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New Labor Forum
“Exit Zero is an incredibly moving book written by an academic scholar coming to grips with her experience with deindustrialization.”
When I was a kid, I liked to take long drives with my dad around Southeast Chicago. We lived in an area east of the Calumet River. Known simply as the East Side, our neighborhood lay on the opposite bank of the river from South Chicago's massive US Steel–South Works plant. My father worked as a shear operator at Wisconsin Steel, a mill located in an adjacent Southeast Chicago neighborhood originally known as Irondale and later renamed South Deering. 1 Beyond these neighborhoods, the part of Southeast Chicago most removed from the rest of the city was Hegewisch, a region cut off from the East Side by the wide industrial spaces of what was then Republic Steel. Some elderly residents suggested the neighborhood's isolationist streak by obstinately writing their addresses as "Hegewisch, Illinois." My older relatives would also casually mention smaller subdivisions within these communities that carried such colorful names as Slag Valley and Millgate, although I had trouble keeping straight exactly which section of old wooden frame houses they meant. At that time, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the steel mills of the Calumet region were still in full swing. My dad, like other steelworkers, did shift work; and so, during the hot weeks of summer when he was "on nights," and when the sounds of kids and cars kept him awake during the day, he would sometimes take me for a car ride around the neighborhood and point out the places that marked the boundaries of our world.
On these occasions, we would drive past the steel mills and other industry, and he would name the mills by those we knew who worked there. My uncle Don worked alongside my great-uncle Leland at Interlake Steel; my grandfather, who spent decades working as a craneman, was at the Valley Mould iron foundry; Great-Uncle Arley labored alongside my dad at Wisconsin Steel, and so on. In between the mills, and often hidden from view except for the telltale cattails along the roads, were the remaining wetlands, or "swamps," as we referred to them when I was growing up. The highly industrialized Calumet River, with steel mills and other industry positioned along both banks, also crisscrossed the region and connected Lake Michigan with the heavily polluted, fenced-off remains of Lake Calumet, which was completely inaccessible and hidden from the sight of both residents and passing motorists. Lake Michigan itself also bordered the mill neighborhoods. Although we could feel the lake breezes and see the seagulls flying overhead, our view of the great lake was blocked by the Edison power plant, a series of enormous granaries painted like giant Falstaff beer cans, and an elevated expressway known as the Chicago Skyway that allowed motorists to pass high above the mill neighborhoods. From the air, the defining features of the landscape would have been water and steel mills.
The residential areas of Southeast Chicago lay scattered among the region's mills and waterways. Historically, the neighborhoods bordered the mill entrances so that people could walk to work in the days before cars. Cut off from each other by industry, water, train tracks, drawbridges, and vacant lots we called "prairie," these neighborhoods resembled (and often functioned like) small islands. Their most striking visual features were the church steeples that soared above the sturdy brick bungalows and old wooden houses. There seemed to be a church for every ethnic group that had migrated to work in the steel mills: Catholic churches for Poles, Italians, Croatians, and Mexicans; Orthodox churches for Greeks and Serbians; Protestant Lutheran and Methodist churches for "old timer" groups such as Swedes and Germans; Baptist and other evangelical churches for southern whites and African-Americans, and so on. The commercial strips were lined with mom-and-pop shops, ethnic specialty stores, and storefront taverns, many of which catered to steelworkers finishing their shifts.
If my dad and I could have driven out onto the restricted promontory in South Chicago that formed part of US Steel–South Works, we would have had a dazzling view of downtown Chicago on a clear day. The promontory, built from slag, or waste left over from the steelmaking process, juts far out into Lake Michigan. It offers stunning views of the Loop's skyscrapers ten miles to the north. It was only as an adult, however, that I learned about the places, well known to historians, that existed in those ten miles between Southeast Chicago and downtown. Just west and slightly south of the Loop, for example, lay the Near West Side. A heavily immigrant manufacturing area in the late nineteenth century, the Near West Side was also the site of the infamous 1886 Haymarket bombing. In the midst of struggles for an eight-hour workday, an anarchist bomb thrower attacked the Chicago police in retaliation for the shooting of two workers a few days prior. In the resulting melee, seven police officers and unknown numbers of civilians died. Although the identity of the bomb thrower was never determined, seven anarchists and labor leaders were charged with the crime and four were hanged. The event provoked an international outcry and became a defining event in nineteenth-century history, even as it dealt a crippling blow to Chicago's emerging labor movement.
Further south of the Loop lay the historic expanses of the Chicago stockyards, which had begun operations in 1865 and closed around the time that I was born, a hundred years later. As part of an increasingly commercialized food economy, massive numbers of hogs and cattle were transported to these stockyards for slaughter from areas outside the city and further west and were later transported as meat by railroad to the east. The Chicago stockyards would become infamous for their labor and sanitary conditions through Upton Sinclair's 1906 muckraking account, The Jungle. On the opposite side of Lake Calumet from Southeast Chicago's steel mills lay Pullman. Built by industrial magnate George M. Pullman in 1880 as a social experiment to create ideal housing conditions for workers and their families, Pullman was known to historians as the quintessential "company town." Critics, however, argued that the planned town also attempted to unjustly control workers, and after George Pullman cut workers' wages in 1893 but refused to reduce workers' rents, the town of Pullman became another famous site of labor struggles.
