The Legible City: The Cinema’s Mental Map of Chicago

CINEMA STUDY by Brendan Kredell

“Perhaps it is one of the great mercies of God that es lasst sich nicht lesen.
—Edgar Allen Poe, “The Man of the Crowd”


Introduction: The City Meets the Cinema

To talk about “the city” after the rise of modernity is to confront the problem of vastness, of a scale so large as to render futile any individual attempt to apprehend the city in its totality.  Indeed, we might substitute Poe’s resigned observation of the urban “man of the crowd” for the city itself: it does not permit itself to be read. Instead, the urban experience becomes a process of making sense from within a vast sea of potential meanings. Georg Simmel stressed this in his defining work on “metropolitan life”: for him, the modern city was differentiated from everything before it by the “intensification of nervous stimulation” – in short, the preponderance of sensory information that urban dwellers are presented with in the course of their everyday routines.[1]

Coincident with the rise of the modern city has been a new way of looking at that city: the perspective afforded by the cinema. Bearing in mind that our understanding of city space is informed to a large extent by the paths we travel along through that space, how do cinematic representations of those paths – that is, filmic depictions of movement through the city – affect the way that we perceive urban space? In order to consider this question, I turn to the work of pioneering urban theorist Kevin Lynch, and in particular his concept of legibility. As I discuss below, legibility provides a useful prism for us to consider cinematic representations of cities, and is especially useful in thinking about how filmmakers choose to organize and construct urban space within their films.

By looking at a trio of films, all produced in Chicago, I propose to take a very narrow horizontal cut across the history of cinema’s relationship with the city. In reading these films with an eye toward their engagement with and representation of urban space, I aim to demonstrate the transformative impact of cinema’s engagement with the city.

The first of the films that I will consider is the most recent, Michael Schultz’s Cooley High (1975). The film, a coming-of-age drama set in and around the Cabrini-Green housing projects on the Near North Side of Chicago, is easily the most widely seen of the group. For my purposes, Cooley High is useful in its illustration of the dominant conventions of city cinema. I discuss these in some detail below, using the film to establish the tropes and themes of the conventional approach. The other two films I will discuss are Conrad Friberg’s Halsted Street (1934) – a documentary portrait of Depression-era life in Chicago – and an amateur film produced by E. Hector Coates, an untitled work referred to in collection materials as Chicago River (1955).[2] These three films represent a variety of modes of cinema – amateur, documentary, commercial – and are, additionally, historically and stylistically diverse. Taken together, however, we can draw some meaningful conclusions about the way that film functions to inform our understanding of urban space.


Cooley High: The Conventional Approach to Urban Representation

In the introduction to their book on “urban cinematics,” François Penz and Andong Lu stress the cinema’s transformative potential for urban space.

Indeed, through the framing process and the subsequent screening, even the most anonymous and banal city location will be transformed from an unconsciously recorded space – or naive space – to a consciously recorded space that becomes an expressive space.[3]

As will become immediately apparent, the cinematic representation of urban space compounds the problem of vastness introduced at the outset of this article. Over time, filmmakers have developed an entire vocabulary of cinematic shorthand for depicting urban environments. They rely on specific technologies of motion picture photography, perhaps most famously the aerial shots often used during the opening montages of city-set films. As viewers, we observe familiar recurring visual tropes; the visual synecdoche in which the skyline stands in for the city as a whole illustrates a classic form of this cinematic shorthand. Likewise, iconic landmarks such as the Empire State Building and the White House function metonymically as New York and Washington, respectively; an establishing shot of one of these buildings cues the viewer’s assumptions about film location. A film shot entirely on studio backlots and soundstages reads instead to the viewer as a “city film” by virtue of the inclusion of these geographically-specific signifiers.

But Cooley High, a film that in many ways functions conventionally with respect to the various devices identified above, complicates our notions of this cinematic shorthand. It opens with a pan of the skyline of Chicago’s iconic Loop district, cutting from there into a montage of mostly aerial shots of the downtown area, featuring architectural landmarks of the city like the Wrigley Building, the Tribune Tower, and Lake Point Tower. In the next sequence of shots, the camera turns its attention away from the majestic skyscrapers of downtown Chicago and moves down out of the clouds. Even when the camera moves to ground level, however, it betrays no sense of the city as a space inhabited by people. The aerial montage by design reduces a city to its built environment, but the shots at street level here depict a city in which the only motions are the conveyances of the motor age–automobiles and L trains traveling about the streets of an otherwise desolate downtown. The camera follows one northbound L train over the Wells Street Bridge as it disappears beyond the Merchandise Mart, symbolically departing the iconic downtown of Chicago and leaving it for another world beyond. With a series of cuts, the camera continues to follow what is presumably the same L train until arriving, via an exaggerated camera motion, at the Cabrini-Green housing projects on Chicago’s Near North Side. As the opening montage concludes, we see our first real live human being, a young man – whom we are soon to be introduced to as Cochise, one of the protagonists of the film – running through an alley adjacent to the projects.

