Portraying a broken-down Chicago in Divergent

The new movie Divergent takes place in a dystopian Chicago:

And instead of a vibrant, healthy metropolis of canals and glass towers downtown, the Lake Shore Drive bridge at the Chicago River has collapsed; a few skyscrapers have fallen into jumbles of stones; a few are heavily damaged, the outcome of some unnamed catastrophe; and many more stand dormant and dark. There don’t seem to be any cars, and there don’t seem to be any people. A little water remains in the main branch of the river but not that much. And everywhere, vegetation runs riot…

Throughout the spring and summer last year, while the movie crew of “Divergent” shot around Chicago, production designer Andy Nicholson, who had recently finished work on the technologically innovative “Gravity,” often found himself driving through potholes. Every day he drove to the set, he said, and every day he would notice “a lot of Chicago roads needed resurfacing or seemed about to be resurfaced or were in the middle of resurfacing. You saw a lot of neglect in Chicago.” And when the crew ventured into old steel yards on the South Side, Nicholson noticed overgrowth not unlike what he pictured for Michigan Avenue in the film…

Said Haller: “They wanted to know what Chicago would look like 20 years in the future so they could then show its decline from there out. I told them: More tall buildings. And we don’t envision any new districts, but probably more expansion west. And we’re sort of slaves to transportation systems, so everything would continue to converge on the Loop.” He also told them about the city’s flood-fighting Deep Tunnel Project (in the film, one of the factions is headquartered in a network of massive underground tunnels). “I didn’t mean to sound optimistic,” Haller said, “but, barring ecological collapse, our dystopian possibilities are mitigated.”…

Despite seemingly intractable problems that would suggest it is a perfect 21st-century dystopian setting — perpetually heavy-handed government, gun violence, profound inequality — Chicago is, in fact, such a prosperous place that it’s likely new installments of “Divergent” will not film here. (The sequel, “Insurgent,” will shoot in Atlanta, and it is unclear what Chicago’s role will be.) The city is too expensive. Said Rich Moskal, director of the Chicago Film Office: “Filmmakers understand it’s a thriving place, which makes it difficult to push everything aside to film. Chicago can read, in places, as a city in decline. Yet, sitting next door, you’re also looking at some of the highest-priced real estate in the country.”

Predicting what cities of the future will look like is difficult for many films, whether projecting American cities will look more like Chinese cities in Her or creating all new cities in The Hunger Games. It sounds like the plan for Divergent was to try to “naturally” project what a decaying Chicago might look like in a few decades. It is interesting how they looked for inspiration to some of the older industrial area of Chicago, places that once housed more businesses and people but were left behind by a shift away from manufacturing. All major American cities likely have some areas that are like this, not all that far away from the glittering downtowns where business and political leaders try to funnel tourists and businesses. In fact, this is one of the more fascinating features of modern cities (since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution): there are parts humming with culture, business activity, and sparkling features of modern life and then there are places that literally seem of a different decade or century.

At the same time, the presence of potholes in the midst of one of the worst winters on record doesn’t necessarily foretell a dystopia in the near future…

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