Christine Walley, then the teenage daughter of a Wisconsin Steel mill worker, watched her father lose his job, his pension, and his hopes for the future, when the mill in Chicago abruptly shut down in 1980. Thirty-four hundred factory jobs were lost overnight. And when the jobs went away, so did an entire community’s chance at reaching a stable, middle-class life.
Today, an associate professor of anthropology at MIT, Walley is on a quest to make sense of her family’s story, and through this inquiry, to explain the larger, lasting, and devastating effects of the deindustrialization of American cities. She is now author of Exit Zero: Family and Class in Postindustrial Chicago, which brings an urban anthropological perspective to her family’s story. The book is part of a project that will include a film and website focusing on first-person accounts of the demise of the steel industry in Southeast Chicago.
Steel mills formed the very backbone of this part of Chicago, as tens of thousands of immigrants flocked to the city for the good jobs and stability the mills provided. “Southeast Chicago arose because of the steel mills. You can even see it in how the neighborhoods were named, like Irondale or Slag Valley,” Walley says. “People lived in the neighborhood, worked in the neighborhood, shopped in the neighborhood, and walked to work—creating dense, tight, social networks in these old industrial areas.”
The mills offered not only jobs, but a sense of purpose and meaning from the results of the hard, dangerous work. And they provided economic security for workers and their families, and seemingly, multiple generations to come. Wages rose. “People felt themselves transitioning to middle-class lives as the mills provided a form of economic upward mobility for entire communities. But for them, losing the mills knocked out this rung on the social ladder.”
The loss of that rung had been profound for the Wisconsin Steel workers and for the southeast Chicago region. Some younger workers moved. Many workers suffered mental and physical breakdowns, and premature death. Walley’s father stayed and worked at a series of odd jobs, but never found meaningful work. He was depressed the rest of his life. She once overheard him say, “We were almost middle class.”
The postindustrial future of the region is uncertain. While plans are underway to convert the abandoned factory sites as well as the region’s many landfills and pre-existing wetlands to parks, community groups are working hard to ensure that revitalization efforts will include new jobs for residents and not simply recreational spaces for non-residents in a gentrifying city.
Now, as an anthropologist, and one whose life was altered by the closing of the mills, Walley argues that much has been lost beyond the actual jobs. “The assumption that this was simply an evolutionary movement forward from an industrial economy to a more progressive postindustrial “new economy” doesn’t account for what was being lost in terms of the larger society. Statistics don’t convey what it meant for people and communities. The cost is a loss personally, socially, and economically. When you have the loss of industry, then it’s not only an economic loss and a loss of jobs, but it’s a loss to the whole foundation of society.”