. And when I think about the process of everything that happened throughout the course of the film, and when I was doing this work [as part of the legal team fighting for a Community Benefits Agreement from Norfolk Southern] it was the rights of the residents. People who have claim to that land, against this multi-billion-dollar corporation who had the ear of politicians; who have all of the money; who have all of the resources; who have the ways that they can twist and manipulate the law, or language, to advance their agenda. But ultimately it’s people feeling that they are entitled to live in that space. And that’s what spurs the activism: it’s their right to exist.

And when people talk about how they got involved as activists, or how they became organizers, it’s often the things that hit you closest to home. It’s what happened on my block. Or what happened to my neighbor, or what I personally experienced. And then you start finding that others are experiencing those same things! That’s organizing. This particular fight it’s just, it’s so Chicago. And I hate to say that. But it’s the story of the David and Goliath story. It just characterizes the nature of this work in Chicago, in my experience.

January 29, 2018 — Rush University Medical Center

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Deborah Payne; Marlon Haywood, Urban Male Initiative; and Dr. David Ansell

Steven Rothschild, director of Community and Social Medicine, Rush Medical College:

So one of the reasons I wanted to have this film here is that we hear a lot of words. And we heard them in City Council, you know? “Blighted area.” You know, “bad neighborhood.” “Community development,” “economic development.” And I don’t have a doubt that some folks use those meaning what they sound like, and are trying to do something good. But how do we break through, and really hear those words, and push on them? So we can ask, “wait, what do you mean by that?” What are you trying to accomplish? Who’s being affected? Because the words kind of put a bow on something, that probably shouldn’t have a bow put on it.

Deborah Payne, subject & co-producer of The Area:

I didn’t know that they were blighting the neighborhood… But [Norfolk Southern] just went on and started acquiring property up under different names. And once it gets blighted, it’s nothing you really can do. And when they did let our area know what they were doing, it was a done deal.

But the timing that they wanted us to get outta there just didn’t resonate with me. People had stayed in “the area” years and years. I need to know if you have the whole understanding of what’s going on. Make sure you have everything in order. We are gonna move. We were not resisting the move, we were not fighting the railroad. But we weren’t prepared. We don’t just have to up and jump and move, because you’re ready for us to go.

So whatever time it took, to get all the people in the community aboard, and to understand, and make intelligent decisions about selling their homes — that was my job. Every day at 6 o’clock in the morning, I had a literacy class in my house for people that couldn’t read. When they left at 7 o’clock, I went outside, and I just went from door to door. To check on people, see what they needed, what they need to do. Did you need a ride? Do you need me to go downtown? Do you need these papers copied? Whatever it was, I dedicated my life. Because these were our homes. Not just houses. None of the money could pay for the memories.

David Ansell, physician, epidemiologist, & author of County and The Death Gap:

I first have emotion. I think of how where you live, and what happens in your communities, actually causes poor health. And to see you [Deborah] have a stroke, or to see the man who kept his mother [at home until she passed away], because he knew that to move her would hasten her death — I have a lot of pain watching that. And it’s not mentioned once in the movie, but clearly you saw racism at work. And it’s so important that we name racism explicitly. Naming racism as a cause of poor health, as a cause of the destruction of communities. Naming the root cause is important, because you can never actually get to fixing it until you name the root cause. What makes neighborhoods go bad in the long run is our collective attitudes about those neighborhoods, as being “bad.” I always talk about the implicit bias. So someone comes to the doctor, and I might have some bias, and that prevents you from getting the care you need. That’s ubiquitous, and there’ve been plenty of studies on that. But if we all hold a bias about a neighborhood as being bad? You know, from the outside we look in and say, “that’s a bad neighborhood.” It turns out that those collectively held ideas predict neighborhood decline in the future.

It’s up to all of us to dismantle these structures in our society. Racism, and the exploitation and the poverty that comes with it. We have to actually destroy the infrastructures that perpetuate this. And that’s our work within institutions.