Still from Cooley High

In point of fact, Cabrini-Green sat one mile – and two L stops – north of the Loop, but part of the work of Schultz’s montage here is to suggest the psychogeographic distance and emotional boundary between downtown Chicago and its most notorious ghetto.[4] (I am adapting “psychogeography” somewhat loosely from Guy Debord, who defines the “charmingly vague” concept as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.”[5]) Here, Schultz relies on the device of the elevated train to transport the audience across this boundary zone. But the success of the sequence hinges on the elision of the train ride itself. The journey between downtown Chicago and Cabrini-Green is a five-minute trip, but by cutting away after the opening aerial montage and only returning as the train is passing by Cabrini-Green, Schultz is able to implant in the viewer’s mind an exaggerated sense of distance between the settings of the first two scenes of his film.

Approximately three minutes of screen time elapses before we arrive at the first inhabited space of the film. This postponement, taken together with the camera movement through such starkly contrasted spaces – from an aerial perspective in the former, at ground level in the latter – echoes Michel de Certeau’s notion of the spatial “practice” of urban life. He evocatively describes the “voluptuous pleasure” derived from viewing a city from above; though he speaks specifically of the observation deck of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, I think we can easily draw analogies to the perspectives of downtown Chicago that Schultz affords us.[6] From one hundred ten stories above ground level, de Certeau finds that we are able to “totalize the most immoderate of human texts,” referring to the contemporary metropolis. The experience of viewing the city from above, he contends, is that of Icarus being lifted above the world below, and with such elevation comes a profound sense of pleasure.

Yet as with Icarus, the spectator raised to such heights is set up for an inevitable fall back to the “practice” of urban life, and, in particular, to the experience of traversing a city at ground level. For de Certeau, the urban text is “written” by these practitioners of city life – the pedestrians – who labor to create the urban text all the while unable to “read” it. This speaks to the inherent paradox not only of de Certeau’s observation deck, but also of the cinema’s attempt to represent urban space more generally: in order to capture some sense of the totality of the city, we must remove ourselves from the practice of city life. Not coincidentally, we hear echoes of Poe here: the impossibility of the totalizing perspective ensures that the modern city does not permit itself to be read.


Psychogeography: The City and its Image

This disconnection between our lived experience and the mental pictures we have of cities was a primary interest of Guy Debord. In his essay “Theory of the Dérive,” he recalls Chombart de Lauwe’s admonition that “an urban neighborhood is determined not only by geographical and economic factors, but also by the image that its inhabitants and those of other neighborhoods have of it.” De Lauwe sought to illustrate this process of imaging by mapping an individual city resident’s experience of the city. Debord describes the process thusly:

[de Lauwe] diagrams all the movements made in the space of one year by a student living in the 16th Arrondissement. Her itinerary forms a small triangle with no significant deviations, the three apexes of which are the School of Political Sciences, her residence and that of her piano teacher.[7]

Debord would take inspiration from de Lauwe’s investigations creating one of his most well-known works, the Guide Psychogéographique de Paris (1955). The guide represents an alternative mapping of Paris that divides the city’s neighborhoods up into discrete units. The neighborhoods are repositioned and links drawn between them (represented on the map below with red arrows) based on inhabitants’ emotional experience of the city – what de Certeau would call the spatial practice of city life.

Guy Debord, Guide Pychogéographique de Paris, 1955.

For Debord, this reconfiguration of urban space was equal measures avant-garde aesthetics and radical political practice. But he was not alone in embracing psychogeography. Denis Wood chronicles the emergence of the concept during the 1950s and 1960s, when the term came into use on both sides of the Atlantic, apparently independently of each other.[8] Within a decade of Debord’s seminal essay on psychogeography (“Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography”), a group of American university professors had begun to employ the term to describe a new set of methods for urban study that they were developing. Associated most closely with faculty at Clark University, psychogeography first made its way into an American classroom in 1967, according to Wood.[9]

For five years the field flourished, producing a number of theses and dissertations, but it mutated fairly rapidly into environmental psychology, environmental cognition, environmental modelling, participatory design, and other splinters.[10]

