The first day of school was big news in Chicago this year. Nearly 50 public schools--more than 10% of public elementary schools in the city--were shut down by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a divisive budget-tightening push. Reporters followed exiled students as they crossed unfamiliar streets and gang boundaries under the watchful eye of the city’s new “Safe Passage” program.
“I think it was 100 miles of driving altogether,” says Cassella. His 12-hour, 38-school tour started at 7 a.m. at Graeme Stewart Elementary School: Driving, parking--“easy to do because everything was empty”--and making a quick lap with his iPhone 5, captioning and uploading as he got back into his car. “I was looking for two things at each school: signs the students and teacher had left behind, and then the architectural style,” he says.
The architecture ranges from the stately brick of Near North, an elementary school for special ed students opened in 1884, to the modernist squarescape (now decorated with chalk hearts) of Garrett Morgan, created in 1972 by a student of Mies van der Rohe. The human traces range from a crushed Number 2 pencil in the Near North parking lot to an apparent goodbye message from faculty at Granville T Woods Math & Science Academy: “Thank you for allowing us to educate families in this community.”
“I think I found more things inside the schools than I expected,” says Cassella. “A lot of the equipment was still inside: the desks, the chairs. Things were still on the walls and bins of teachers’ materials were still sitting by the windows.”
Cassella was able to photograph the school interiors in part because he was using, for the first time in his journalistic career, a smartphone instead of a camera. “Pretty much every school has the same security screen, which is perforated metal with these little tiny circles in it,” he says. “They just happen to be the same size of that little iPhone camera.”
As he worked, he thought also of the families he’d met on previous stories, like the parents and teachers who begged to keep Calhoun Elementary open. “I met a parent who lived across the street and said she went there, her kids went there and her mom had gone there. And they lost, so it was sad remembering that,” says Cassella.
Although no people appear in his nearly 150 images, a spirit of humanity is still captured. “A lot of people keep talking about how sad they are,” says Cassella.