But I think the movie was moving. Your leadership. Your spirit as a human being. Your willingness to fight, against all odds, and never giving up. Now that’s the kind of leadership we need from everybody — because you can’t do it alone. And we all have to do it. This is our job to do. Especially in this city.

Audience member:

A lotta times when we hear about neighborhoods like Englewood, all we really see is the violence. And how everybody’s killing each other. And so when you don’t really hear about community, it’s “them over there.”

So you can drive by this [neighborhood being demolished], “well, that’s them over there.” The fact that most people sort of look at Englewood… don’t think of the families, and the neighborhoods, and the fact that we all know each other — you sort of deface that community. So if there’s no economic growth, if there’s no investment, if the schools are failing, it’s “them over there.” And so I think in this documentary, just seeing that other side of Englewood — looking at the crisis, the housing crisis, but also that there are families there. It makes it a little bit more familiar, versus what we’re typically used to seeing about Englewood.

November 20, 2018 — Community TVWorkshop, South Shore International College Prep high school

Watch a short interview with Deborah Payne on the process of touring The Area.

Student:

I like how it’s real! It’s not something somebody made up, or something somebody wrote a script to. Like it’s what people really think, it’s how people really live.

Deborah Payne, subject & co-producer of The Area:

I appreciate all that, because it was real. And it wasn’t scripted. And the filmmakers and I just joined together so good, we embraced one another. So nobody was really uncomfortable, you know? So we got a chance to go into the houses regardless to, you know, maybe it doesn’t look like your home, or my home, or somebody else’s home — but this is our homes. And that’s what was important. And that they were comfortable enough to let us in! Let me in, you know what I’m sayin?

So yeah, it was real. These are real things that had slipped up under a rug! And it’s still happening. And it’s not just happening in Englewood. It’s not just happening in Chicago. It’s happening in a lotta places.

But what was so powerful to me — that it means something, and the impact that it has provided in people’s lives since the showing. I was like, “wow, I wouldn’t think that some doctors would wanna see this.” I didn’t think no young folks would wanna see this. You know? But it’s so many reasons for it. And I’m for real. I got a card with my number on it, you can call me. [laughter] That’s how for real I am.

Brian Ashby, co-producer & co-editor of The Area:

Some of you guys had different opinions at the start of the film, I heard some people like, “Well, move! Why don’t you move?” [laughter] I wondered, when you got through the end of the film, what did you guys think? Would you have stayed or gone in this situation?

Student:

In the beginning of the film, it was from like, the outside looking in. Of course, the film progresses. At the beginning it was kinda like “just leave!” They already had bought the property, they give you so much time to go, so just go while you can. You know, get all your stuff together, go while you can. But as I watched it, I really understood why people were hesitant. Because I wouldn’t wanna move my house that’s already paid for either! You know? I wouldn’t wanna leave a place that my great-grandmother was in, then my grandmother, then my mother was in, now I’m in, and I’m planning on my kids being in the same place. You know? I understood where they were coming from. The conditions were unfair. If you’re giving me like six years to get out of this area completely, let me take my time. Let me do this how I wanna do this. You’ll get my property when I decide that you need it.

December 3, 2018 — Kennedy-King College, Englewood

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Debra Thompson, Aysha Butler, Deborah Payne, David Schalliol, & Nora Gaines in the Kennedy-King College auditorium

Nora Gaines, Social Sciences, Kennedy-King College:

Now do you see why I got so excited about the film? Right? The cinematography, it’s just so well-shot, and it really shows the beauty, of not only the neighborhood, but the people in it. And showed their humanity, in a way that unfortunately, and grossly, we don’t see as much as we should. And maybe, I heard some laughing. Right? So it’s funny. I don’t know, it mighta been some people dottin, dabbin at their eyes, right? So it takes you through a lot of the different emotions that we experience. And I’m so grateful to the filmmakers, and the organizers, and the activists, and the people that did the work and continue to do the work.

Deborah Payne, subject & co-producer of The Area:

I would hope that the film would impact the Englewood neighborhood to come together. And understand the resources that we have here. Englewood is a great place, and full of resources. We have to come outside of those doors, and outside of our comfort zone to find out what the city has to offer Englewood, and what Englewood has to offer the city.

