Sam Spitz ’13 Returns to Present Documentary

Colgate alumnus Sam Spitz ’13 returned to campus on Tuesday September 24 to present “The Greens,” a documentary he wrote, directed and produced about Cabrini-Green, a low-income housing project in Chicago.

Spitz visited Colgate as part of a larger college speaking tour that promotes a discussion about urban space, racial inequality and the ties one forms to one’s home. The event was sponsored by the Sociology/Anthropology, Geography and Film Studies Departments, the Africana, Latin American, Asian American and Native American (ALANA) Cultural Center and the Dean of the College.

The documentary begins with Spitz riding the Red line, the only train that connects the north and south sides of Chicago, which are divided along racial and socioeconomic lines. When Spitz became bored and decided to get a haircut, he met barber Teddy Williams. Spitz and Williams realized they had lived only a few blocks away from each other, although their neighborhoods were vastly different. Williams showed Spitz around his childhood home, Cabrini-Green, which is how the project began.

When Spitz and Williams met, Williams was homeless because the high-rise apartments of Cabrini-Green had been recently demolished in order to create a mixed-income neighborhood and the residents, although promised they would eventual return, were displaced. Cabrini-Green is infamous for its terrible living conditions and extreme violence. Yet, when Williams returned to Cabrini-Green to give Spitz a tour, he cited fond memories growing up there, saying it would always be home.

Spitz’s documentary also told the story of L.C. Harris Jr. (Batman), a former resident of Cabrini-Green who was a political and legal coordinator for the Chicago-based gang, the Gangster Disciples. In the documentary, Batman emotionally divulges many things he had to do in order to get by in the 1980s, including murder. He now prays that God will look out for his old neighborhood.  

After airing the documentary, Spitz, accompanied by Williams on his speaking tour, held an open forum to discuss issues the film poses with Colgate students and faculty.

“The purpose of this film is the conversation that follows. It’s not just the 20 minutes. So the fact that we’re having conversations for more than an hour afterward tells us that we’ve made a film that’s putting us in the conversation that we want to have,” Spitz said.

Regarding his intention when making the film, Spitz said, “I didn’t go there to study the people in there. I didn’t go there to make a definitive film about Cabrini. I didn’t go there to determine whether or not it should have been demolished. For me, this was just a listening project. It was about putting myself in a position I wasn’t comfortable being in.”

One of the issues discussed was that academia and the more affluent parts of Chicago see Cabrini-Green as pathology, a social problem to be solved. Spitz acknowledged that during the summer he spent working in Cabrini-Green, it was hard to approach residents without the intention of helping them or studying them, but only for the purpose of getting to know them. Spitz said his perspective shifted drastically and he found the importance in seeing people as people and not as issues.

“I knew that people died in Cabrini-Green. But I never knew that people lived there,” Spitz said.

In reference to touring colleges with audiences that are more economically privileged than he is, Williams said he has felt no discomfort. Instead, he finds it a relief that people are willing to be open-minded.

“I’m glad to know that people are receptive. It is a real issue to me so I gained a lot being able to travel and tell my story,” said Williams. “I can walk around the street and tell people my story anytime but it’s good for college campuses to see because they have greater resources.”

Spitz hopes that his documentary will urge college students to think critically about what they read in class. Having studied Latin American history at Colgate, he thought he knew everything about the Zapatistas, but when he went on an abroad program with Colgate to Mexico, he realized that he needed to follow their saying, “Walk and listen,” to fully understand. He claimed to have used that principle in order to see his city of Chicago differently. 

“Colgate helped stimulate my intellectual curiosity. It helped me form a critical lens through which to view the world. And it ultimately set me up for one of the most humbling experiences of my life, which was going to Mexico. So this project wouldn’t have been possible without my Colgate education,” Spitz said.

Spitz said he has Colgate to thank not only for the perspective he needed for his documentary, but also for shaping his life path. “I was not someone who was interested in school before I arrived in Hamilton, and I left here as someone who plans to continue teaching for the rest of my life,” Spitz said. “It’s an honor to be invited back to Colgate to present work. And to come back here with a project that means as much to me as ‘The Greens’ is extremely rewarding.”

Contact Julia Queller at [email protected].