Wood, who was a student at Clark under David Stea during this time period, credits Stea with introducing Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City, published in 1960, into the emerging discourse on psychogeography.[11] Lynch’s seminal work on the questions of urban form and mental mapping form a frame of reference and a point of departure for this paper; specifically here I look to the ideas of legibility and imageability developed in The Image of the City. Lynch offers us a vocabulary and a theory of spatial and temporal representation that has a special resonance for media scholars interested in urban environments. Those who have taken up Lynch’s work, including Karen Voss, Richard Koeck, and François Penz, emphasize the utility of Lynch’s notions of legibility and imageability to media studies.[12]

A main thrust of The Image of the City is to establish a methodological framework for studying legibility. Lynch proposes a two-pronged approach to evaluating a city’s environmental image; data gleaned from detailed observations of the urban area made by researchers is analyzed alongside interviews with city residents about their individual mental images of the city. Study participants would typically be asked to describe or sketch locations in the city, or to describe a route from one location in the city to another. Using these interviews, Lynch was able to demonstrate that there were appreciable differences in the way that urban residents constructed mental images of their cities, such that Bostonians were much more able to recall specific details of the urban environment than were Angelenos. He uses the results of his case studies (in addition to Boston and Los Angeles, he conducted fieldwork in Jersey City) to argue for a revised approach to urban planning, proposing a model for identifying and combining elements of urban plans in such a way as to maximize legibility. 


Halsted Street: Imageability and Urban Form in the Cinema

But why introduce Lynch into a discussion of the cinema? By now, it should be clear that motion pictures offer us a unique view into how residents render the city legible. In more specific instances, we can see how individual films function in an analogous fashion to Lynch’s own observations of urban form. Halsted Street and Chicago River are two such instances of the kind of methodologically rigorous approaches to urban representation that evoke Lynch’s studies. Each film presents a cinematic study of “paths,” one of the essential building blocks of urban design. For Lynch, paths were the “channels along which the observer customarily, occasionally or potentially moves.”[13] As such, they are one of the most important determinants of legibility; the “blurriness” of the environmental image of Los Angeles, for instance, was attributed in large part to the disorientation caused by the crisscrossing freeways that dominate the city’s transportation scheme.

Still from Halsted Street, 1934

Both Halsted Street and Chicago River deal strictly with the way an individual observer perceives a path through the city. By thinking about these films in terms of legibility, we can begin to elucidate a specifically cinematic mode of perception as it regards depictions of urban environments. Superficially, the two use similar methods to present their sketches of urban life; in each film, the most important decision was made before the camera started rolling, when the filmmakers decided to pick a direction and start moving. The paths taken by each filmmaker through the city determine to a large extent the image that he portrays. However, the methodological similarity that the two films share masks a divergence between the ways each filmmaker constructs the urban environment in his film.

Whereas Coates’s film is concerned primarily with how the natural paths of Chicago come to shape the image of the city, Friberg presents a vision of urban life that is largely alienated from the natural environment. Halsted Street opens with an initial title card, which announces that “This Film Presents a Cross Section of Chicago As Seen on Halsted Street—from the City Limits on the Southern End to Lake Michigan on the North.” Already we are faced with several layers of meaning. Halsted Street is a main north-south artery in Chicago, running parallel to and one mile to the west of State Street, the y-axis in the city’s Hippodamian grid system. While the geometric precision of Halsted Street’s location is the result of human artifice, the bookends of the film are significant in their relationship to natural boundaries. Not only does the film conclude in a park adjoining Lake Michigan, but its point of embarkation, at the city limits of Chicago on the South Side at Halsted Street, is marked by the Little Calumet River.[14]

Halsted Street opens with a shot of a farmer tilling his land on the southern outskirts of the city. In juxtaposition, the film concludes with shots of elites riding their horses for leisure in a park. The contrast is stark; while the farmer relies on his horses to maintain the land, the elites can afford to keep horses as instruments of pleasure. Despite the parallels between the bookend shots of the film, much of the rest of Halsted Street emphasizes the built environment of Chicago. The film proceeds in a linear fashion, moving steadily north along Halsted through the various districts of the city that the street traveled through.

Friberg moves the viewer through the South Side of Chicago, focusing his camera on the shopping district at 63rd Street in Englewood, the Union Stockyards between 39th and 47th Streets and the massive street markets on Maxwell Street. In addition, he depicts the diversity of the population on the South Side, shooting among the various ethnic neighborhoods along Halsted, including those of the Swedish, Italian, Polish, Mexican and Greek immigrants to the city.[15] Continuing past Maxwell Street and the Hull House, Friberg takes his viewers through the vice district that then covered the city’s West Loop. Moving onto the North Side, the camera passes through the slums that would later be razed to make way for the same Cabrini-Green housing projects featured in Cooley High. Moving steadily north, we move into more affluent quarters in Lincoln Park and Lakeview, culminating with the horse-riding scene mentioned above.