The good thing about this is that we have the privilege of having it documented, so it couldn’t happen again. You’ve seen this! You’ve seen how they roll! You see what it takes to stand up. You see what it takes to get answers. The City and the government is full of trickery — we already know! We need to be on top of it. We need to find out what City plans look like. What are the next ten years gonna look like? Why are these buildings still there, boarded up? Why is this house torn down, and nobody cares? Maybe we need to be a little bit more nosy.

I’m so Englewood orientated. And over in Bronzeville [where Deborah moved after leaving “the area”], I say — “in Englewood, we would do this, and we’re used to doing that.” And I’ve sat at so many tables sayin that, and they say, “girl! Don’t bring that Englewood stuff over here!” [laughter] And they always tell me that! But it’s in my bones — this is where I learned to fight.

Aysha Butler, founder, Residents Association of Greater Englewood (RAGE):

One thing that happened is that that Alderman is no longer running for the 20th ward. [applause] I remember fighting this with Deborah, and everybody was so upset about Alderman Cochran and the 20th ward. And to now know that other powers that be kinda handle Alderman Cochran [who is currently serving a one-year sentence after pleading guilty to wire fraud] … [that’s] something that I think really did impact from what happened here.

I don’t live in “the area” — but it definitely let me know how vulnerable we are as residents. And for us to be a little bit more proactive, when we hear these meetings with these developments, that talk about the benefit to our community — and really, as you saw in the film, really didn’t benefit our community. So I think it opened our eyes to how vulnerable a community like Englewood can be. And to be more organized as we move forward.

Debra Thompson, president, Southwest Federation of Block Clubs:

We need to get more people downtown that is concerned with where we live at. [Instead of] just people that’s there, just holding the information, and striking deals about us. To assist us in bringing the information back to the community, so that we can form a front.

Because it’s more than just your community. It’s quality of life. The devastation that happened in “the area”… where you think all that debris went? Up in the air, and just settled, right there between 55th and 61st? Nah! They’re one! Because what happened to your neighborhood can happen in our neighborhood. So therefore we need to hold downtown accountable. The Aldermens accountable. And ourselves accountable. And as Deborah stated many a time in the movie, we need respect. That’s what it bottoms down to — respect us, as individuals, as homeowners, as a community.

We do not want to revert Englewood back into a railroad. If you didn’t know, that’s the history of Englewood — it was a railroad junction. It was called Junction Road, before somebody called it Englewood. So we got stake in this. So we need to step up, and act like we got stake in where we live at. And not be moved!

David Schalliol, director of The Area:

From the beginning, the idea of the film was not simply to make a film that we project in theaters, and then just walk away from. But instead, use the film as a focal point, as a starting point for conversation — the very conversation that we’re having right here. And so I think, for me, it’s about not only making that film, and establishing these amazing friendships and relationships — but also figuring out how to take moments like this and propagate them. And figure out how we can act, to keep things like this from happening in the future. And for people to have better understanding of how they can connect with each other, in order to address these kinds of deeply, deeply unjust situations.

November10, 2019 — NŌ Studios, Milwaukee

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Deborah Payne & friends

Audience member:

So I would like to echo all of those statements and other kudos for this very moving film. Some things have been mentioned, but I wonder if anyone has any suggestions about how to develop awareness of peoples’ rights, so that what you were asking for, Deborah Payne — in terms of respect, that should be a given, and people should know there’s nothing exceptional about asking for your dignity and rights to be respected. One of the things I’ve noticed is that what is often called “community engagement” or called “public engagement” is anything but that, and it’s been manipulated in some manner for some particular outcome. And it looks like that’s what was happening. So what might happen so that the public is not left out of the process, out of the rooms where decisions are made?

