Monday, June 6, 2016

Two Young Men and Politics

Basketball Coach Bobby Knight, Photo Wikimedia Commons

Personally, I’m scared at the prospect of a Trump presidency, but when I heard Bobby Knight endorsing him on the radio, it did cross my mind that maybe there is something heartening about the way huge numbers of people seem prepared to vote for a grand view of what they want to be as a People.

At least that’s what Bobby Knight is doing.  He says he supports Trump because he’s the candidate who’s most likely to make our Nation great again.  If life is like sports, greatness assumes dominance, there can only be one world champion.  But it can still be us if we can muster the commitment to hold on to the title.

There will be costs, the players all need to be prepared to rise to the challenge.  And even as they do a lot of them will get sidelined, or injured or retired, or never make it off the bench.  But they’re still part of the team that breaks records and exceeds all expectations. Great teams raise the level of the whole game to heights that inspire multitudes.

I know I am a little susceptible to examples where people define their interests more broadly than their personal wealth and status, because I believe they help prove personal wealth and status aren’t the real measures of value in human life.

That’s one of the reasons I appreciate Brian Cerullo, who served as Field Manager for Theresa Mah’s (victorious!) campaign for State Rep from the 2nd District.  [Candidate Mah was profiled on The Hardscrabbler in August 2015.]

Brian is also driven by a vision greater than his own wealth and status.  It’s a different vision than the one you hear championed by Trump and Knight, but not entirely different. He also reminds me of someone I knew 20 years ago.  Brian might be something like what Bill would have been like, if he’d arrived a couple decades down the road.

The Reagans at the 1981 Inaugural Parade, Photo Wikimedia Commons

Brian was born during the Reagan Administration.  That makes him a Millennial, the new generation everyone speculates about.  They might be exceptionally socially accepting and community minded, but maybe also narcissistic (all that social media), or craving too much affirmation in the workplace (too many trophies when they were kids).

I’m from Generation X myself.   They called us Slackers.  We were known for living too long in our parents’ basements, maybe also for our political apathy.  We’re the generation who missed the threats of widening income inequality and the growing power of corporations because we were too wrapped up in the authenticity of our social markers -- our tastes in alternative rock, the nuances of our identities.  Maybe that was because we still assumed we’d have access to the national prosperity, even if we hadn’t achieved it yet.

Young Goethe contemplating a Silhouette

My friend Bill was the kind of young man Bobby Knight would want on his team, or should have if he could see what he was looking at.  He was raised Irish Catholic in a small, hardworking town in Massachusetts.  His father was an argumentative drunk.  His mother struggled to raise 3 boys on her own.   Bill was the oldest, he kept his brothers in line.  He’d tell them “You’re just going to have to work a little harder than everyone else,” because it’s what he told himself.  He was smart, brave, determined to make his mark in the world.  But over and over again, the world wouldn’t have him.

First he tried the football field, when that didn’t pan out he turned his attention to his education – to the liberal arts in fact.  Not the touchy, feely liberal arts, but the most stern and unforgiving undergraduate program he could find. Great Books, great souled men and all that.

His social markers expressed a little different because of it.  He came out with a peculiar nostalgia for an aristocratic society where men once had the courage to think and act independently, as opposed to the society of obedient sheep where we find ourselves now.

Partly, the change has to do with how in a society of equals, we’re left struggling against the drag toward the lowest common denominator.

Partly, it’s the hazard of the modern world itself.  As science extends its reach, life becomes ever more technical, our field of vision narrows.  We have to specialize.  Burrow into the “tunnels of the specialized disciplines” in the phrase of a novelist.  We lose sight of ourselves in context of the world, of history, we forget the big questions, about meaning and dignity.

Bill used to drive me nuts, arguing the first part.  It implies that people need the false confidence they get from social distinction to think for themselves.  Without it, they tuck their head down and conform, and in a society like ours it’s not even because they’re  afraid society will turn on them if they don’t, they’re afraid it’ll just ignore them altogether.

As far as I was concerned, Bill defied his own arguments.  In the Old World, wouldn’t he be laboring in a field somewhere, without a lot of time to cultivate grand thoughts?  In this one, they saved him.  They lit up his conversation, they sustained him through his struggles, they lifted his eyes to a horizon beyond where he was standing at that particular moment.

