The steel industry in the United States declined dramatically in the 1970s and 1980s, with profound effects on the country’s industrial workforce. Suddenly, blue-collar workers who had spent their careers in factories – often in multigenerational metalworking families – found themselves unable to make a living as the communities around them suffered and people lost their middle class lives. ‘they had shaped. This process was recounted in MIT anthropologist Christine Walley’s 2013 book, “Exit Zero,” a case study of her own father’s struggles as a Southeast Chicago metallurgist whose employer closed its factory in 1980. Walley’s husband Chris Boebel, a filmmaker by training and director of media development for MIT Open Learning, made a documentary of the same name.
Now Walley and Boebel have teamed up in a related effort, the Southeast Chicago Archival and Storytelling Project, which more broadly explores professional life and deindustrialisation. Using videos, photos, texts and museum artefacts, the site recounts key events in the history of work and the multi-ethnic social environment of blue-collar workers, to open a new window on the industrial heyday. from America. The site is a collaboration between a team from MIT and the Southeast Chicago Historical Museum; Walley and Boebel worked extensively with Jeff Soyk, a media artist who served as the creative director of the project, and Rod Sellers, the museum’s volunteer director. The site officially launched on September 6, Labor Day. MIT News spoke with Walley and Boebel about the new project.
Question: The downsizing of the steel industry has been a huge shake-up for blue collar workers in the United States – and deindustrialization has been a big part of the American landscape for the past several decades, as you examined in the book and the movie “Exit Zero”. How does the Southeast Chicago Archive and Storytelling Project relate to your previous work?
Golden : When I was working on the book and when Chris and I were working on the film, we used materials from the museum on these projects. It’s an incredible space in this country house that is crammed up to the rafters. We think of it as the breadbasket of Southeast Chicago.
The idea was to use the objects people saved and the stories they told, as a way to address these larger historical questions about this working class community and to capture the diversity and richness of the southeast of Chicago. We would choose what [MIT Professor] Sherry Turkle calls out an evocative object, which has a lot of emotion and meaning to people, and used it to begin with. Chris shot a video showing people now interacting with these objects.
Boebel: When Chris [Walley] started writing the book, and we were making the movie, one of the key goals was to take her family’s story and connect it to those larger social forces and those historical events – the changing economy, the de-industrialization. The limitation is that there are things that you cannot necessarily access through the experiences of a family. The history of race, ethnicity and immigration is much more difficult to access if you are talking about a white working class family living in the Southeast. We were looking for a way to use this same approach but broaden the perspective.
Question: The site offers multimedia “scenarios”, which are practically short documentaries in their own right. One concerns the “Memorial Day Massacre” in southeast Chicago in 1937, when 10 striking steelworkers were killed by police; another concerns the Mexican-American population of the region. You say that you will also add new ones. Why did you choose these topics, to begin with?
Golden : The Memorial Day massacre was born out of a steel strike in the 1930s, when steelworkers fought for the right to organize. The violence of this event captured the national imagination, so it was a real turning point. The consequences led to a shift in public opinion around the place of trade unions. In the long run, steel unions were recognized from the start of World War II, and [mill positions] became middle class jobs, until the steel mills started to shut down [around 1980]. It’s a very intense and very violent scenario. It suggests the incredible bravery of this generation in securing unionized workers and a livelihood for the middle class. And since we live in an age where work is insanely precarious again, it’s instructive to look at what previous generations have done to promote good jobs and a growing middle class in America.
Boebel: There were other events like the Memorial Day massacre, with violence and murder, but this one caught the public imagination [because] it was filmed. And that was as far as I know the first time this had happened. There were other cases where workers were shot and killed or beaten, but people said, “the strikers were rioting, we were defending ourselves”. It happened here too: Police said there had been a riot, then news footage was released. So there was some kind of national calculation, [including] a commission appointed by Congress.
The scenario [about Mexican-Americans] encompasses the experience of thousands of immigrants, [including] men from the neighborhood Mexican parish who died in the Vietnam War. More men lost their lives in this parish than in any other parish in the country, which gives you an idea of the incredible sacrifice and pain that the community experienced in Vietnam. It is also a window on the idea of being American and deals with ethnic conflicts and racism at the same time as these sacrifices were made.
Golden : In recent years there has been this resignification of the working class in this country as a white working class, but if you look historically, the working class has always been incredibly diverse. Chicago Southeast [had immigrants] from different parts of Europe, but also Mexican immigrants and African-American migrants from WWI. Those who worked in factories came from very different backgrounds – there was a lot of conflict as well as periods of unified action, so we’re trying to capture it all.
Question: This project contains rich visual aids, detailed descriptions of the museum’s artifacts, as well as these “scenarios”. Why did you decide to create the archive this way?
Golden : There are a lot of amazing archives online these days, but sometimes you will see items and get detailed metadata about them without really knowing who donated those items and how important they were to the people who saved them. We have tried to make the website user friendly for people who may not know anything about industrial history. We’ve featured curations in the archives, and you can switch between plots and archives, so you can check an object in depth and then go back. [to the storyline]. We were trying to create a different kind of online archive by creating these entries for the public and relying on the documentary format. … There is also a study guide for schoolchildren.
Boebel: One of the things that always interests me in museums is when you see incredible objects displayed in a very clean and sterile manner, with a map that gives you a little bit of context. This makes it possible to appreciate the aesthetic quality of a vase or a painting, but I am always very, very curious about the history that surrounds it. With online archives, you can’t hold an object in your hand, you can’t get close to it, you can’t bask in its presence, but you can integrate all of that context much more easily. Our project is an attempt in this direction.