Any of us who grew up in the steel mill belt lining the southwestern shores of Lake Michigan knows how the downsizing and closing of the once powerful industry which employed hundreds of thousands and generations of families, was overwhelming. Too many times it meant middle class families devolving into financial hardship, the good paying jobs gone with nothing to replace them. And as their way to earn a living vanished, so did the businesses and communities where they lived, disappear. This immense postindustrial wasteland of shuttered stores, empty downtowns and shells of manufacturing plants remains to remind us of the devastation.
Christine Walley was 14 when Wisconsin Steel, the mill where her father worked as a shear operator, closed on March 28, 1980. She remembers when these steel mill towns, though rough in many ways, also were vibrant with thriving stores and businesses and families with money to buy small lakeside cottages and send their children to college. Working in the mills was hard and dangerous, the hours sometimes brutally long, but it also gave many families an entry into the middle class that suddenly was no longer a reality.
The closing of Wisconsin Steel was a harbinger of things to come for both the Calumet region of Chicago and Northwest Indiana, once one of the largest steel-producing areas in the world. The good paying jobs that were there for anyone willing to work hard had disappeared. The jobs awaiting these displaced workers were poorly paid, the benefits nearly zero. The sense of shock and the eroding of the middle class families in her Southeast Chicago neighborhood was the major reason why Walley, an associate professor of anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to study cultural anthropology.
“I’ve always felt a profound need to understand what happened to Southeast Chicago and other places like it,” she says. “And what deindustrialization has meant for the United States in general.”
In her recently released book, "Exit Zero: Family and Class in Post-Industrial Chicago" (University of Chicago Press 2012; $27.50), Walley, who still has family living in Southeast Chicago, visits often and feels drawn to the area, shares the story of family and neighbors who experienced deindustrialization and also how it has impacted the ever widening gap between rich and poor. The title "Exit Zero" refers to the Skyway exit which takes her to her family home.
“Having grown up at Exit Zero, in many ways I’ve lived with this project almost my entire life,” says Walley, who with Chris Boebel has also produced a documentary to accompany "Exit Zero". “Both the documentary and the book tell about the impact deindustrialization has had on expanding class inequalities in the United States told through the particular experiences of the old steel mill communities of Southeast Chicago where I was raised.”
What: A screening of the documentary film that accompanies the book, followed by a conversation with the filmmakers Christine J. Walley and Chris Boebel, tours of The Field Museum’s Restoring Earth exhibit featuring the Calumet region, and panel discussions with area heritage, environmental justice and labor activists, including panelists from People for Community Recovery, Southeast Environmental Task Force, Alliance For American Manufacturing, and the United Steelworkers Union. There will also be a book signing and reception with Christine Walley and Chris Boebel.
When: April 13th starting at 9 a.m.
Where: Simpson Theater at the West Entrance, Chicago Field Museum, 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, IL
Cost: The all day event is free and open to the public.
FYI: (312) 922-9410; for more information on the book and documentary, visit exitzeroproject.org.