Bill graduated in the late-1980s, straight into the slough of a recession, and he couldn’t find a job.  He was smart, articulate, though he wasn’t polished, he was always a little rumpled, and he had an angry edge that might have been growing, getting edgier.  I thought Bill was better than other people and I was always a little surprised when they couldn’t tell, but then you could imagine reasons he might not rank a favorite among the be-suited men of business who came recruiting at the university.

Part of what impressed me was how, when the world seemed closed to him, he made access through novels – Emma Bovary yearning for something beyond the ordinary, or those macho heroes from Joseph Conrad novels, facing the limits of their moral fortitude in uncharted places outside the bounds of civilization.

Still, Bill freely admitted he’d been on the verge of desperation when he finally got a job.  It was a position as a clerk on the trading floor at the Chicago Board of Trade.  It was perfect for him.

Swirl of Action on the CBOT Trading Floor, Photo Getty Images

At the time, a lot of the guys I knew seemed to pass through those trading pits.  They’d put in some time clerking first, literally writing trades down on slips of paper and carrying them across the room, and if they didn’t get fired for some catastrophic notation error they’d graduate to a position as a trader where they’d have a chance to make real money, to live the successful life – summer afternoons on a golf course, maybe a boat with girls on it.

Bill had a lust for all those things that money could buy.  He wanted to see the world, to travel, to appreciate the best experiences the modern world has to offer.  But the trading pits represented more than that.

Electronic trading was in its infancy then, it would be another decade before it emptied the trading floors, and the CBOT was still making the case open outcry was the most efficient way for buyer and seller to arrive at a fair price.  It was also a hyper masculine environment that reminded Bill of the locker room.  It drew on his strengths.

In the commodities pits, traders stood shoulder to shoulder among peers, they were a platform where a man of good character, strong nerves and trust in his wits could assert himself.

Bill’s employer wasn’t sure of him at first.  It took a long time before they’d submit the application to graduate him to a position as a floor trader.  And when they did, the CBOT shot it down.  They’d say it was on account of his student loans, which Bill fumed was ridiculous, no one he knew had been sidelined on such a flimsy pretext.  To hear him talk the floor was full of debtors and bankrupts scratching out second chances.

Then, when his application finally cleared the hurdles at the CBOT, it got hung up again by federal regulators.  Eventually they were telling Bill it was just one guy, one sanctimonious bureaucrat with too much power on his hands.

Bill drank and he fumed, but he kept his head.  It was like he’d woken up in one of his favorite Eastern European novels, where men of courage and some sense are perpetually thwarted by a great, stupid bureaucracy.  And by the narrow minded functionaries who, from a creeping sense of their own inferiority, perpetuate it.

At least the traders he worked for were behind him now.  They floated appeal after appeal on his behalf.  And eventually his application passed.  He didn’t fly out to the coast to assault that bureaucrat.  He cleared the hurdles, he started making the money.  Hopefully it afforded him the experiences he wanted, or at least the sense of being able to take action, and have it come to something.

Crain's Chicago Business features images and stories

Today electronic trading has narrowed that particular avenue toward the national prosperity.  The portals for entry to commodity trading are through specialized disciplines, like computer programming, writing algorithms.

I don’t think the specialized disciplines necessarily drive us into narrow tunnels, at least not so deep that we can’t step back, attempt to place our personal experience in a broader horizon.  But they do limit access, raise the barrier to entry, make it harder for a young person with more nerve than experience to find a path.

And that is impoverishing.  Because even though it’s true that wealth and status aren’t the real measures of value in human life, it’s also true that certain base levels are pre-requisites: material security, but also agency, that sense that effort comes to something.  That’s the great advantage those players trying their chances in the trading pits had over the hapless heroes of the comic novels, struggling through syrup in an anonymous bureaucracy.
Brian Cerullo, far right (in this photo only),
at a Rally for Mayoral Candidate Chuy Garcia
For Brian Cerullo, taking the stage 20 years later, the scene has changed, but he plays something like the same character Bill once did.  Brian is also smart, articulate, he’s got the edge, but when it finds a productive outlet it’s like a current that can engage random strangers about things that really matter.

