In mid-March, the New York Times published a warm profile of Theaster Gates’s new exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., describing his creations as “monumental structures that echo abstract canvases elsewhere in the institution, but are embedded with unsung stories of black laborers and entrepreneurs.” Part of the piece also detailed how Gates’s Rebuild Foundation, a nonprofit organization that aims at neighborhood and community revitalization through arts-related projects, had acquired the dismantled pieces of the gazebo in Cleveland where twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by a police officer in November 2014. Rebuild would use the pieces, the article said, to create a memorial for Rice later this year at the Stony Island Arts Bank, the organization’s South Shore home and exhibition space.
Union Maids, one of the last films screened in South Side Projections’s “Alternative Histories of Labor” series, chronicles the lives of three female labor organizers in 1930s and 1940s in Chicago. At one point, one of the titular “maids,” Katherine Hyndman, recalls a funeral procession for three black men who were shot in the back by policemen as they carried furniture back into their homes following an eviction. The procession marched all the way from 31st Street down to the Englewood train station on 63rd. “State Street was crowded with thousands of people from wall to wall, from one end of State Street to the other,” Hyndman says. “It was just a mass of people….The streetcars would just barely crawl along through the crowds. And that was the first time in my life that I have seen white people sobbing, really sobbing, there was such a strong feeling.”
On November 17, some forty-odd people gathered outside an egg processing facility in Lansing, Illinois, shouting “Si se puede!,” eclipsing the din of traffic from the nearby Kingery Expressway. They were there with workers’ center Arise Chicago and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) to protest poor working conditions and their unlawful termination from the facility just a few weeks before. In addition, the former employees of Michael Foods, the company which had recently acquired the facility, were hoping for formalized representation in a union and rallying for the next day’s union election.
“The South Side don’t need this kind of exploitation.”
“That corner we leave unpainted so that every day we remember our beginnings.”
On the bank of the Calumet River, a few blocks away from the Indiana border and Chicago’s historic Calumet Fisheries, is a land that speaks of another time.
Victor Storino, who goes by “Vic,” was born in Calabria, the toe of Italy. Following his father and sister, he and his brother came to the United States in 1958 to find work on Chicago’s East Side. He moved in with his father, he says, and if he hadn’t, he “would have been deadbeat,” unable to make enough to support himself on the minimum wage. After a short stint at Wisconsin Steel, Vic joined Republic Steel in 1961, where he would work until the plant shut down in 2002. . In that time, he served three terms as president of Local 1033, a chapter of United Steelworkers of America, and learned English in night classes. Since then he’s been heavily involved with the South Chicago chapter of SOAR, the retirees’ branch of United Steelworkers. We speak after the chapter’s monthly meeting, in a back room at Memorial Hall, 117th Street and Avenue O. The hall, once the permanent home of Local 1033, is now a United Methodist Church; the lot across the street, once home to Republic Steel, is now an empty field. Continue reading