Videographer, Emmanuel Camacho, riding with Roger “Coco” Gomez. Credit: courtesy of Steven J. Walsh

The southeast side of Chicago was once a bustling and flourishing neighborhood. With boutiques, bars, and blue-collar jobs, the community was thriving. Situated between waterways, Lake Michigan, and just a hop, skip, and a jump away from the Indiana border, the neighborhood once employed 40,000 workers. However, by the time filmmaker Steven J. Walsh grew up in the neighborhood, it was a totally different landscape. “Everyone I knew was struggling and now I’m seeing why. My generation was a product of the aftermath of deindustrialization and disinvestment in our community. We were left to pick up the scraps after everything was gone and we were raised by the survivors of this devastation, hardened by what happened to them in life.” With the collapse of the U.S. steel industry in the 70s and 80s, the southeast side is now a relic of the prosperous life that once was.

The current Pilsen resident explains that many of his peers saw the horrors of what previous generations went through. As a result, they glorified it. “They saw the drug money and violence that plagued us and venerated it.” Walsh says that many folks didn’t know any different. Walsh explains that after a family member is shot, people take pride in it as it represents a machismo lifestyle. Southeast: A City Within a City, Walsh’s new film, looks at how and why a once prosperous neighborhood came to be largely ignored by the rest of Chicago. “No kid grows up and wants to be in a gang. He or she wants to be a businessperson or doctor or astronaut. But there is no business here, no hospital for miles, and certainly not much dealing with exploration. We grew up and saw successful drug dealers as the most logical career choice because they were the only ones with money,” says Walsh.

The film centers on Walsh’s grandfather, Roger “Coco” Gomez, who moved with his family to Chicago from San Antonio in 1952 when Gomez was two years old. Gomez’s father was a Mexican-American cherry picker who was passing through south Chicago after working a job in Michigan. Because the work was plentiful, he decided to stay. When the family made the move, southeast Chicago was a powerful place. Walsh grew up in the East Side neighborhood, but he says, “That little slice of paradise is gone. It’s practically a ghost town now, destroyed by time and neglect.”

“The four geographical components of the southeast side—Hegewisch, the East Side, South Chicago, and South Deering—work in unison. All four relate to each other, and compliment each other. And they’ve all had similar plights. You either worked in one of the four, or moved from one to another, or married someone from one of the four communities,” explains Walsh when I ask him what specific area he grew up in.

Southeast Chicago was once a place where you turned in your high school diploma, picked up your hard hat, and started working at one of the mills. “There’s a spirit in my neighborhood that is as tough as the steel we produced,” says Walsh. Gomez worked at Republic Steel but lost his job after all the mills closed in the 80s. Thousands of blue-collar workers lost their jobs Folks had to discover new ways to survive. Walsh says, “A decent chunk of those men and women died shortly after losing their jobs from alcoholism or drug overdoses. Some folks, mainly white people, were able to leave the neighborhood for better opportunities elsewhere. But for most Black and Brown people, redlining prevented many of them from getting bank loans and leaving. And those that couldn’t leave had very little opportunity to provide for their families.” Deindustrialization impacted the area and expanded class inequality for everyone living there.

As a result of the closures, Walsh’s grandfather chose the black market to make ends meet. Gomez was a part of a club called the “Turks,” which originally started hosting dances and festivals for the community. Once opportunity dissolved in the neighborhood, the club turned towards violence and drugs. These folks needed to feed their children, and desperate times led to desperate measures. Gomez is not formally educated and has joked in the past that he graduated from the “School of Hard Knocks.” Walsh says, “When he says he went away to school, that’s just code for him going to jail.”

A City Within a City first began as a way for Walsh to connect and discover more about his grandfather. “I’ve learned from some of the best institutions in the world, including receiving a Masters from Johns Hopkins University, and yet my grandfather has taught me more than anyone I’ve encountered,” he says.

General Iron’s metal shredding operation is slated to move from Lincoln Park to the southeast side in 2021, an action residents says reeks of environmental racism and further cements the area’s treatment as a sacrifice zone. Residents in Lincoln Park have long complained about pollutants in the area like a metallic odor in the air and a black residue on surfaces, issues southeast side residents have also struggled with for decades. Tenth ward Alderman Susan Sadlowski Garza urged the Pritzker administration to block the permit to move into the neighborhood. After an explosion at GI in May, the plant has halted all shredding and is awaiting a final report to see if the explosion was an inherent risk.

At KCBX Terminals, Inc., open-air piles of the waste by-product petcoke sit in close proximity to residential areas. Airborne petcoke dust particles affect the heart and lungs in both the long term and short term. The Chicago Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke works to educate the public on how petcoke can affect residents in the nearby region. One particle of petcoke is only ten micrometers in diameter but can cause incredible damage as the dust settles deep into the lungs and bloodstream. Living on the east side of the city, near the lake, the wind plays a major role in where these dust particles blow.

Residents are also actively protesting the Confined Disposal Facility (CDF), a site in Lake Michigan that contains toxic dredged material, which has been operating since 1984 and was supposed to close in 2022. Juanita Irizarry, the executive director of Friends of the Park, told me that they have been waiting for the CDF to be converted into a park for years. “Now, just a couple of years short of the date when it was scheduled to be closed and capped so it could become parkland, we have had to take up this fight to keep the Army Corps of Engineers from expanding and extending the life of this pollution dump both to make progress on our vision to complete the ‘Last Four Miles’ of connected lakefront park and path system all the way down to Indiana and up to Evanston, and to keep an egregious environmental injustice from continuing.”

The proposal, published by the Chicago District of the Army Corps of Engineers, planned to build a 25-foot mountain on the area, which is already contaminated with dredge. The Great Lakes region has 47 CDFs, which have been around since the 1960s, and are located in New York, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. In addition to the possible move of the GI plant, Irizarry explains that the area is “strewn with brownfields from years of dirty industry that have yet to be cleaned up.” Irizarry says that “two Little League fields have recently been found to be so dangerous that they have to be remediated.”

FOTP, Irizarry’s organization, is working with local and regional advocates and organizations to push back on environmental injustices. Irizarry explains that, “The community already has so many fights on its hands that some are afraid that the CDF— if moved from its current site at the confluence of Lake Michigan and the Calumet River— will just be dumped elsewhere in the Tenth Ward and near residences.” Activists insist that the CDF shouldn’t get to simply choose another area in the neighborhood to pollute.

With the economic and environmental stress on the neighborhood, residents are also facing high cases of COVID-19. 2,854 people on the southeast side are confirmed to have died from the virus. Peggy Salazar, the director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force told WTTW, “We get the eyesores, we get the polluting industries, we get the truck traffic, we get everything that no other community would want.”

Walsh hopes that his film reveals and challenges the stereotypes and stigmas that folks place on people of color and cultures who have had opportunities stripped from them. The southeast side of Chicago is overlooked. Though the jobs and industry have left the southeast side, people still live there and children are growing up there. And that vibrant community is coming out for Walsh and his film. While making A City Within a City, Walsh says he’s received so much support from the community—young, old, blue-collar, white-collar—and all are offering a helping hand. Through a Kickstarter campaign, the film raised more than $23,000 for production. By the end of the year, Walsh hopes to finish Southeast: City Within a City, though much of it has had to change due to the effects of the pandemic.

“Even though the rest of the world gave up on us, we haven’t and never will,” Walsh says. “That’s what makes us southeast-siders. We don’t stop fighting, and we don’t let obstacles get the best of us.”   v