They share some family dynamics.  The angry father, the valiant mother, a little oppressed.  Brian grew up in rural Connecticut.  His mother was an immigrant from Malta, an olive skinned woman with an accent, struggling to raise sons on her own, in close vicinity to a lot of privileged Yankees.

Brian’s father grew up blue collar in Buffalo, New York.  Brian says there’s something about that mindset he never lost, even though he went to school, became an engineer.  He made a success of it.  Today, he travels the world advising third world governments on building power plants.  But he just spends his wages on dissolute pleasures – the international business class version of a boat with girls on it.

And Brian watches as the tide has begun to turn against his father now, late in his career, because the native sons who worked for him in those third world countries, the ones who needed an American engineer to supervise their technical projects, have sent their own sons to universities.  Now their sons are engineers, they’re supervising the projects Brian’s father once did. 

Later, Brian would translate experiences he had visiting his father on overseas assignments into his liberal education.  He describes looking at pictures of childhood birthday parties the family celebrated in Central American countries, and picking out notorious generals from the crowd.   “That’s when it first occurred to me maybe my Dad isn’t just working for the good guys.”

He describes being driven through teeming streets of an Indian city in a chauffeured car, with the windows rolled up, and seeing a brown boy his own age begging on the street.  The boy was crippled, his legs weren’t just broken, they were smashed like someone had driven over them with steel treads.  And being told “No, you can’t give him money.  It just perpetuates the cycle.  His parents probably did that to him so he could collect more alms.”

Back in Connecticut, Brian was a troubled student.  He had too much energy, too little self control, he scored high on IQ tests but it didn’t do him any good if he couldn’t sit still at a desk.  He did graduate high school; he did get a university education.  He studied philosophy, psychology, sociology – every possible approach to understanding human character aside from Great Books.

Today when he goes out door knocking he says the conversation he still wants to have with householders he meets isn’t just “What do you want to change about your neighborhood?” but “How do you know who you are?”

He graduated from school into adulthood just after the economy collapsed.  He may not have struggled as long as Bill to get his first job.  But it still took several false steps to find work where he could effect something, if you ask him about it, he’s no stranger to the corrosive powers of self doubt of joblessness and uncertainty.

First, he worked at a residential facility for disabled youth just outside Boston – kids who fell somewhere on the autism spectrum.  The facility used behavior modification techniques to help them master simple life skills.  The work was demanding; the progress was incremental.  The kids might never function on their own.  After a year and a half he found himself wondering “Will my work in this field ever do more than deal with symptoms?”

It occurred to him that if he went back to school to study social dynamics his work might inform policy change that could make people’s lives better on a larger scale.  That’s how he came to Chicago - as a non matriculated student in Sociology at Bill’s old alma mater.  It was just a shaky foothold, but he came with all his determination to work his way in. 

Close up though, he could see how tenuous academic life had become.  Even if you were successful, you could labor for a decade to get that doctoral degree, then work as an adjunct professor pulling in a couple thousand dollars for each class.

Meanwhile, over the summer, he attended a weeklong organizing training by National People’s Action, and it changed the way he saw his life.  He looked at his father, his stunted world view, and at his mother, struggling bravely but hemmed in by resentments.  He saw the origins of some of his own. It’s where he first began to put those pieces together in a larger context of society and the world. 

When Bill’s education lifted his eyes past his own situation, he set his struggles in a world stage where noble individuals all struggle not to sink in a sea of ignorant masses.  Brian set his in a world ruled by the opposite dynamic.  Part of that’s probably personal difference, but it’s also true that the world has changed.

American Hostages in Iran, Photo Wikimedia Commons

My own first memories of the world at large trace back to the late 1970s: stagflation and the Iranian hostage crisis, especially that daring rescue attempt that just crashed in the desert.  I didn’t understand the subtleties, I just remember the sinking sense that we were failing at everything, and that gentle President Carter and all his best advisers didn't know how fix it. 

Today, conservative pundits sometimes trace The Great Inflation of the 1970s back to Great Society excess: overreaching unions and social welfare programs, too much prosperity for too many people.  They say economists were stumped by the combination of stagnant growth and mounting inflation until President Reagan came in and let Volcker raise interest rates, ignoring the high costs in high unemployment, slashing social spending, making it up with record spending on arms.