Growing up, I knew nothing of these places and events. Even the occasional trips to downtown Chicago on a school field trip or on an excursion with my mother were like a visit to another world, an "outside" world that my grandfather and many other area residents assiduously avoided for decades at a time. Our world was instead bounded by the neighborhoods of Southeast Chicago. What connected this world together was not the kind of history recounted in textbooks, but the social ties forged in the shadows of the steel industry and its satellite businesses, as well as the nearby churches, ethnic organizations, unions, and schools that gave meaning to residents' daily lives. When we did look beyond Southeast Chicago, it was not toward Chicago but towards the steel mill towns across the Indiana border. Northwest Indiana, linked ecologically to Southeast Chicago by the Calumet's waterways, was also the historical spillover point of Chicago's explosive nineteenth-century industrial growth. It was the tendrils of the expansive steel economy itself that bound the two sides of the Calumet together.
During our drives together through Southeast Chicago, my dad told stories that turned the region's neighborhoods into a living landscape. His history was not an "official" one readily recognizable by a historian, but one told through anecdotes, the stories of people we knew, and personal experiences. When he pointed out the brick bungalow on the East Side where Al Capone once had a "safe house" in the 1920s and which was still rumored to have bullet-proof glass, it triggered a humorous recounting of how one of my great-uncles had quit his job as a night watchman because of Capone. Great-Uncle Leland had to hide in a hole in the ground to escape from Capone's men, who showed up at his workplace one night and told him not to report to work the following evening. Passing the plot of land where the seminal labor event known as the Memorial Day Massacre occurred in 1937, my father would reminisce about how his own father had marched through this bit of "prairie" alongside locked-out Republic Steel workers and got shot at by the cops. Or, passing an area in South Deering known as Trumbull Park, my dad might describe how he had to walk rather than drive to work at Wisconsin Steel when the area was locked down because of the race riots that occurred there in the mid-1950s. Presumably it was these riots that in 1966 led Martin Luther King, Jr., to hold marches on the streets of Southeast Chicago to protest the area's deep-seated racial hatred and housing segregation, much to the consternation of many of the neighborhood's white working-class residents, including my father and some other family members.
On these drives, we also often passed the homes of extended family members, and, if it looked like they were home, we might drop in unannounced to "bullshit" a bit or have a cold drink. In the mill neighborhoods, dense networks of family ties were at the root of social life, and many families, like my own, had lived in the mill neighborhoods for generations. It was unremarkable when I was growing up that my grandparents lived across the alley from my parents' house, and that nearly all my cousins, aunts, and uncles were a few short blocks away. My sisters and I attended the same grammar school as our parents as well as several of our grandparents and even great-grandparents. The interconnectedness was so extreme that at times it reached near comic proportions. For example, my mother's mother, a widow, married my father's father, a widower, a year before my own parents were married. Despite perplexed looks when I explained that my mother and father had become step-brother and step-sister as adults, the situation seemed an oddly appropriate expression of the dense social bonds that knit together the mill neighborhoods. At other times, the interconnectedness took on darker overtones. I remember my parents reminiscing about trying to decide as newlyweds whether it was appropriate to attend the funeral of my father's aunt after she had been killed by a distant relative on my mother's side. The relative, who had become mentally unstable after serving in the Korean War, exploded a bomb in a local department store that had killed a number of neighborhood residents, including my uncle Don's stepmother.
This tightly knit world was the one my family and I knew Before the Mill Shut Down. As I think back on these years in Southeast Chicago, I'm filled with a desire to document this way of life both in order to understand what it was and to understand what it would later become. Even as a kid, it was a place that I found both enthralling and troubling. On those drives with my father, I was fascinated by the way a landscape could be so saturated with history. For my relatives, every place, every building, every piece of ground in Southeast Chicago seemed to hold a meaning or story, stories that might be spontaneously bestowed upon us children or that might have to be coaxed with effort. It was through these stories that we came to be tied to this place across generations.
