Capturing a moment on Chicago's West Side, intertwining the personal and political in "Fifth City: Revisited"

Links Hall continues with celebrating its 40th Anniversary with the culminating performances of its Co-Missions Fellows: Media McNeal and Silvita Diaz Brown. The two choreographers, each a scholar and performer, blur the lines between history and myth in the culminating performances of their six-month long residencies. McNeal’s “Fifth City: Revisited” is part performance, part installation, and uses personal narrative, theory and public policy to tell the history of the Fifth City Human Development Project that emerged on Chicago’s West Side in the 1970s. The predominantly black neighborhood of Garfield Park dared to reimagine community development and urban planning amid redlining, white flight and the aftermath of riots following the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Fifth City simultaneously addressed several areas of opportunity: educational curriculum, economic development, skill training, creativity and community investment. Existing in parallel with other black liberation movements in happening in Chicago and around the world, Fifth City was a model for what it could look like to create and plan healthy communities centered around the question of “Who plans? Everybody.”

There is something intimate about the space when you first walk in. Maybe it’s the six-foot posters created by dramaturg and exhibition curator, Vitaly Vladimrov, that are plastered on the walls with McNeal’s family photos and news clippings from Fifth City’s early beginnings. Or maybe it’s the wooden desk and chair in the downstage corner that looks like it could have transported itself from my grandmother’s house. Maybe it’s the podium and small table with a colorful cloth and jar of flowers sitting nearby that reminds me of the Sunday School superintendent’s perch, or maybe it’s the amber lighting that makes me feel at home in the Links Hall white box. There is also this sense of urgency, woven in the flags that hang above the stage with symbols: Sankofa, ying and yang, text that reads “exodus movement of the Jah people”, the colors of Pan-African flag, and other symbols that I can’t make out. They tell me that I am here to witness something larger than myself. 

McNeal enters stage right dressed in an all-black T-shirt and yoga pants. A former resident of Fifth City, she embodies the past, present and future, delivering Fifth City’s history through her own childhood stories from the desk and the podium, like an impassioned sermon, a eulogy for a lifelong friend, family history passed down to a child, or a state of emergency address. The task of remembering, piecing history back together, is heavy. McNeal balls up her fists, shakes, gets close to the ground in a deep plie, spirals and rocks from side to side as Harold Washington’s velvet voice seeps through the speakers. At one moment she lays on the ground, rolling through her spine until her pelvis rises with every expand and collapse of her chest. She gasps for breath going in and out of fetal position, until she finally finds her feet. Piecing together memories, she takes time to sit at the desk, or stand at the podium, wipe her sweat, take a sip of water and catch her breath, in silence. We hear every pant, every sip of water, and sit with the fact that daring to reimagine a community in the midst of trauma takes work, but is essential.

It becomes clear that McNeal’s mission is not remembering for the sake of remembering, but introducing us to how people are, again, reimagining a community in the wake of gentrification and displacement. Videos showing dilapidated buildings and homes juxtapose a young woman’s voice. “I don’t think people understand that a lot of these spaces were given to us as [expletive]. But what would it be like to imagine a clean, safe place to live and work?” says the voice. More images of present day Garfield Park flash across the wall, including footage of Fifth City’s last remaining relics: a preschool and the Iron Man statue that became a symbol of resilience and imagination for the people living there. Children’s laughter coming from the preschool echoes McNeal’s thesis for the evening-length performance as she dances freely in a projected bed of blooming flowers: Imagine, and imagine and imagine some mo’.


Meida McNeal's “Fifth City: Revisited” part of the Co-Missions Fellowship Showcase, continues June 28 and 30 at Links Hall, 3111 N. Western Ave. Tickets are $12-$40, available by clicking the event page below.