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Transformer Ire

(NOTE: See an update in the comment thread, as well as a link to my blog about another recent time Mayor Daley sold out Chicago commuters for a film shoot–that time in 8-degree weather…)

Where is the civic pride in accepting money from a Hollywood production company to film a movie that will glorify the destruction of your city’s downtown and the death of many of its rank-and-file citizens? This is not a rhetorical question, it’s one I’d love to ask the Daley administration since this summer, several major Chicago Loop and West Loop streets have been cordoned off and given over to the Transformers 3 movie shoot.

Sure, Chicago’s budget has lately teetered on the edge of the abyss, and director Michael Bay and star Shia LeBeouf could just as easily be setting siege to midtown Manhattan right now instead of forking over $20 million for the right to disrupt Chicago’s pedestrian, automobile, and bus transit traffic every weekend from now until Auguat 23. Is that the going rate to cede all control over how your city is portrayed by major media? Twenty million in exchange for letting a movie studio make money off of images of a destroyed LaSalle Street littered with the bodies of dead Chicago office workers, shoppers, and visitors?

Yes, according to local news media, which have been fawning over the shoot since it began last weekend, not to mention the crowds of locals who flocked to the barriers blocking access to LaSalle, Randolph, and Washington. Hurray, burned-out cars littering a burning, apocalyptic streetscape! Yippee, screaming hordes of terrified extras running for their lives!

This is obviously not your father’s Blues Brothers shoot.

Our town’s done a lot to become Hollywood-friendly since the bad old days of Daley-pere when the idea of closing a street to film anything was an anathematic idea. And we sure can use the money. But is this really the way we want to portray Chicago to the world?

As a kid, I loved disaster flicks. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tended to shy away from films where senseless violence is the main attraction, and I’ve seen enough of the Transformers franchise to know how well this film series fits that bill. But I know many, many other people love entertainment like this and they have a right to it, too.

I also know our town’s seen cinematic death and destruction before, though usually as a stand-in for somewhere else. New York in Spiderman 2. Mythical Gotham City in The Dark Knight. But this time, the mayhem will be fully owned–lock, stock, and gory demises–by the City and citizenry of Chicago. Call me old-fashioned, but there’s something about the idea of the Windy City being laid to ruin that makes me feel uneasy.

My reticence to see my fellow Windy Citizens chewed up and spit out by exploding machines has nothing to do with my 9/11 experience, as I’m sure some readers might think. However, I’ll fully admit there may be some sour grapes at work here. If I had a nickel for every weekend that Danny Devito or Helen Hunt had my Brownstone Brooklyn neighborhood turned upside-down in the 1990s for a film shoot, I’d be able to afford the old ‘hood again.

Like New York neighborhoods that get hit with frequent movie shoots, Chicago neighborhoods deserve to have their pedestrian access protected and their transit routes unimpeded, too. There are currently half-a-dozen time-wasting reroutes of major east-west CTA buses planned every weekend from now until late August affecting thousands of downtown residents and visitors. Most of them are taking the delays in stride for a chance to see a real-live film shoot. I happen to resent City Hall making money off of the glorified destruction of the city I love and the death of innocent Chicagoans like me and, likely, many people reading this post.

I’m reminded of the episode of Bugs Bunny where Daffy Duck drinks nitro glycerin, swallows a match, and explodes in order to show that he’s the better showman. As he said when his ghost was floating up to waterfowl heaven, “I can only do this trick once.” The same can be said of several other things City Hall has sold-off lately. The Chicago Skyway. Parking meters. Midway Airport (almost.)

Does Mayor Daley have to attach a dollar value to civic self-respect, too? That’s a hard thing to get back once you blow it.

Categories: Planning Stage and Screen

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Michael Thaddeus Doyle

I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.

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6 replies

  1. UPDATE: As it turns out, the West Loop was only the first neighborhood to bear the brunt of this movie. While this neighborhood got its weekend bus service back earlier than I thought, many more Chicagoans were impacted when Mayor Daley allowed the film shoot to close Michigan Avenue–the main commercial and bus-transit street of the entire city–for a full business day and an entire weekend. Followed by Wacker Drive, another key traffic and transit arterial.

    It’s not the first time Mayor Daley city commuters out for a film shoot. In 2007, the city allowed the crew shooting a Vince Vaughn film to shut access across every single bridge between the Loop and the Near North Side–at 8pm on a Friday evening. In 8 degree weather. Causing thousands of shivering residents and visitors to end up late to downtown shows or north side reservations. I blogged about it at the time here on Carless.

  2. Here’s a great post from Marina City Online summarizing the next few Transformers street closures, including (get this) Michigan Avenue from Wacker Drive to Ontario Street for an entire weekend, and Wacker Drive from Michigan Avenue to Wabash Avenue for three entire business days. And what about the dozen or so CTA buses that use Michigan Avenue as a trunk thoroughfare, or that use Wacker Drive? Those dozen buses–and their thousands of Chicago riders–are out of luck.

    Thanks, Mayor Daley, for deciding that Hollywood’s time is more important than mine or any other Chicagoan’s. I wasn’t voting for you again, anyway, but now you’re just gilding the lily.

  3. Charles, true, LaSalle is empty on weekends. My peeve is that crosstown streets are still busy, and crosstown buses have been affected by the shoot.

    Matt, I can’t argue with that.

  4. My first thought was — and continues to be — why don’t they do this on a set at the studio? This should be less disruptive. And they’re pretty good at authentically recreating city streets.

    That said, they’re doing it on the weekends. Have you seen LaSalle street on Sundays? There’s no one there. It seems to me they’re doing as much as they can to be as least disruptive as possible.

    As for the portrayal of the city, Chicago is just a prop in this kind of movie. It’s not a social critique, it’s not about culture. The movie is not going to portray us in a bad light.

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