Deborah Payne, subject & co-producer of The Area:

I would say we who live in the community and the neighborhood, get involved. If you see something that looks wrong, say something. If something sits boarded up or vacant too long, ask “why?” What is your intent? I cannot stop saying I’m so grateful for this documentary to be made, because I really believe within me that if they were to come into Englewood [now] and it started to look like in The Area [again], they would say something, because they are knowledgeable now. It has become a tool in schools, everybody from little kids up to the seniors, so I’m grateful for that. But if you live in a house and there’s a house next door, know who your neighbor is, know some of their concerns — don’t get in their business, just know what you have in common. We live here together, sharing things that are important.

Sharon Adams, co-founder, Walnut Way Conservation Corporation:

Amen, Amen. I lean towards all of the things Deborah said, and we have to have systems that work for us. When my husband and I learned they were going to tear down every house on this block [Walnut Way in the Lindsay Heights neighborhood of Central Milwaukee], we asked “How can this happen?” because we were un-designated. So we asked for a plan that came from the neighborhood, and that [plan] was approved by the city. And Chicago’s so much more complex, but we can get a plan together. And [our] plan has realized a lot of investment, and a lot of things that cannot happen in the neighborhood again. We can do this, but we have to talk to each other.

December 6, 2018 — Weinberg/Newton Gallery

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Brian Ashby, Deborah Payne, & Jahmal Cole in the exhibition “Block Building”

Jahmal Cole, founder, My Block My Hood My City:

What is community? To me, I think democracy starts on the block level. I think you could ask yourself, “what’s something simple I can do, that’ll make a difference on my block?” What’s something simple I can make myself do, that’ll change everything? And then I would say that oppression is real. It’s a structural part of our country, its history. It was created intentionally. And I think nowadays, it’s been cloaked up, and people have a hard time recognizing how injustice is actually being sustained. So when you tell people, “segregation is bad,” a lotta people don’t know — “what, like smoking is bad for you? How is segregation bad?” So I think that if you’ve never been on an elevator before, it’s gonna be pretty hard for you to navigate your way around City Hall. You know? And I think a lotta people, they don’t recognize how injustice is being sustained, because unfortunately everybody doesn’t get the same type of education in our city.

Brian Ashby, co-producer & co-editor of The Area:

I think one reason that David Schalliol and I made this film was because we really aspire to the community values that Deborah embodies and expressed. And that [aspiration is something that] kept us doing this for so long. I’ve been in Chicago sixteen years, but I’m a transplant here. You know, I grew up in a high-income suburb, with a lot of privilege that a lot of people in the communities I’ve lived in did not have. And for me, that’s why we made these films, to amplify voices like the neighbors in “the area.” I feel like what you do where you live really matters. The smallest thing you do in your community is political. Deborah checking in on a neighbor matters. You know, Jahmal hanging Christmas lights [a project of My Block My Hood My City to deliver holiday lights to 250 homes] matters. Because I feel like so much of what we suffer from in the city is about perceptions and people’s frames of reference. That communities are somehow to blame for the conditions that prevail there, rather than historical and socioeconomic forces that are weighing on them. So those were some of the motivations.

Devondrick Jeffers, housing organizer, South Side Together Organizing for Power:

So the neighborhood, it looked like it’s full of life, full of character, full of culture. How did City Council arrive at the conclusion that this was a blighted area? You know, there’s so many families that were living there.

Deborah Payne, subject & co-producer of The Area:

I think that they did so much underhanded work. That when they had to answer to it, when they were forced to answer, their answer was — “it’s already blighted.” When behind the scenes they probably was sayin, “it’s already done.”

Jahmal Cole:

A lot of people have never been downtown. I saw a kid on 79th Street, on the Red line track, that asked me, “how do I get downtown?” And there’s only one way to go! People feel like it’s another country, to come downtown. They feel like it’s another world. And this is the way the city can stay so segregated.

So when I saw those students in there [Tigga,Weezy, & the Row-Row Boys], I thought, wow, man I would love to … I feel embarrassed that I didn’t know this was happening. You know? I would’ve wanted to advocate for them.

