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Looking forwad from an industiral past

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 20, 1993


IT is not hard to imagine the intersection of 106th Street and Torrence Avenue the way it used to be.

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``I'm telling you, steel was piled up out there at least 15 feet, ready to go,'' Frank Lumpkin says, gesturing toward a locked chain-link fence that encloses a weed-infested lot. Here, in the southeastern corner of Chicago, steel ruled. Smokestacks clouded the sky by day and lit it up at night. Couples dated by the glow of slag heaps. It seemed this industrial life would go on forever.

And then it stopped.

In March 1980, one day before Mr. Lumpkin was to retire from the company, Wisconsin Steel closed its doors. Uncompetitive. Bankrupt. The plant's closing started a chain of events that would turn this collection of gritty blue-collar neighborhoods on its head. If ever there was a place in America to see deindustrialization and its aftermath, this is it.

The next chapter of Southeast Chicago is still being written.

Southeast Chicago is a bit of an anomaly. Most Chicagoans think of it as part of the South Side, an area dominated by huge public-housing projects and poor neighborhoods. Natives are wrong to paint the picture so broadly.

This slice of the city, east of Cottage Grove Avenue and south of 79th Street, has enclaves that are as white as other parts are black. The area has several black middle-class communities and few public-housing projects. Its economy was relatively prosperous until the steel industry disappeared and changed everything.

Lumpkin still shakes his head at how quickly the area's fortunes reversed. ``We couldn't believe it was closed,'' he recalls of Wisconsin Steel's debacle. ``That was the beginning of the end.''

After Wisconsin Steel, every other major steel company pulled out by the end of the decade. In 1980, Southeast Chicago employed roughly one out of every five steelworkers in the United States. By 1990, the number was near zero. Only one small integrated mill - Acme Steel - remains within the city limits.

``People were really scared in 1980,'' says Lynne Cunningham, executive director of the Southeast Chicago Development Commission (SCDCOM). ``That was when their world started crumbling, because that's when the middle [class] started to go under.''

Overall, the area lost 30 percent of its jobs during the 1980s; 10 percent of its average income; and almost 12 percent of its population.

There was a racial component to Southeast Chicago's transformation, says Pierre deVise, professor emeritus of public administration at Roosevelt University. Middle-class whites left and were replaced by middle-class blacks in several neighborhoods. Most of that racial shift had already taken place earlier, before 1980.

The region still has a few communities, such as East Side and Hegewisch, where virtually no blacks live. Hegewisch, almost totally cut off from the rest of the city by the Calumet River, was the neighborhood that fared the best during the 1980s. It actually saw jobs increase 30 percent - the only Chicago neighborhood outside of the central business district to see employment growth, Professor deVise says.

South Chicago, a largely black and Hispanic neighborhood, fared the worst in the region. It lost 46 percent of its employment base in the 1980s. Unionized steel jobs provided an important path to middle-class status. In Southeast Chicago, that path no longer exists. There are signs, however, that the area has stopped its decline and is poised, perhaps, for a rebound.

Twenty blocks north of the shuttered Wisconsin Steel plant, Rich Metzger shows off the buzzing factory of the Verson Corporation. Verson is a survivor - in fact, the sole surviving US manufacturer of industrial presses. A banner hangs in the lobby: ``The Last Great American Press Team. We can compete.'' And it has.

``We're in a position where the tables have turned a little bit,'' Mr. Metzger says. That is an understatement. In 1986, the company reached a low point where it carried too much debt and faced an onslaught of foreign competition.

``I didn't believe they had a ghost of a chance,'' says Keith McKee, director of the Manufacturing Productivity Center on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology.