The (inaccurate?) depiction of Elgin, Illinois in Roseanne

The TV show Roseanne is set in a fictional town modeled after communities in northern Illinois:

Show star Roseanne Barr told the Hollywood Reporter in February that the working class sitcom’s fictional setting of Lanford is based on Elgin. The producers even conducted a focus group in Elgin before embarking on what is the 10th season for the show, which last had new episodes in 1997.

Fictional, gritty Lanford may be modeled after Elgin, but local residents said it’s not really an accurate reflection of their hometown…

Southwest side resident Vicky Lundy, 53, said she’s picked up on some geographical errors in placing where Elgin would be, particularly in relationship to Chicago. One episode implied that Chicago was so far away that one of Roseanne’s granddaughter’s couldn’t afford to buy a bus ticket to the big city. Another has a branch of the University of Illinois in St. Charles, which has a U of I extension, not a campus.

Kim Lang, 41, of South Elgin noted that on the “Roseanne” reboot, “there are no Hispanics anywhere, which is a core element (of the Elgin area).”

Three quick thoughts:

  1. Rarely have I seen residents of or local officials in communities depicted on television suggest that the TV portrayal was accurate. It is hard to know whether local residents are unable to see their community from a birds-eye perspective, whether locals only perceive television as promoting negative ideas, or whether television shows cannot easily capture community life (see #2).
  2. Many television sitcoms and dramas involve a limited number of characters and do not actually depict much of the larger community. The focus of the show is Roseanne’s family, not the larger community of Lanford. In many such sitcoms, the family rarely leaves the inside of their house or their yard. On the whole, I do not think television shows are usually set up to portray a whole community (outside of some establishing shots and occasional references or interactions).
  3. Working-class communities are not depicted much on television and are not necessarily depicted favorably. (For example, see the documentary: Class Dismissed: How TV Frames the Working Class.) Many sitcoms revolve around middle- to upper-class families that have sizable homes, rarely work, and encounter certain issues but not others.

As a thought exercise, we could think about what a television show would need to be to truly capture life in Elgin, Illinois. A more diverse set of characters? Regular interactions out in the community at known sites? Elgin is a large suburb of over 100,000 people and while it has a more traditional downtown, it is also quite sprawling. Could an accurate depiction fit with typical conventions of how television shows are made?

The role of residential segregation in lawsuit over Elgin school district

The Chicago suburb of Elgin has long been a satellite city with more diversity and manufacturing than the average suburb. The city’s school district, U-46, is the second-largest district in the state and is the plaintiff in a long-running civil suit that is continuing in federal court this week:

The two sides in a long, bitter fight over boundary lines in an Elgin-area school district met in federal District Court in Chicago on Monday, six years after a class-action suit sought to improve learning conditions for minority students.

The students and the families who were part of the original case filed in 2005 have long since left School District U-46, a racially and culturally diverse district of 40,000 students in the northwest suburbs. But the conditions that sparked that initial outrage — overcrowding and poor classroom conditions — continue to persist and are putting minority students at a disadvantage, attorney Stewart Weltman told the judge in his opening remarks.

“U-46 served the needs of white students first, and the needs of minority students second,” Weltman told U.S. District Judge Robert W. Gettleman. “The district knew it had thousands of empty seats in white schools, and yet it forced more and more minority students into overcrowded schools and portable classrooms without running water.”

Attorneys for the school district say race never played a role in the redrawing of attendance boundaries for the district’s 55 elementary, middle and high schools. Instead, they say, the changes were part of a reorganization plan by the district in 2004 to allow more students to attend schools closer to home.

I don’t know the particulars of the case. What the district did sounds like what a lot of American parents might desire: let my children go to schools close to home rather than busing or driving them to schools across the city. Closeness is one issue but the idea of local control or rule of nearby schools is important, even in a large school district.

But as I read this, I am struck by an idea: with the district letting students “attend schools closer to home,” U-46 was letting the wealthier kids go to the nearby nicer schools and the minority kids go to nearby worse-off schools. And if you look at the map of the U-46 boundaries, there is quite an economic range, from Elgin (median household income in 2009: $57,009) to wealthier Bartlett (median household income in 2009: $91,863) and Wayne (less than 2,000 people in the village but a 2009 median household income of $142,321). Therefore, it may appear that the district is not spreading the wealth (in money or children) around the district in a way that benefits everyone. The residential segregation patterns in suburbia, where the wealthier tend to live with the wealthier and the poorer live with the poorer, then get reinforced.

It will be interesting to see how the case turns out. On one hand, I’m sure the district has an interest in keeping wealthier families and areas within the district, something that may have been aided by this 2004 decision. On the other hand, the larger school district is supposed to be providing the same opportunities for all students.