I saw what I see in a lot of under-resourced communities. I see kids that … They’re surviving the times. Did you see the trauma that they had to face? I mean, kids are being shot at. There’s bulletproof glass windows they’re ordering their breakfast through every morning. Helicopters are landing on people’s houses. How are you supposed to learn about an ACT [exam], if your brother just got shot up and is in a wheelchair? Do you know how it’s impacting you to see boarded up home, after boarded up home, after boarded up home every day? When the schools could have 2,500 kids, and there’s only 30 kids in the whole school? And this is, by the way, fifteen minutes away from where we at right now! [from downtown Chicago to Englewood] It’s ridiculous. So yeah, when I saw the kids [in the film] man, I feel like I wish I could reach more students. But just because you grow up like that, doesn’t mean you don’t have the aptitude to learn … I was that person. You know, I was that kid. These people that grew up in them rowhouses — if you can make it there, man, you can make it anywhere. They’re very resilient, and that’s one thing that I saw. But also, just the cycle. It’s like a poverty of imagination. When you’re isolated, it leads to narrow-mindedness. And it don’t matter if you grew up in a farm town in Nebraska, or if you grew up in an isolated community in Chicago. If you never step outside your comfort zone then you can think the whole world looks like Englewood. You can think the whole world looks like Uptown. And I think that mindset is limiting and it’s holding us back.

February 27, 2019 — University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) School of Public Health

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Deborah Payne & Linda Rae Murray with UIC Public Health Students Association members

Linda Rae Murray, physician, educator & activist; former chief medical officer, Cook County Health & Hospital System:

I think it was an excellent documentary. And I think it helps crystallize basic public health questions that we have in urban areas. Especially in public health, we often assess communities, and we talk about things that are needed in communities. Which is all important. But the real thing that ties the community together are the people. And whenever you have a destruction, we should ask ourselves what are the appropriate public health interventions?

Do you think you could buy that much land, for what was it, $3 million!? [laughter] Was what they said it was worth? Other places in the world have laws [about] this. If there’s a decision that this is for the good of the city, to take this area, and take it from a residential area to an industrial area — we have to keep the community whole. We have to keep the people in the community whole. And we should pay them for their inconvenience on top of that! If you own the house, you need to be moved to a house that you find acceptable, that you own! The short sale [required by Norfolk Southern of the Marshall family in the film]? Those are all just games! A short sale, where you ruin people’s credit — all of that should be illegal.

The railroad — as the railroads have often done — got free land. They got half the country to begin with, when it was stolen from the Native Americans. And so they’re still taking land that they don’t necessarily deserve. They got that land cheap, on the backs of poor people. And they should’ve been made to pay for it, if we decided that they could have it at all.

Audience member:

Ms. Payne — I wanna tell you how amazing I think you are. Having been involved in community activism and things like that, there’s always gotta be one person that kinda anchors, and just keeps it going, and going, and going. Because they do die; those things do end — without the people. And so I just wanna know, when you moved into your new neighborhood, do you still continue to see some of these people? Or is that community and that legacy just gone?

Deborah Payne, subject & co-producer of The Area:

That’s the most asked question — yes. I stay in touch with most of the people that lived directly in “the area,” right around my house. We meet together, and we visit. We stay in touch. It’s like we became during all of that, we got more bonded as a family. And we stay in contact with each other. So no, it’s not over.

Audience member:

The film, it really touched me. And I can relate to Deborah’s story. I’m so pleased that I did come, and thank you for sharing. I feel like, as a Latina in Pilsen, I’m going through very similar situations. The apartment that I rent has been flipped for the third time in three years. And I am now displaced myself. And so it’s like OK, where do I go? Where are we going? And so I can relate. And I’d like to maybe learn from you.

Linda Rae Murray:

Any time you have neighborhood change, it can be traumatic. The question is — is the trauma collectively, sort of, agreed to? And can something good happen outta whatever the change is? And that means we have to have community power. Not just to react, [to] wait til the railroad comes and starts knocking down something or wait until people start gentrifying Pilsen. But before that happens, there are decisions that get made in a proactive way. So it really means looking at how we structure [the way] we live. And can we find allies and the political power to stop that from happening? That’s what I’m really interested in.

Voting is part of that, [but] it’s not the whole solution. And it means changing the laws — the federal, state, and local laws, in terms of how we take land. What are companies allowed to do? What are “developers” allowed to do? And they’re allowed to do things that they ought not to be allowed to do, that violate people’s basic rights.

Deborah Payne:

David [Schalliol], he was always around me. And they say, “Deborah, I heard that the only way [the railroad’s representatives] know you, is if you with that white man.” [laughter] They never did know me! Because they never looked at my face! They never really cared! You know? I was in the way to them. If they coulda tore me down, like they tore those buildings down… But it seem like I found strength every day. Did I cry? A lot, yes. I had some sad times. I had some happy times, when I helped people. All the way to the end, you hear me talkin about respect. Respect. You’re not respecting us. We’re still here. So, so many things hurt me. And I felt totally disrespected. But when I would wake up in the morning, seem like I would wake up with two more ounces of energy! And the fight was on again.

Linda Rae Murray:

So this has happened before. That’s how all us Black people got up here to Chicago in the first place. You know, this is what happened after Reconstruction. This is what caused the Great Migration, after both of the wars. And after we stole the Northern part of Mexico — this is why Mexican villages get decimated, and people end up here to work in the steel mills. This is why we have people from Honduras and Guatemala. These same kinda forces are going on, and until we connect those dots, and understand that… the separation of our children during slavery, and after slavery, is the same as the separation of those children at the border. Until we connect those dots, and understand that we have the same process going on all over the world. And until we stand up together — like my sister here has shown — until you stand up together and work on it, until you can make those connections, we’re gonna see the same thing over and over again.

April 7, 2019 — Stony Island Arts Bank

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Billy Dunbar, Brian Ashby, & Deborah Payne in the Arts Bank Cinema

Deborah Payne, subject & co-producer of The Area:

We couldn’t put everything in the movie, but at least one person that was part of the [homeowners’] coalition, [she] stayed in and out of the hospital because she had asthma. Because the buildings were goin down, that affected her asthma. Then it was some people that was just so worried about giving up their houses, and how they was doin it — [they] probably had a lotta blood pressure problems.

Not to mention the older seniors, that never did really get the drift of what was happening? And their children came in and said, “this is the best thing for you.” They were really confused. A lotta times they was sneaked to see me — because they’ll say, “my daughter or my son wanted me to get outta this house, and I paid for this house.” It did affect a lot of the older ones. In fact, most of the older ones that did move, that did go to “better housing?” They passed away. I can’t really count how many people, the older seniors that passed away, after they moved to what was to supposed to be a better place.

My myself, with my health, I’m just headstrong. I gotta do something. I entertain company and people and issues, 24–24. I had a key to my church. And I would go up there and open up the church, and just get at that altar and pray. Pray for myself, pray for the people, pray for our politicians, and everybody.

Billy Dunbar, Illinois Black Panther Party:

The original Ten-Point Program [of the Black Panther Party] was written in 1966. Well, it is regrettable that of these ten points, none of them really have been resolved. People say, well what were the Panthers about? Well, we were about resolving some of these contradictions. Resolving some of these issues. And this is more a manifesto, than goals for us to achieve. But we wanted to consolidate concerns that we had about our community.

In Chicago in 1968, when the Illinois chapter was formed, there still was something called Contract Buyers League. Red-lining is a common phrase that deals with specific practices of insurance and property ownership, particularly where it excluded Blacks from participation, or either charged them more money. So, there [was] housing on the South side around 87th Street, that they would not give Black people mortgages for. But they would sell you a house under “contract.” So many months, so many years. And if you missed one or two payments, then that would void your contract. You had no equity, you had no ownership. So there were demonstrations about that, and they were called the Contract Buyers League. We didn’t have specific activism about that. But we recognized that there was a community of activists that came out of that. And this is what we talked about — knowing what’s going on in your neighborhood. Organizing around the issues in your neighborhood. Your building, your school, your work. So that we can act against these larger forces. And at least get some equity, some consideration, at least have a voice against this stuff.

You talk about eminent domain. And that only happens after when they own all the other properties on your block. Then they can move on you, and get you to leave and move out.

Deborah Payne:

Yes, I have been invited to a lot of meetings, and a lot of groups. I’d like to say, I am so proud that this was documented. It didn’t start out like that — I was just fighting. But, the first time I saw the [finished] documentary, I was like, “all of these years, into this one film!” You know… And people were actually holdin me up, and talkin to me about it, and I’m like, “well I was just fighting a good fight, I was just being a good neighbor. I don’t even understand what I did!”

And then I start understanding — wow, this is really really somethin. And when I would have the Q&As, people would come to me and say, “we need you to come to this meeting and sit with us! We need you to talk about this. We need your strength.” I never knew how important that would be. I’m grateful to God today that this was documented. That was not the first time it happened in Englewood — that was the first documentary. Anybody that would like to take the film on, and show it to children, or wherever you think it should be shown — we are [happy] to show the film. I will come along and answer questions, because all I have to do is show up and tell the truth. So my job is pretty easy. That was a big fight, but it was a worthwhile fight.

Billy Dunbar:

When I first came up, I congratulated her [Deborah] on her triumphs. You may not think it was a triumph, because she lost her house. But if we don’t begin to communicate with one another, if we don’t begin to act, speak, talk about these things, if we don’t inform anyone else — then we suffer in silence.

If you can’t be an activist yourself, support somebody who is one. If you find somebody in your neighborhood, or on your block, in your family, who’s always about social issues — lend an ear, ask them questions, develop them. You know, you can give bus fare. You can let em have a meeting at your house. You can always assist someone else who is more knowledgeable than you about these things.

We need people, we need activists. We have a social platform — the internet. Look, we did what we did in the 1960s without cell phones. [laughter] You know, a lotta cases, the phones that we [had were] tapped by the police, so they sometimes knew quicker than some of our associates what we were planning. But we got it done. You know? So, door-to-door activism still works. Go say “hello” to your neighbor — you should know who that person is.

April 29, 2019 — Echo Park Film Center, Los Angeles

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Activist Brenda Perez of Restorative Justice for the Arts with Deborah Payne, Echo Park Film Center

Cynthia Strathmann, executive director, Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE):

Another issue [we] see a lot of [in our work], is exactly that wedge issue of sort of making a community incredibly unhealthy, and then using that as an excuse to persecute people and force them out. And in fact we were just at the City Planning Commission, where they approved the demolition of eight historic buildings right across from the new soccer stadium in Expo Park, that are gonna be demolished to make way for a luxury housing and hotel development, and all the tenants will be evicted. And one of the tenants was there, talking about how he’d grown up there, and he was raising his daughter there. And the commission’s response was, “well, I don’t think it’s healthy to raise a child near the freeway.” So it’s better to kick you out, apparently. And a lot of the people in that building are gonna be homeless, we suspect, because it’s just so hard to find housing these days. So I think it does just reiterate, this ironic use of the word — of the way “health” around housing can be deployed as a weapon. And how important it is to understand how that’s happening, so that you can make sure that you have the counter-arguments against it.

Deborah Payne, subject & co-producer of The Area:

Sometime they tell you, “this is gonna be better for you.” It’s somethin how somebody can tell you what’s gonna be better for you! You know? …So you tellin me, you putting me outta here and putting a railroad in here, is gonna make it better for me? … You gonna take something I paid for, and you’re gonna give me ten, twenty thousand dollars? And where will I go? “Because I’m gonna make it better for you!” And that was one of the things that they did with the people that lived in [the public housing development access the street from Deborah’s house.] I couldn’t really fight for them, because they already had what they were gonna do for them… Well they would tell them, “oh! This is gonna be so much better for you!” Alderman Cochran — “oh… you’re gonna get a home now. You don’t have to live in these brick places like this. It’s gonna be so much better.” I got so sick of him saying that.