Throughout the journey, Friberg carefully delineates between separate districts in the city, usually by marking the boundaries that he crosses. We can read Friberg’s Chicago as exceptionally legible, a successful effort to control the settlement and cultural activity of residents through the gridded street system. Not only does the film follow a clearly-demarcated path, but it moves through a number of well-defined and discrete districts on the way. The traveler along Halsted Street is able to recognize and order these districts according to a number of different visual criteria. Most obviously, there is a series of local landmarks designating the district (ethnic grocers in the immigrant neighborhoods, cattle pens in the stockyards, the movie marquees announcing erotic films in the vice district). In addition, the ever-present visual reminder of spatial organization, the street sign, included in the film at regular intervals by Friberg, indicates how blocks are created as discrete units of city life.


Chicago River: Nature’s Pathways

Chicago River marks a different kind of exploration of legibility. Whereas Halsted Street is primarily concerned with demonstrating the diversity and imageability of the population along Halsted, Chicago River, filmed in 1955, instead explores how natural paths (in this case, the river and the lake) give shape to the way humans interact with the urban environment. Coates’ film follows a trip down the South Branch of the river from the Loop to the Calumet-Sag Channel, then east through the Channel to Lake Michigan, before proceeding north again, through the Lake, to downtown Chicago.

Postcard of Chicago River in downtown Chicago, c. 1960

Coates’s film documents a moment of transition in the use of the city’s waterways. None but the bravest would have volunteered for a pleasure cruise down the South Branch of the Chicago River twenty years before this film was shot, during Friberg’s era. Just south of the point where Halsted Street crosses the river is the notorious “Bubbly Creek,” the longtime dumping grounds for the Union Stockyards – a witches’ brew of a waterway that bred odors and gaseous emissions for decades.[16] Chicago was a very industrial city during the first half of the twentieth century, and the South Branch of the river was a critical conduit in getting the goods produced in Chicago out to the world, as the never-ending flow of barges down the river would testify.  Around the time that Chicago River was filmed, the city was working to improve the harbor at the Port of Chicago in order to make it more easily accessible for oceangoing vessels. The opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway several years after this footage was shot reduced the amount of time it would take for a ship to get from Chicago to the Atlantic Ocean, encouraging additional freight traffic by ship.

The relevant questions to ask here concern how Coates’ vision of Chicago differs from Friberg’s, and how those differences might be related to the larger ideas of legibility that I have been discussing. Coates explores Chicago’s relationship to its waterways, historically the single most important relationship the city has had to the natural environment. And yet the depiction of Chicago made by Coates is largely illegible, by Lynch’s standard. While the river does constitute one of the most significant paths through the city, it is one that few of the city’s residents take with any regularity. The opening scenes of Coates’s film, as the boat moves through the Loop area, are easily the most legible, given the presence of so many landmarks – defined by Lynch as city elements that serve as shared and fixed points of reference for its inhabitants. In this case, we see familiar structures like the Wrigley Building or the bridge carrying elevated trains over Lake Street, as recognizable to Chicagoans in the 1950s as they are today. Once the boat moves further south along the river, though, space becomes abstracted; each passing barge serves as a floating point of reference for people trying to make sense of their surroundings.

Friberg, on the other hand, was able to establish a concrete sense of spatiality without having to depend on landmarks for visual cues. In Halsted Street, he relies on the viewers’ familiarity with Chicago’s grid system to achieve this effect; though the corner store at 59th and Halsted may look very similar to that at 35th and Halsted, we are able to differentiate between the two because the presence of street signs facilitates mental mapping. This approach to legibility allows for a kind of random access memory – we are able to conjure up images of particular districts of the city based on their coordinates.

