Exit Zero
Exit Zero

Who knows what southeast Chicago is for? In her new book, Exit Zero: Family and Class in Postindustrial Chicago, Christine Walley talks mostly about what it was. Wisconsin Steel, where Walley’s father worked, shut down in 1980. He and other workers on his shift were sent home without explanation. Armed guards padlocked the factory gates, and Walley’s father, who died in 2005, never really had a stable job again.

Southeast Chicago isn’t prominent in the civic imagination. It doesn’t have the north side’s real estate, the west side’s drug economy, or the famous violence of the south side proper. What the southeast side has, visibly, is its past. Reminders are everywhere, in the gated factory campuses, the industrial yards surrounding Lake Calumet, and the Superfund sites. Over Lake Michigan, in northwest Indiana, there is a reminder of economic relevance. There, in a laxer regulatory environment, are factories; likewise floating casinos, proposals for which have been floated in Illinois.

Wisconsin Steel was the first of the southeast mills to shut down. Charles Walley’s layoff upended the family; the steel industry’s collapse upended an entire social order, creating a class of people—35,000 at the industry’s height—with more skills than paying work.

It also created a class of people who no longer knew, classwise, who they were. “Weren’t we middle class now?” Walley remembers thinking to herself when, as a fourth or fifth grader, she read a history book about the hardscrabble past of immigrants to Chicago at the turn of the 20th century—her people. A few years later, her father’s layoff would force the family to revise, again, its notions of itself. “Weren’t we middle class now?” is the book’s central question, as Walley tells the story of successive generations—Swedish immigrants on her mother’s side; “long-term native poor” from Appalachia on her father’s—who, one after another, struggled to sustain themselves in the steel industry.

Walley is at the end of four generations who lived on the southeast side, though she’s not there anymore—a professor of anthropology, she lives in New England and teaches at MIT. Exit Zero is an attempt to graft a memoir onto an academic treatise that, in its unusual form, recalls Beryl Satter’s masterful 2009 book Family Properties, which was both a broader tale of white flight from the Lawndale neighborhood and a story about Satter’s father, a lawyer who owned buildings in the area.

In Exit Zero, the fusion is awkward. It’s a good tale dragged down by Walley’s frequent attempts to draw banal conclusions from the story. Walley labors to point out how complicated class is. But class, whatever its local flavor, is complicated everywhere. You could remove “in Southeast Chicago” from plenty of sentences in this book and uncover a truism: true enough, but not groundbreaking. “There were different class-inflected models of what it meant to be a man or a woman in Southeast Chicago,” Walley writes, “and these models were impossible to disentangle from the histories that brought particular groups there.” She makes a similar generalization about her grandfather: “I am struck by how mainstream narratives of both right and left fail to account for the unvarnished complexity of such a life.” Has political dogmatism ever produced an honest accounting of a life?

Broad conclusions follow scant evidence: Walley interviews the environmental activist Cheryl Johnson (Johnson’s mother, Hazel, was also a prominent activist), who recalled black kids getting bottles thrown at them when they traveled from the housing projects of Altgeld Gardens into all-white Hegewisch. Later in life Johnson is surprised “how nice everyone was” at a Hegewisch political gathering; from this Walley observes, “Her comments simultaneously underscored the history of virulent racism in the region, the bravery of leaders like her mother, and the conscious attempts of environmental activists to bridge the divides.”

This may be a failure of the form, which Walley calls “autoethnography.” It’s so intellectually overdetermined—Walley is so anxious to tell us how she’s telling the story—that at times the story is hardly there. When it is, it can be compelling. In her 20s, Walley developed an aggressive form of cancer that she attributes to the polluted industrial environment she grew up in, writing, “The permeability of our bodies underscores that there is a kind of materiality to class that is rarely fully acknowledged and remains with us.” That crucial observation could be applied to other poor neighborhoods in Chicago, too, where bodies are marked not just by pollution- and poverty-related disease—a form of long-term violence—but by interpersonal violence as well. Ironies pile up like—well, like trash: After the steel plants closed, one prominent growth industry on the southeast side was landfills. Now that the factories have been dormant for 30 years, the area is less polluted than it’s ever been.

A section on the causes of the industry’s collapse is a clarion indictment of globalization. Walley’s even tone, ponderous elsewhere, lends her attack credibility; it’s like watching a great lawyer at work. She dismantles the idea that income equality in America is part of an inevitable transition to a postindustrial economy. “Such celebratory accounts,” she writes, “ignore an underlying circular logic”: that a constant global search for cheap labor is a constant race to the bottom, and there’s no telling where that bottom could shift to. In 2002, a company owned by Lakshmi Mittal, one of the richest men in the world, “had workers in East Chicago, Indiana, agree to such concessions as the return of the twelve-hour workday—the same twelve-hour workday that my grandfather had protested.”

What Walley wants this book to be is an experiment in good old-fashioned consciousness raising, a warning against thinking ourselves on a straight line away from the past. We can always go back: to the 12-hour day, to a lower class status. There are other concerns, too. Walley’s gone from poor, white southeast Chicago to academic New England, but she’s not so much worried about going back economically as about what upward mobility can do to a person. She wonders: “What if I started to believe that I deserved this?”

Exit Zero is a multimedia project, comprising the book; a documentary Walley’s working on with her husband, Chris Boebel; and a website, which will include stories from former millworkers and their families, and where an interactive map will allow visitors to see how the neighborhoods, industrial sites, and wetlands of southeast Chicago have changed over time. The idea is to create a conversation about class; the website is at exitzeroproject.org.