The Southeast Side of Chicago was once the largest producer of steel in the world. But through the 1970s and 80s, those communities were hollowed out when the steel mills left.
Through interviews with his grandfather and others who lived through the neighborhood’s rise and fall, filmmaker Steven Walsh shows what he says is the forgotten story of the area in his documentary “Southeast: a City Within a City.”
“The original documentary was a bio piece solely about my grandfather. I was interviewing him, I was asking him about his life growing up and what I was uncovering was a lot more history about the Southeast Side as a whole,” Walsh said. “I realized that though my grandfather’s story is beautiful, it’s not as unique as I thought — the story of someone who lost their job and never really got back on their feet, who turned to drugs and alcohol and gangs as a mode of survival, as a way to take care of his family. And when I found out that it wasn’t so unique, I realized that that was a story that I think is also worth telling.”
Walsh says though he grew up in its wake, he didn’t fully understand how the departure of the steel mills created the environment of his childhood.
“A lot of people have told the story of the steel mills, but what interested me more so was what happened to these individuals once they closed. And to me that’s where you see the rise of the gangs, that’s where you see a lot of the issues of violence. That’s the landscape that I grew up in,” he said. “But my grandfather described the same streets that I described as horrible, he would describe him as wonderful, magical, even. I just thought that was so fascinating because it’s only a generation in between us that we went from this paradise to this land of sacrifices.”
And he hopes his project will inspire others to talk to their family members about their own experiences.
“My aim is for people to watch this and go sit down and have a conversation with their grandparents,” Walsh said. “Ask them about life, learn a couple lessons that maybe that they could take, internalize and help them along their journey.”
“Southeast: City Within a City” is screening at Intuit Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art on Nov. 12.