Thursday, April 21, 2011

What does neighborhood resurgence mean? Or, remembering grandpa at work

Wisconsin Steel, in its "glory" days
Mayor Richard M. Daley was on his Neighborhood Appreciation Tour Wednesday and ventured to the far Southeast Side 10th Ward – where he chose to show up at a construction site once occupied by the Wisconsin Steel mill.

That’s the one that shuttered suddenly in 1980, leaving thousands of neighborhood folk out of work and jolting the South Deering neighborhood and its surrounding communities into a decline from which it has a long way to rebound even now, some three decades later.

I TOOK MY personal interest in this on account of the fact that my maternal grandfather, Michael Vargas, worked his entire adult life at that steel mill – raising a family of eight kids (my mother was number four) on that salary.

Which is why when I covered Daley’s appearance for one of the area newspapers at the former mill (the land of which is now being converted into a liquid asphalt storage facility), I couldn’t help but wonder as I got out of my car and walked on the muddy grounds where the mayor’s people erected a podium and a tent (it was windy) if I was literally following in the footsteps of my grandfather.

Daley, in showing up at the construction site for this facility, was trying to take credit for the project – for which the city provided $45 million through a bond sale.

Perhaps he should get some. Because my lingering memory of the South Deering neighborhood will always be that of the sight of the rusty, decaying former steel mill now sitting vacant and depressing – dragging down its surrounding neighborhoods.

WHEN COMBINED WITH the fact that Wisconsin Steel was not the only area factory to close when economic conditions changed in recent decades, it really did create a depressing atmosphere in which to live – which was a large part of why my own family felt the need to “go suburban” when my brother and I were young children.
My grandfather

A part of me stood out there in the middle of what was once a steel mill (I’m not sure of what was once where, so I don’t know for sure what part of the immense plant he would have worked in) and I couldn’t help but think of my grandfather – who also was one of my three grandparents who were born in Mexico, then came to this country as a young man.

When he came, it was with the understanding that his labor was needed at a steel mill in Chicago. Which is how he got the job, and why his route to U.S. citizenship was cleared.

I couldn’t help but wonder what he would have thought of the site on Wednesday of all the old steel mill torn down and the environmental waste being cleared away, all so that a new plant that from a distance looks like a few oil refineries could be built.

HE’D PROBABLY LIKE the idea of people being able to work again. Although I’m not sure he’d think much of anyone trying to sentimentalize what he once did – it was work, and he did it for the money to support himself and a family.

Now in one sense, my grandfather was fortunate. Wisconsin Steel was the plant that literally closed down overnight – leaving its people out-of-work and (in many cases) unemployable. People who were capable of doing so moved away. Those who were left were there because they were stuck.

By the time that happened in 1980, my grandfather had already been dead for two years. Neither he nor my grandmother had to endure the economic hardships of other 10th Ward residents whose lives were tied up in working in those steel mills. But I have no doubt that many of the people who did suffer knew my grandfather, and probably well.

I also don’t think he would have clung to the neighborhood all that tightly. As it was, he lived the final years of his life in a house in suburban Lansing, where he enjoyed being able to get away from the urban grime.

I CAN’T HELP but wonder if he would view the fact that his last house now has a Mexican ethnic grocery located about one block away as some sort of evidence that the grime he was trying to flee was somehow following him.

Which probably means that Daley was correct on Wednesday when he said that people should focus on the future and how to improve the neighborhood, which he says will happen by creating jobs in the area that can pay something resembling a livable salary.

“The future is always brighter than the past,” Daley said, while also giving us a perfect line that could be typed up and stuffed into fortune cookies of the future.

If my grandfather were here today, I doubt he’d be looking to move back to the old neighborhood. He’d also be looking to the future, and how our family needs to continue to strive forward in society – rather than being willing to settle for what we already have.

ALTHOUGH I DO have to admit one thing about modern-day South Deering – there’s a tiny restaurant at 108th Street across from the old mill site that makes the best tamales I know of, and is the place where my brother and I go to buy a few dozen from time to time when we get the taste for them.

Because we haven’t really had a good home-made tamale since our grandfather’s death when I was 13.

But more importantly, if it hadn’t been for my grandfather’s work during his life (more stressful work than anything I have ever had to do), we likely wouldn’t be where we are now.


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