In an embarrassingly cliché preoccupation for a future anthropologist, I was also fascinated by the quotidian diversity of daily life in Southeast Chicago. I relished the chance to eat homemade noodles at the Serbian New Year celebration of a classmate, to stand in the midst of icons and incense in a Greek Orthodox church as a friend's baby brother was baptized, or to get drunk for the first time on the homemade wine from the backyard grape arbor of an Italian-American neighbor. Yet this world could also be a harsh one. The neighborhoods of Southeast Chicago were a patchwork mix of racial and ethnic enclaves. At that time much of Southeast Chicago was what is often labeled "white ethnic," although other areas were predominantly Latino and a few were increasingly African-American. There was a strong sense of insularity in the midst of this diversity: a constant emphasis upon the need to draw boundaries in a landscape populated by people and groups to whom you either did, or did not, belong. Challenging such boundaries could mean provoking not only outrage, but also violence, and whites in particular jealously guarded their neighborhoods against those ethnic and racial groups perceived to be on a lower social rung, whom they saw as threatening their own recent and hard-won respectability.
In later years, when I was a young adult and after the demise of the mills, my fascination with Southeast Chicago took on a new, almost obsessive form. The need to make sense of this place and the loss of the world I had known as a child was like scratching an itch or salving a wound that had opened years earlier and wouldn't heal. The desire was heightened by the fact that Southeast Chicago was rapidly becoming someplace different. During these years (when I was also becoming someone different), I would jot down stories and anecdotes in bits and pieces on the backs of envelopes, collect family photos, or coax taped interviews from sometimes hesitant relatives. Home on vacation from graduate school, I would visit the Southeast Chicago Historical Society, a community-run museum in a single room in the Calumet Park field house. Crammed to the rafters with memorabilia donated by elderly residents, it was the beloved attic of Southeast Chicago. There, I could rummage through unpublished histories of the mills by labor activists and industry employees, find home movies of Labor Day parades and Miss East Side pageants, peruse steel industry brochures from the 1950s extolling how American steel would overcome communism, and discover photos of buildings and places long gone that allowed me to put an image to the stories of family members. The search for such bits of history became part of a quest to make sense of the rupture that had occurred in our world when the mills shut down, the point when what had long been taken for granted in Southeast Chicago began to disappear.
The following pages offer one account of Southeast Chicago's history: a history that emerges through family stories just as my father's accounts on our drives did. My family's history is both typical and entirely unique in the way that the particularities of history usually are. My relatives' stories are inseparable from the history of industrialization in the Calumet region at a time when heavy industry was at the core of both the United States' economy and its self-image. It is necessary to begin with this history in order to understand what Southeast Chicago meant for many of us who lived there, why it could feel both restrictive and like a refuge, and what deindustrialization would signify for the region as a whole. In telling my relatives' stories, I am struck by how their narratives echo classic tales of American immigration and labor that have been central to understanding US history in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. As I repeat these stories, they feel almost stereotypical in the telling, veering toward the well-worn grooves of tales of hardworking, upwardly mobile immigrants or of feisty laborers seeking their share of the American dream. In the United States, variations of these classic narratives have long been told by both the political right and left as part of a broader understanding of what it means to be an American.
Yet such classic tales of immigration and labor leave other aspects of my relatives' stories untold, or fail to capture their ambivalence or points of tension. It is the often-ignored aspects of these stories that suggest a complexity to people's lives that defies such mythic tellings and makes them recognizable as the human beings I knew growing up. At the heart of such stories is Southeast Chicago itself. Some scholars suggest that experiences of social class are often tightly bound up with a sense of place. Certainly, this was the case in Southeast Chicago. Instead of speaking of abstract forces like "class," we acted as if the forces shaping our lives both emanated from the place itself and were deflected by it. In a region where so many residents shared similar histories of migration, work, and family ties, it was Southeast Chicago that bound our narratives together.
Stories of Immigration and Labor
The stories of the four generations of my family members who lived and worked in Southeast Chicago span much of the history of steel in the Calumet region. Their stories also underscore many of the divisions historically found among the white working class. Anthropologist Sherry Ortner has argued that when Americans think about other classes, their first reaction isn't antagonism (as some on the left might assume). Rather, she argues, Americans tend to see in other social classes projections of their own hopes and fears for the future: those they aspire to be like, and those from whom they seek to differentiate themselves. This is just as true within social classes as between them. After all, the "classes" to which we belong are never static, and our own positions are under constant negotiation. While sociologists tell us that people's class positions often remain remarkably stable over time, psychologically it does not always feel that way. After all, our status and position in relation to others is never truly assured. While some may take their positions in the world for granted, for many others it remains a constant question: something we might hope to change, be desperate to maintain, or resign ourselves to perpetuating. It is something that may be challenged by life developments and passing generations, by the twists and turns of local and far-off events, and by broader changes in the social and economic landscapes we share. "Class," in this sense, is about the constant negotiations, large and small, of the relationships of inequality in which we find ourselves, some of which we can shape, and many of which we cannot.
Excerpted from Exit Zero by CHRISTINE J. WALLEY Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Map of Southeast Chicago xvii
1 A World of Iron and Steel: A Family Album 18
2 It All Came Tumbling Down: My Father and the Demise of Chicago's Steel Industry 57
3 Places Beyond 89
4 The Ties That Bind 117
Conclusion From the Grave to the Cradle 153