Life and Death After the Steel Mills
Date Written: 18/10/2017
Year Published: 2017
Resource Type: Article
In her study of a community devastated by industry's flight, anthropologist Christine Walley raises questions about how to create and support meaningful work in a postindustrial world.
Steel mills were the economic backbone of many cities across the Midwest and Northeast until the 1980s. When the industry left, former workers not only took a hit economically -- they also felt displaced and suffered disillusionment and a loss of identity.
On the wind-whipped shore of Lake Michigan, a little over 10 miles from downtown Chicago, Illinois, stand what look like the foundations of a massive fortress. These hulks of concrete are the silent remnants of the U.S. Steel South Works production plant--an industrial behemoth that, in its heyday, employed more than 20,000 residents of the Chicago area. Though the plant shut down in 1992, the 30-foot-tall walls endure. "They tried to demolish them," Christine Walley says, 'but they were so big and heavy that they just couldn't do it. So they decided to leave them as monuments."
Just beyond the ruins is a dead-end channel carved into the lakeshore--the slip where ore boats once arrived. Most days, for more than a century, the boats would drop off hundreds of tons of raw materials to be forged into steel slabs and beams that strengthened bridges and kept skyscrapers aloft. But no ore boat has docked in this slip for more than 20 years.
postindustrial world - Anthropologist Christine Walley investigates questions about work and identity that first arose for her when her dad was laid off from his job at a steel mill.
Anthropologist Christine Walley investigates questions about work and identity that first arose for her when her dad was laid off from his job at a steel mill. Elizabeth Svoboda
As the middle daughter of three born to a Chicago steelworking family, Walley feels the weight of these ruins more than most. Her father, a longtime veteran of nearby Wisconsin Steel, lost his job when the mill closed in 1980 without warning. As other mill closures followed, Walley's family and community fractured in ways that defied easy mending.
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