By Pete Beatty
Christine Walley was 14 years old in 1980, the year the Southeast Chicago steel mill that employed her father and thousands of others closed. The area’s other steel mills didn’t last much longer, gutting the economic base of the surrounding neighborhoods. The fallout from deindustrialization forever changed the lives of families like Walley’s. More than thirty years later, Southeast Chicago—an isolated corner of the city reached via an off-ramp aptly labeled EXIT ZERO—is still dealing with the consequences.
Walley is now an anthropologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the author of the 2013 book Exit Zero: Family and Class in Postindustrial Chicago. For years, she and her husband, filmmaker Chris Boebel, have wanted to tell the story of Southeast Chicago. They’re currently raising funds on Kickstarter to finish the Exit Zero documentary. The project uses found footage, family movies, and Walley’s own personal perspective to tell a story spanning generations. The documentary captures the widescreen narrative of deindustrialization and its economic and environmental aftermath in a way that’s both personal and deeply relatable for anyone living in a region negotiating the challenges of post-industrial existence. Walley was kind enough to take a few minutes to talk to Belt and fill us in about the origins of the project, the ubiquity of Rust Belt life, and the perils of garbage avalanches. If you’re intrigued, check out the Exit Zero Kickstarter, closing August 12, and consider donating a few dollars.
BELT: You’re an anthropologist at MIT. Your first book was about the environment, not in the sense of conservation or ecology, but of usage and access, through the lens of a marine park on an island off the coast of Tanzania. How was it switching from Tanzania to Southeast Chicago for the setting of your work?
Walley: It was coming home—both literally and intellectually! I’ve wanted to work on the topic of deindustrialization since I was 16. The steel mill where my Dad worked closed abruptly when I was 14, and I ended up leaving Southeast Chicago a couple years later after getting a scholarship to an East Coast boarding school. The culture shock between the two places was extreme (much more than when I later went to do fieldwork in Tanzania!). It was during those teen-age years that I first came to understand how intense class disparities in the U.S. could be. It was hard. Not only my family but the whole Calumet steel region was going through intense economic trauma and, here I was, attending this fancy boarding school and living in a way that was completely at odds with what they were going through. That experience really troubled me for a long time. Becoming an anthropologist was my way to try to make sense of my “two worlds”—the world I grew up in and then the world I came to know and take part in through that kind of exclusive schooling.
My training as an anthropologist and my fieldwork in East Africa—which I loved—really helped in the long run. Anthropology gave me a language to talk about social class and also made me interested in understanding life in Southeast Chicago and the trauma of deindustrialization in a new way. It gave me tools to gain some critical distance on my own upbringing. But it also gave me tools to re-approach the place where I was raised and to become closer to family and friends who had always been part of my life.
How did your Rust Belt childhood shape your work as an anthropologist? When did you know you wanted to study and write (and film) about Southeast Chicago?
Anthropology appealed to me because it’s the only discipline I can think of that puts listening to others in a respectful way at the center of what it does—it really tries to understand the point of view of people from all walks of life, including people in often passed-over places like Southeast Chicago. But being from a working-class background, has, in turn, made me a better anthropologist. It’s made me very sensitive to the impact of social class in day-to-day life. It’s encouraged me to seek out people like those I grew up with and to put their perspectives at the center. Growing up in a community that was experiencing the traumas of deindustrialization also made me very attuned to the question of who was benefitting and who was getting hurt by the economic and social transformations we’ve seen in the U.S. over the last several decades. What’s the long-term impact of deindustrialization, for example, on the expanding inequalities we see all around us? That’s a central question for both the book and film.
Steel mill neighborhoods … were little worlds unto themselves.Although I wanted to study and write about Southeast Chicago for as long as I can remember, I didn’t always know I wanted to make a film about it! That came after I met my future husband, Chris Boebel, who is a filmmaker and the director of the Exit Zero documentary. The ideas about how to take this story and translate it into visual terms have really come from him. He was also the one who thought of the name Exit Zero for the book and movie. After he first came to Southeast Chicago to meet my family in 1994, we drove out on the highway past the Exit 0 sign and he said, “Someone’s got to make a movie about this place and they should call it Exit Zero!” The name is meant to convey a sense of how the area—and so many other formerly “middle class” industrial areas around the country—have become overlooked and forgotten. At the same time, it refers to the historic insularity of the steel mill neighborhoods—they were little worlds unto themselves that could be hard for outsiders to be accepted within and also hard to leave.
Obviously every economy and society is unique. But places like Cleveland and Chicago share a lot of genes, a lot of traits with a greater Rust Belt. What are some hallmarks of Rust Belt post-industrial communities that you’ve noted in your work and travel?
One of the things that’s been great about giving talks about this project or showing rough cuts of the documentary has been the chance to hook up with people from other deindustrialized regions and researchers working in those areas. So many of the stories are similar—they are accounts that come out of areas with long histories of immigration, where people stayed for work for generations, where tight-knit communities were created around these industries that could be both wonderful and claustrophobic. The particulars about how and why mills closed are also often remarkably similar. We showed a rough cut of Exit Zero in Baltimore and a recently displaced steelworker from the Sparrow’s Point steel mill came up afterward and said “But this is our story too! It’s all the same!” In our film, we use the story of one particular family in one place to convey something larger. We’re not trying to claim that the experience is necessarily representative, but we hope that by digging deep into what the experience of deindustrialization and job loss felt like on a personal and family level that this story will resonate with those from other regions like Cleveland, Youngstown, Bethlehem, PA, the Monongahela Valley, Baltimore, Detroit, the old mill towns of New England and beyond. Happily, so far, it’s seemed to be the case.