But the depiction of the river that we get in Coates’ film suggests a different kind of perception at work, one much more reliant on the linearity of space and memory. That is to say, the traveler of this particular path will have no problem identifying the order in which particular scenes were encountered along the way. However, given the paucity of landmarks along the river and the absence of a scheme for organizing its space, it is comparatively more difficult to speak with specificity about an individual location along the river. In a certain sense, Chicago River argues for a mode of perceiving the city as a stream of images, rather than a series of discrete pictures plotted along a grid. Lynch would contend that this distinction has profound consequences on the legibility of the resulting images of the city; by fixing the scenes of his film to specific and well-traveled geographic coordinates, Friberg creates a mental map of Chicago that is easily apprehended by the viewer. Coates, on the other hand, relies on a crude sort of vector navigation – the viewer knows where the journey through the city started, in which direction it is headed, and how long it has taken. This strategy results in a blurry mental map, in which the viewer can only generally ascertain her place within the city.[17]



Each of these films reflects a particularly cinematic expression of the process of mental mapping. In each case, filmmakers collect images from “the field” and compose them into meaningful sequences that represent some kind of a coherent whole, using a process not entirely dissimilar from that advocated by Lynch in his discussion of cities. Despite significant variations in the approaches and outcomes of the respective films, both Halsted Street and Chicago River argue for a kind of city film grounded expressly in the lived experience of that city’s inhabitants. This stands in distinction to the way Cooley High envisions the city. The aerial shots of that film’s opening montage function in the same way that views from an observation deck or skylines on a souvenir postcard do: they teach us what the city looks like, but from a perspective that none of us will typically attain in the practice of everyday life. While this view certainly constitutes an image of the city, Lynch would argue that we need to design cities to be equally imageable at ground level for their inhabitants. Halsted Street and Chicago River suggest ways that the cinema can function to advance that very goal. Insofar as they are successful, they help us to render more transparent the opacity of the modern city by making it more legible. After a trip up Halsted Street with Friberg, even Edgar Allen Poe might conclude that, despite protestations to the contrary, the city can be read after all.

Brendan Kredell (MAPH ’04) teaches film studies in the Department of Communication and Culture at the University of Calgary. He holds a PhD in Screen Cultures from Northwestern University, and an MA from the University of Chicago. His teaching and research focus on the intersection of media and urban studies, as well as the role of film festivals in the contemporary culturescape. His work has appeared in journals including the New Review of Film and Television Studies and the Canadian Journal of Film Studies, and he is the recipient of a number of research grants, including a Fulbright fellowship. He is currently co-editing, with Marijke de Valck and Skadi Loist, a collection of essays on film festival studies.

[1] Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” in The Sociology of Georg Simmel, trans. and ed. by Kurt Wolff (New York: Free Press, 1950).

[2]Chicago River is part of a larger collection of Coates’s films held in the archives of the Film Studies Center at the University of Chicago. To my knowledge the film was never formally titled, but is referred to in collections materials by this provisional title.

[3] François Penz and Andong Lu, “Introduction: What is Urban Cinematics?,” in Urban Cinematics: Understanding the Urban Phenomena through the Moving Image, ed. François Penz and Andong Lu (Bristol: Intellect, 2011).

[4] I use a past-tense verb here, as the Cabrini-Green housing complex was gradually razed, beginning in the late 1990s and culminating in 2011 with the demolition of the last of the original buildings.

[5] Guy Debord, “Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography,” in Situationist International Anthology, trans. and ed. by Ken Knabb (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1995), 5.

[6] He describes this sensation in the opening pages of the section on spatial practices in Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984). 92-94.

[7] Debord, “Theory of the Dérive,” 50.

[8] Denis Wood, “Lynch Debord: About Two Psychogeographies,” Cartographica: The International Journal for Geographic Information and Geovisualization 45, no. 3 (2010).

[9] Of interest to readers of Colloquium: according to Wood, the first usage of psychogeography in an American context was in a grant proposal written by researchers at the University of Chicago. Robert J. Beck, one of those researchers, would go on to teach at Clark University.

[10] Wood, “Lynch Debord: About Two Psychogeographies,” 186.

[11] Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1960).

[12] Richard Koeck and François Penz, “Screen City Legibility,” City: Analysis of Urban Trends, Culture, Theory, Policy, Action 7, no. 3 (2003); Karen Voss, “Replacing L.A.: Mi Familia, Devil in a Blue Dress, and Screening the Other Los Angeles,” Wide Angle 20, no. 3 (1998).

[13] Lynch, The Image of the City: 47.

[14] This river, seen in one of the first shots of the film, figures prominently in Chicago River.

[15] Conspicuously, we see very few African Americans in this film; during the era of restrictive housing covenants, the large and growing black community on the South Side was forced to live in the so-called Black Belt, one mile to the east of Halsted Street.

[16] The notoriety of this waterway has hardly subsided in recent years; in 2007, the first alligator ever caught in the Chicago River crawled out from Bubbly Creek.

[17] Incidentally, this distinction between what ornithologists would call “true navigation” and vector navigation (or orientation) is what differentiates mature birds from young ones in many species.

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