Artists aim to paint brighter future on Chicago's Southeast Side

May 31, 2013

By: Kari Lydersen

(WBEZ/Kari Lydersen)
On the southeast side near the Indiana border, a mural celebrates the area’s working class history.

Roman Villareal’s storefront art studio at 100th Street and Ewing Avenue is called Under the Bridge. The name is fitting: the Chicago Skyway Toll Road curves like a steel-bellied snake practically right above us. We’re by the Indiana border. There’s the military tank in a tiny swatch of grass and chipped murals celebrating the brawny workers who made steel for such tanks, in the mills that once proliferated here.

Villareal grew up in the shadow of U.S. Steel’s massive South Works mill, and he started working in the mills at age 17. On the Southeast Side, it was a common family tradition. Villareal said, “Always the mills were hiring, all the time. You had to be a really lazy dude to not have a job during that period.”

Villareal always had a creative streak. During downtime at the mill, he would fashion little heads out of clay and hide them.

“I really wasn’t into the art world per se but maybe in a strange way this was my first statement, in a certain sense. So I hid them. And since I was what they call an oiler, I had access to a lot of places that ordinary people wouldn’t….So years later when I got out of the military and I went back to work in the mills, that was one of the first stories I started hearing, about the little heads.”

This project was produced as part of the Chicago Community Trust's Local Reporting Initiative.

In the 1980s most of the region’s steel mills drastically downsized and closed, including Southworks which shut down in 1992. Thousands were out of a job. The Southeast Side deteriorated: houses crumbled, businesses closed, crime increased.

Villareal said, “It was devastating – one minute we had jobs, the next thing you know we had nothing. The children of a lot of these steelworkers had lost their jobs, a lot of them went to alcoholism. Some of them survived, it was very tragic to a lot of families. These are the young men that survived that tragedy. These are the young men that grew up in it. They’ve seen it, the bloodshed. They’ve seen their parents go through all the turmoil of losing their jobs, almost reaching middle class and then taking it away.”

Many left the Southeast Side, but others stayed, refusing to give up on their community. Villareal and some friends founded Under the Bridge in hopes that art could reduce violence and give new life to this struggling part of the city. Once a month there are rock shows at Under the Bridge, organized by life-long resident Roman DeLeon.

DeLeon has arms covered with colorful tattoos and also publishes a national tattoo magazine out of the space. DeLeon said, “We’re showcasing artists, poets, writers, musicians….You know, we’re going to have a positive message, anti-bullying type stuff in the magazine. We’re going to give the whole 10th Ward a list of things you can do, because growing up I didn’t know there were art classes or wood shop classes available. The more things we give these kids to do the less they’ll get into trouble.”

The South Chicago Chamber of Commerce has also been trying to spark new development in the area. It is located just a few blocks from a notoriously violent intersection nicknamed the “Dead Zone.”

But chamber president Mark Walden wants to change that image. Walden said, “I think there’s been a little level of fear, of ‘Is it okay to go out at night? Will bad things happen to me?’ But it feels like when you create the nighttime events people discover, ‘Oh yeah, we can go out. We can have a good time. We can meet our neighbors. In our case, we can do business networking and everybody goes home safe and happy.”

One evening in March the chamber’s storefront space was transformed into an art gallery. The sounds of music and laughter spilled out onto the street, and the walls were chock full of works by local artists.

Luz Elivier Godina was there handing out cards and telling people about her work. Godina said, “There are so many artists in the neighborhood. It’s predominantly or has been predominantly Hispanic. In the Hispanic culture art is just a hobby….My parents didn’t really nurture that artist in me. I went into accounting because that’s what makes money. But after years of marriage I went back to school, studied six years of art, and you just go back to where your passion is. I’m just beyond happy with the art now here.”

Eduardo Luna is a street artist who goes by the name Dtail. He and friends have been painting graffiti-style murals on walls otherwise covered with heavy gang tagging. They pay for it all out of pocket – 12 murals so far.  Luna ducked out of the chamber art opening to show off his work – a colorful piece on a crumbling brick wall on Commercial Avenue. “We need to brighten up this neighborhood because it’s dark,” Dtail said. “Everywhere you go is brown. Brown this, brown that. It’s ugly. I don’t like it. I’ve got kids now, this is where they’re going to grow up. I want them to grow up in a colorful place where they see something positive instead of something negative.”

Even as artists and other residents envision a new future for the area and for their kids, on the Southeast Side the past is never far behind. At the chamber’s art show, Villareal and other former steelworkers reminisced.

“The first thing I grew up listening to was the banging, the clashing, noise,” Villareal said. “In other words it was always a constant, constant, constant noise….The first time the mills ever actually closed, we realized that it was quiet. It was the most freakiest thing because we were so used for all these years to the [noise], then all of a sudden out of nowhere, it stopped. What we’re doing here in the arts is kind of the seed, the new seed we need to come back to life in the community.”

Villareal and the other artists recognize that it will be an uphill battle to revitalize the area. The arts can never replace a steel mill. But they say this is their home, and they’re banking on their creativity – painting, sculpting, music – to forge a new identity for the Southeast Side.