“But this is our story too! It’s all the same!”I was recently at a deindustrialization conference in Montreal with presenters from Scotland, England, Canada, and parts of Europe. It was fascinating—there was so much that was similar in people’s account but also differences as well. One of the biggest differences concerned what happened to spaces that have already been deindustrialized. While some have been sucked up within “new economy” sectors and have even gentrified, many others remain completely devastated. But, in both instances, there’s growing inequality: those formerly “middle class” industrial workers and their families have generally found themselves in more precarious situations in both scenarios. So I think what unites all these places is expanding class inequality even when they diverge in other ways.
In the Exit Zero book, you write about having cancer, and about how you suspect the cancer was in part attributable to growing up in an area near heavy industry. Tell me a little bit about that experience, and how it expressed the economic trauma that marks post-industrialization in a physical, personal way.
Southeast Chicago was heavily polluted, not only by the steel mills and related industries, but in the post-industrial period as well. Bringing in garbage and other kinds of waste is one thing you can do with brownfield sites that are already heavily toxic. So the environmental challenges continue. They don’t go away. Community groups in Southeast Chicago have been fighting landfills for many years and now there are new battles about a waste product from the Canadian tar sands called “petcoke” or “petroleum coke” that’s being stored in the region and that residents worry are causing health problems. As residents say, the difference is that there were jobs associated with the industrial pollution in the past, now there is just the pollution and no jobs.
One of the things that was striking about showing the rough cut of the documentary in Southeast Chicago was how many people came up afterward and talked about their own health problems or those of family members and what they suspected were environmental links. The health issues are very present for people.
Class isn’t just an economic position or status or even a sense of identity. It’s something that shapes the very make-up of our cells.Growing up in the midst of a heavily polluted environment and having cancer in my mid-20s made me think about how class comes to be inscribed on our bodies. Class isn’t just an economic position or status or even a sense of identity. It’s something that shapes the very make-up of our cells and biology through the unequal exposures we (and our parents) receive from the places we live, the jobs we work, and the chemical loads in the foods we eat. Our bodies have histories. Given the long latency period for many diseases like cancer, it’s not so easy to shake off our pasts. I was a graduate student in New York when I was diagnosed. We carry our past with us—our class backgrounds are marked on our bodies.
How is the movie different from the book, and what have you been able to do on film that you couldn’t on the page?
We think of the book and film as companion pieces that are also stand-alone works. Both film and book are reflective and meant to explore the past in an evocative way using personal narration. But, definitely, different things come out when this story is told in different media. In the book, for example, it was easier to convey the complexities of my own feelings about my dad or where I grew up or to provide the background information you need to make sense of exactly how and why the mills closed down. In the film, other things stand out. You get a much better sense of the distinctness of the landscape. The window onto family members’ thoughts becomes the expressions on their faces or their tones of voice or their gestures. We see the material things that make up everyday life and give it emotional resonance like the bric-a-brac in my mom’s dining room. (That bric-a-brac actually made a colleague of mine, who works on deindustrialization issues in Youngstown, cry. It brought back memories of his own mom and how she had the same kind of figurines in their house and what all that conveyed emotionally). When we show images of the past, like home movies from the 1940s taken by my great-grand-uncle, there’s a temptation to think it’s a direct link with another time, but we try to reflect on what visual images can and can’t tell us about that past or about the people in them.
So each medium captures certain things. Hopefully having a book and film as companion pieces enriches the story and provides a heightened sense of what living in an industrial community and of what deindustrialization was like. The point is not just to see deindustrialization as a social problem for policy makers to fix (although we hope audiences come away with that!), but to capture the nature of that experience for those who lived through it.
“Tour of Southeast Chicago toxic sites” is one of the most memorable Kickstarter rewards I’ve come across. Should we bring our own clean suit and Geiger counter? How toxic are we talking?
The area has one of the largest concentrations of waste disposal sites on the North American continent – it was once counted as having 423 hazardous waste sites! There are terrific tours already led by environmental groups in the area like the Southeast Environmental Taskforce that offer toxic tours that take people around to the gates of various industries, brownfield sites, and landfills but also show treasures like area wetlands. The area also includes Chicago’s only Superfund site that is 87 acres in size. Generally, you can’t get on site and have to see things from the road. We’d do something similar and hopefully get some of the neighborhood experts to come along.
Newspapers warned about an impending “garbalanche.”It’d be relatively tame though! One time, we did get to ride to the top of a landfill in a jeep, but it was capped, so happily it was less smelly than we feared. But there are harrowing stories. One overstuffed landfill—100 feet higher than the legal limit!—nearly collapsed on a road in 1999. Newspapers warned about an impending “garbalanche” that might explode and cause evacuations. In trying to stabilize the landfill, they fought erosion by planting native grasses on top and then brought in goats to eat back invasive species that were crowding out the native grasses. Coyotes and wild dogs started killing the goats, so they had to bring in Great Pyrenees sheep dogs to guard the livestock. Not your typical urban story—but if anyone were to take us up on the tour, we’d be happy to share these stories and more! ::
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