Film tells aftermath of mill closing

Written By By SUE ONTIVEROS Posted: 08/19/2014, 02:17am
Array Adlai StevensonIII is joined by laid-off Wisconsin Steel Co. supporters in 1986 in Chicago.

Iwas holding my breath that the Kickstarter campaign for Exit Zero would be successful. And it was!

It was only in the last days of the campaign to raise $15,000, which ended Aug. 13, that I stumbled upon it. Exit Zero examines deindustrialization in our country through the story of Christine Walley and her family when Wisconsin Steel shut down in 1980.

Deindustrialization is the official word for what happened on the Southeast Side as each of the area’s steel mills closed permanently. To me it’s when my childhood neighborhood fell apart, never to be restored to what it once was: a strong, vibrant community filled with jobs. Oh, there are still good people there, but the jobs are gone. When I heard about “Exit Zero,” I knew I need to see it.

Exit Zero actually is a three-pronged project. There is an award-winning book, published in 2013, and now with the $17,647 raised via Kickstarter, a finalized documentary and eventually a website in collaboration with the Southeast Chicago Historical Museum, which Walley calls a “treasure trove of Southeast Chicago.”

A rough cut of the documentary exists, says Walley, now an associate professor of anthropology at MIT. She created it with husband Chris Boebel, a filmmaker at MIT. He gave the film its name, remembering how he first noticed that they left the tollway to reach Walley’s childhood home on the East Side at Exit Zero.

Walley was 14 when Wisconsin Steel closed and ended her dad’s job, something he never fully recovered from, she says. She always knew she wanted to explore what happened. It’s one of the reasons she was first drawn to anthropology, which gave her “the tools to make sense of it.”

Home movies, a grandfather’s diary and film footage/photos from others helped Walley and Boebel weave the story of the area, from its beginnings as an industry stronghold for immigrants through the labor struggles and the period after World War II, when the steelworkers finally started drawing solid wages.

“Exit Zero” looks at the collapse of the entire region and from the snippets I have seen, also asks important questions about what happens to the communities left behind. This is not just what has happened to the Southeast Side, but throughout our country, we’re reminded.

The steel mills gave the workers a “route up” to the middle class, as Walley explains. When jobs like these leave, the path upward vanishes too.

With the funding, “Exit Zero” will get necessary technical fixes. Walley and Boebel will start applying for entry to film festivals in the fall. The final version is expected to be ready for showing next spring.

The early cut was shown at the Field Museum and the public library on the East Side, where Walley’s mother and sisters still live. Her dad died in 2005. The Field viewing was “very emotional,” Walley says. “Some people cried,” but she was “happy to see how it resonated.”

I want to see “Exit Zero” because the steel mill closings touched my life. But I want others to see it too; here’s why.

We hear so much about the widening gap between the rich and the rest of us; I imagine this story of the Southeast Side explains a lot of how that happened. And really, we need to ask, now what?


Twitter: @sueontiveros

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