SOUTH CHICAGO — A documentary showcasing the cultural beauty of the Southeast Side and the economic desolation behind it is scheduled for completion by the end of the year.
“Southeast: A City Within a City” will explore the area’s history through interviews with local elders while artists, politicians, activists and other residents will bring the story of the neighborhood to the present day. The film is directed and produced by filmmaker Steven Walsh.
Walsh has organized an online fundraiser to bring the project to life. His goal was to raise $12,000, but so far he’s received more than $14,000.
Walsh centers the film around his grandfather, Roger “Coco” Gomez, a Mexican American who moved from Texas to work in the neighborhood’s steel mills.
Gomez’s story is similar to that of many Southeast Siders who moved to Chicago to support a steel industry that would begin to abandon them in the 1970s and disappear completely by the 21st century.
“The elders of the neighborhood talk about it as being full of life,” Walsh said. “By the time I was born, all the steel mills had packed and left. … All the small businesses indirectly affected by the steel mills shut down, too.”
Walsh, 30, has worked on “Southeast” intermittently over the last five years, but he’s now going “full in on the project” to complete it by 2021.
Even as he directs and produces a documentary, Walsh said he “loses attention quick” while watching them.
With that in mind, he plans to weave in music videos, silent film, reenactments and animation with his interviews. Funding will dictate how many of these non-traditional elements are completed, so he organized the fundraiser to raise money for production costs.
Roman Villarreal, a prolific urban artist from South Chicago, was interviewed for the film last week. He attended Thorp Elementary School with Gomez.
The steel mills provided stability for Villarreal and Gomez’s peers, many of whom were fresh out of Vietnam. The Southeast Side was “almost middle class” at the time, with residents purchasing homes and Hegewisch-built Fords, Villarreal said.
That all started to change when the mills began to close. Job losses mounted; many men, broke and too prideful to accept welfare, abandoned their families.
“The children that grew up in Generation X, they grew up seeing the plight of the worker: alcoholism, desperation because you couldn’t afford for your children,” Villarreal said. “Nobody was hiring, so some people turned to illegal drugs. You have to survive, you have to feed your family. Some of the people in this community got caught up in that and they paid the price.”
By the 1990s, out-of-control gang and drug-related violence had left the Southeast Side “bloody,” Villarreal said. The violence, spurred by disinvestment, cemented the area’s reputation as a forgotten part of the city.
Villarreal hopes that by telling his and others’ stories about the troubled post-steel period, the documentary can show the rest of the world how the community attempted to navigate an economic downturn, “but society let us down.”
“The main thing is that future generations get to see the struggle that we went through,” Villarreal said. “We’re still strong in spirit.”
The disinvestment Southeast Siders faced during Walsh’s childhood was “systematic,” he said. He believes more should have been done to counter the decline of the steel industry and boost the supporting economy.
Walsh credits his loved ones for helping him escape the fate that befell many of his peers.
“A lot of the men my age didn’t really make it out,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to. Though I was raised by gangsters and wolves, they always made sure I kept my head straight.”
Even during the worst of the downturn, “people who give a damn about the neighborhood” stuck around, Walsh said. That tradition of activism, embodied by Hazel Johnson, Arnold Mireles and countless others in decades past, continues today.
Southeast Side residents are fighting against big polluters, working to curb violence and helping to “make the neighborhood better,” said Ivan Raygoza, a native East Sider and bass guitarist for Grupo Cizma. The Norteño ensemble will be featured in the film.
“A lot of people care about the community,” Raygoza said. “If they want something, they fight for it. The East Side has been pretty much like that for as long as I can remember.”
Walsh’s plans for the documentary are expansive and “a little far-fetched,” but his home neighborhood deserves for its colorful, complicated history to be told by those who know it best, he said.
Southeast Siders have “an attitude that, if you want something done, you’ve got to do it yourself,” he said. “Despite the craziness of the pandemic, [the production] has been a dream come true.”
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