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Exploring with Jill Soloway, 50 years later, shared childhood in urban renewal South Commons

Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning Hollywood Director Jill Soloway, whose breakthrough series “Transparent” sees its unique finale as a two-hour musical airing Sept. 27 on Amazon, grew up with Chicago Sun-Times reporter Maudlyne Ihejirika in the South Commons neighborhood. Soloway is working on a documentary about the Near South Side, mixed-income, mixed-race, urban renewal experiment.

Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning Director Jill Soloway, whose breakthrough series, “Transparent,” gets a unique finale as a feature-length musical airing Sept. 27 on Amazon, grew up with Chicago Sun-Times reporter Maudlyne Ihejirika in the Near South Side, mixed-income, mixed-race, urban renewal community of South Commons.
Justin Jackson

My family and Jill Soloway’s moved into South Commons in 1969, two years after the 28-acre planned neighborhood of mixed incomes and race was birthed.

“I can’t believe it’s 50 years later, because we both look really young and fantastic,” Soloway quipped at our recent South Commons 50th Anniversary Reunion.

Sprouting in the post-World War II urban renewal years of massive demolition and clearance of slums followed by vast development, our meticulously designed, Near South Side scattering of apartments and homes was an experiment of integration on multiple levels.

The U.S. Housing Act of 1949 had made funding available for such projects, and Chicago’s largest at the time saw the razing of 730 Near South Side acres to erect neighborhoods east and southeast of South Commons.

The 70-acre Lake Meadows went up in the late 50s, along King Drive between 31st and 35th streets. The 20-acre Prairie Shores followed, completed in the early 60s along King Drive between 27th and 31st streets.

It was in ‘64 that the Chicago Department of Urban Renewal sought proposals for South Commons, a neighborhood expected to lease and sell to a target population that was 60 percent white, 40 percent black; 60 percent middle- to upper-income, and 40 percent moderate-income.

The new neighborhood broke ground in ‘66. The first units opened in ‘67.

“Depending on who you talk to, South Commons was an urban experiment or just a great housing development,” said Soloway, the noted Hollywood creator/director and winner of two Emmys and a Golden Globe for her breakthrough series “Transparent.”

“What I know is that there were sociologists at University of Chicago who were studying our every move,” said Soloway, who interviewed a bunch of us at the reunion this summer, for a documentary that Soloway is producing on South Commons.

The area is bounded north and south by 31st and 26th streets, east and west by Prairie and Michigan avenues.

“A lot of people say they grew up in communes and it was awful. But South Commons was the communal dream in the city,” said Soloway, a vocal advocate in the Time’s Up movement founded by women in Hollywood after the wave of #MeToo sexual misconduct allegations.

“It’s fascinating. We had a very idyllic experience that some people say felt like a snow globe. And so I’m just sort of curious about, like, ‘What was that? And what went right, and what went wrong?’” Soloway said of her documentary.

During a South Commons 50th Anniversary Reunion in July, Director Jill Soloway interviewed childhood friends for a documentary on growing up in the urban renewal neighborhood. “Some people say South Commons was an urban experiment, some people say it was just a great housing development. I know that there were sociologists at University of Chicago who were sort of studying our every move,” said the creator of “Transparent.”
Justin Jackson/Sun-Times

As kids, Faith Soloway and I were besties, Jill Soloway her pesky little sister.

Alongside a diverse mix of children, we darted in and out of each other’s homes across a neighborhood of architecturally delineated yet socially melded quadrants.

The Soloways lived in the upper-income, owner-occupied townhomes on its northwest border; my family, in the moderate-income, mid-rise apartments in South Commons’ center.

Jill Soloway, who identifies as non-binary and uses the third-person pronoun they/them/their, believes much of who Soloway is today can be traced back to that neighborhood.

“We were kids, so everybody was just playing. There was very little race and class awareness on our part. For us, it really did feel like that utopia, and I think it made me curious,” said the co-founder of 5050by2020, the activist arm of Time’s Up, which advocates for equal representation of women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ and people with disabilities at every level in Hollywood.

“South Commons made me feel like it was our job to live a particular revolution,” said Soloway, who had hinted interest in dissecting the experience at last year’s reunion.

This year, Soloway emailed they were bringing a film crew to the July 19-20 reunion activities.

Chicago Sun-Times Reporter Maudlyne Ihejirika and Hollywood creator/director Jill Soloway at the South Commons 50th Aniversary Reunion Dinner, July 19, 2019, at The Vu Rooftop Lounge, 133 E. Cermak.
Provided photo

On July 21, Mom and I sat for an interview with the crew at the Illinois Institute of Technology, near the old neighborhood, which has undergone massive changes since both my family and Jill Soloway’s moved out in ‘77. I hardly recognized it.

Mom and I chatted about our family’s trajectory before, during and after South Commons.

Soloway then sat for an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times about their own trajectory, some of which Soloway had written about in a poignant 2018 memoir, “She Wants It: Desire, Power, and Toppling the Patriarchy.”

“Faith and I look back, and in South Commons, we were always putting on plays with all the kids, and we were always sort of like, ground up producing and being in plays, and always loving making art,” Soloway recalled. “And then we kind of kept doing that after high school.”

In South Commons’ southwest quadrant were the middle- to upper-income, high- and mid-rise apartments. In the northeast quadrant, senior citizen high-rises, more townhouses and middle- to upper-income high-rises.

All the children attended Drake South Commons, a brand new Chicago public school within the neighborhood, a kindergarten thru third-grade annex of a CPS school in the Prairie Courts public housing development just east.

Critical to city planners’ efforts to prevent white flight and maintain integration, the plan for the school was to annually add upper grades. It didn’t work out that way.

“It’s been a fascinating deep dive into the archives. For the first few years, the school was integrated, and then some of the white parents started kind of moving to private schools,” said Soloway, who turns 54 this month.

At the 2018 South Commons Reunion, friends from the old neighborhood met up nearby, at Ricobene’s, 252 W. 26th St., for a night of reminiscing. Pictured (L-R) Hollywood producer/writer Faith Soloway, American Airlines flight attendant Terri Bell, Chicago Sun-Times reporter Maudlyne Ihejirika and Hollywood creator/director Jill Soloway.
Provided photo

Soloway’s mother, author Elaine Soloway, was a fierce South Commons community activist, and among many advocates who fought to maintain a disintegrating sense of community.

Families uninterested in paying private school fees or sending their children to the upper-grade school in public housing moved out. Neighborhood demographics began to shift.

The property manager, Habitat Co., faced increasing challenges to property maintenance and to insulating the neighborhood from crime from several public housing developments immediately east and west. Socioeconomic tensions soon arose.

“My mom was really fighting to keep the school alive and was writing her thesis around the importance of the school, but at some point, they couldn’t really get the Chicago Public Schools’ help to keep the school going,” Soloway said.

Their mother instilled in them her activism, and Soloway and their sister often delivered neighbors their mother’s newsletter, the Commons Commentary, in a little red wagon.

“Faith and I, I think we ended up being the last white kids in the school. We’d be out there at the assemblies singing that we were, ‘Young, Gifted and Black.’ And nobody could tell us any different,” Soloway said.

“The idea of somehow being other, a collective of other, felt like home to us.”

Soloway, who is single — divorced, with two sons — moved with their family to the North Side in ‘77. My family moved to the southwest suburbs.

Hollywood director and Chicago native Jill Soloway believes much of who Soloway is today can be traced to growing up in South Commons. “It made me feel like it was our job to live a particular revolution,” said Soloway, a vocal advocate of Time’s Up, founded in wake of the #MeToo movement. Soloway also co-founded 5050by2020, advocating for equal representation of disadvantaged groups at every level in Hollywood.
Justin Jackson/Sun-Times

Soloway went on to attend Lane Tech College Prep, then University of Wisconsin-Madison. They worked as a production assistant, while creating plays with their sister Faith for Chicago’s Annoyance Theatre. Moving to Los Angeles, Soloway was soon writing for “The Steve Harvey Show,” “Six Feet Under” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”

“Afternoon Delight,” Soloway’s feature film debut, won the 2013 Director’s Award at Sundance. And in 2014, Soloway smashed through Hollywood’s glass ceiling of success with “Transparent.” Amazon bought the original series about a Jewish, L.A. family catapulted into a journey of self discovery after their father comes out as a transgender woman.

Inspired by Soloway’s own father coming out as transgender, the comedy-drama, employing an unprecedented number of transgender actors and crew members, is credited with blazing trails for LGBTQ representation on TV.

And on Sept. 28, Soloway will accept the “Equality Visibility Award” from the nation’s largest statewide LGBTQ-rights organization, Equality California, awarded for Soloway’s “transformative work increasing representation of transgender and non-binary people on television, and empowering a generation of LGBTQ artists.”

“It was my family’s story,” said Soloway, who recently signed to write and direct “Red Sonja,” based on the comic book heroine, and the Amy Butcher memoir “Mothertrucker,” starring Julianne Moore.

“At first it was like, I just want to tell a small story to create a little imaginary world where I can feel safe to explore these feelings and also to make the world a safe place for my parent to be out. And then as I got to know so many trans people working on the show, I started to go through my own gender questioning and wondering,” Soloway said.

Forced to halt production of its fifth and final season last year after star Jeffrey Tambor was accused of sexual harassment by two transgender crew members and fired — Tambor denied the allegations — “Transparent” fans will finally get their series finale on Sept. 27.

“Instead of a final season, we’re doing a final movie, so I get to reunite with my sister Faith. It’s a musical, so it’s all of her songs and lyrics,” Soloway said. “We like to say the show isn’t ending. It’s transitioning.”

Jill Soloway, shown here at Amazon’s Emmy Celebration in 2016, ends their groundbreaking Amazon series, “Transparent,” in a unique, two-hour musical on Sept. 27. Inspired by Soloway’s own father coming out as trans, Soloway hired an unprecedented number of trans actors and crew on the show credited for blazing trails for LGBTQ representation on TV. “We like to say the show isn’t ending, it’s transitioning,” Soloway said.
Photo by Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images