And it was a [young girl] that lived across the street from me, that went just about everywhere with me. And she would say, “Ms. Deborah, why you can’t help us?” And I say, “I wish I could!” I say, “but your parents are a part of the Housing unit, and they got somebody working with you.” “Yeah, they say it’s gonna be better for us.” I can still hear her saying that. Well they moved, and they did get a nice-looking place, which made it look like it was better. She was there a week and got shot. Got killed. So how much better did they make it for her? How much better did they make it for her?

Carlos Leon, organizer, Community Coalition South Central LA (COCO):

The “make it better,” I’ve heard it many times too… We constantly judge people that are poor, and intentionally insist on creating poverty — because it’s profitable. And then on top of that we criminalize it. And when people show up to say, “we wanna help, this is better for you?” [It’s] with this demeanor of like, “you [should be] happy that I’m talking to you.”

They literally blocked all the last Black businesses that we have in South Central LA. We have the last concentration of Black wealth and businesses, on Crenshaw, and that’s where the Metro rail decided to just, build on top… to save some money, [they] went on top of it, instead of underneath. And so now you see the intentional blighting of community.

When I was in a meeting with Metro, and we were in a roundtable… his response to me was, “well, it’s like you have a house, and I’m giving you the paint. Why are you complaining?” And I just looked at him, I’m like, “we don’t even have walls.” [laughter] I was a Dreamer, I pushed for DACA. And I was able to get DACA and get my residency, and my citizenship this year, hopefully. But I will never go through the Black experience, right? …South Central LA, I got there in the 90s, right after the civil unrest. And my mom owns a house, my brothers own a house. And we’ve seen that shift in demographics in South Central LA — going from 80% Black to now, 80% Latino, [and only] 20% Black, right? And so we’re trying to really look at …how are we collectively using efforts — not to pit us against each other, but [to address] the overall systemic [issues].

Like we see this happening for centuries, and for decades. This is nothing new… So what are we doing? And how long are we gonna wait to humanize each other’s existence? And we are worth the fight. People are worth the fight.

November 15, 2019 — City of Chicago Department of Public Health

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Rodney Johnson, One Health Englewood; Deborah Payne; Englewood resident Denise Brown; Naeema Jamilah Torres, Impact Producer of The Area

Audience member — City employee:

I just first and foremost want to applaud you, Ms. Payne. Your strength. Films like this are difficult, because you get tired of seeing Black pain on the screen, and nothing comes of it? Except our sacrifice. And I’m so happy you are here, you are healthy, you are bright, you are shining. So I just wanna acknowledge that.

Since we’re in a public health space: There was no PPE [personal protective equipment] on those [demolition workers]. They were just out there. I was looking through and I identified maybe like eight different health risks. Respiratory, obviously. You mentioned sexual assault, the persons that may have been raped in the abandoned vacated buildings. Injury risks, because of the conditions of the buildings. And the trash and the vermin — you know, risks for vector-borne diseases and infections, because of rats and raccoons and stuff like that. Stress, depression, chronic disease — strokes! What can City workers, City departments do? We need to begin to evaluate these proposals for more than just the economic benefits. Evaluation on the front end when the proposals come in, and evaluation on the back end. What about these jobs that [former 20th ward Alderman Willie] Cochran claimed?

And I saw some of my former colleagues in this documentary. And it just … we were villains. The question that I had was, after having gone through all of this, what would you [Deborah] say your relationship is with the City? You mentioned, you’re a taxpayer. Y’all pay taxes! And you’re not getting the benefits of the American dream. You’re not getting the benefits of paying taxes. How does that inform your ability to trust people like us? And they love to parachute somebody like me into Englewood and say, “go and represent the City and let the people know that the City is…” But when we come out and have our community meetings, and you listen to us, what makes you actually believe us? What makes you convinced? And has this whole experience ruptured your belief that the City is here to help?

Deborah Payne, subject & co-producer of The Area:

[We] should stand up and applaud all that you said. Because it was very heartfelt. And if the City, and the people that was involved in this was more transparent, as you say that they should be, it probably wouldn’t have happened. What would I say now, if I sat at a table? I would say, “have you seen The Area?” Have you seen The Area? Something that’s documented, and true. And here I stand. Then go on with your meeting. And then ask me a question. That’s what I’d say.

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