In the 30 years since, the recessions have been brief, the periods of expansion have been long, the national wealth greater than ever before.  All that helps disguise the fact that it’s only making a few people richer.  So that even in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, as economists line up urging governments to spend more to avoid a deflationary spiral, you’ve got all these 50-somethings rooting for austerity.  They’re still running from the long inflation they remember from their youth.

Brian’s cohort has come up in the environment Bill’s and mine helped create.  We liberalized markets, peeled back the big government of the Great Society years, we let the New York bankers drive.   Now our wealth is built on a financial system that races until it crashes and has to be bailed out by millions of little guy taxpayers who won’t catch a break on their own debts.  And there might be no greater glory to being the richest, most powerful Nation on earth -- just a series of small wars, won quickly, without making anything better.

Brian spent some time in Zuccotti Park, back in the 2010s, where the Occupy Wall Street movement camped out.  He remembers it being exciting, but it felt a little pointless, lots of energy with no clear goal.

In Chicago, a few years later, things were different.  That first spring after the organizing training, Brian volunteered on Election Day for Will Guzzardi– one of a new crop of independent democrats who’ve been winning races for local office.  Guzzardi won his race for State Representative that day, Brian still remembers the tremendous energy of the group effort.

“Throughout our shitty, exploitative history, my people were good at conquering other people,” he says now “good at storming beaches, raping and pillaging.” In political organizing he’s found an opening to channel and transform his aggressive energies into persuasive and developmental ones.

It was Reclaim Chicago – a joint project of The People’s Lobby and National Nurses United – that brought Brian to Bridgeport.  Reclaim Chicago works to elect “officials who put the needs of people and the health of the planet ahead of corporate profits.”  They supported Maureen Sullivan’s campaign for Alderman of the 11th Ward.  Sullivan didn’t win that race.  But not long after that Brian was hired as a Field Manager for Theresa Mah’s campaign for State Representative.

Mah won the Democratic primary, as an independent democrat challenging the presumptive heir of the retiring incumbent.  After the election, Brian says they knew it would be a close race, but they’d tallied up their confirmed voters and calculated how many random ones might choose her at the ballot box, and they thought she would win.  They were just stunned by the turn out.  They anticipated a modest turnout, tracking with previous contests in that race; in the end there were over 20,000.

They say that was partly thanks to the Bernie Sanders campaign.  Today, Brian is still working with a coalition of progressive organizations trying to harness that energy, and to keep those Sanders supporters engaged.  They’ve been orchestrating a series of monthly actions called “Moral Mondays,”  peaceful protests at the doorsteps of big financial powers.  They want a state budget that works for the 99%, and makes corporations and the very wealthy shoulder a fair share of the costs.

Public Action Outside the CBOT, Photo Moral Mondays Illinois

Last time I met up with Brian, he’d just come from a meeting to train leaders to play roles at the next Moral Monday event.  He was working with a young woman who was going to be negotiating with police – that is, try to engage in a calm dialogue about whether the officers would make arrests, or just hand out citations.  She’d let them know which demonstrators would leave quietly after the police warning, and which ones would stand their ground and go to jail. 

Women can be good at it, they may be perceived as less confrontational.  Brian was playing the cop in this particular scenario, he might have been drawing on that default aggression from his ancestor’s “exploitative history”.  The young woman he was training started to cry.  They talked it out, why the experience was so grating for her, and why it’s transformative for her to take on this role. Afterwards, he insists proudly that now she’s ready to negotiate.  “She might still be affected,” he says, if some cop tries to intimidate her. “But she won’t stop negotiating.”

Brian says he doesn’t particularly accept the Millenial moniker.  He sees his peers as differentiated individuals, working things out for themselves.  It may be too early to tell how they’ll take the reins of history.  But if a lot of the guys who might have spent their energies in the commodities pits throw them into organizing for political change instead, it could mark some kind of generational progress.

When I think of how I’d like to see our nation made great again, I don’t visualize an elite team prodded to excellence by a coach known for his bully tactics, or a handful of champions at the very top.  I’d rather see something more like a thousand young women standing face to face with authority, even if it’s shouting at them, and negotiating on behalf of their peers.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Zhou Brothers Make a Creative Paradise

Zhou B Art Center

On October 16th, the segment of 35th Street in front of the Zhou B Art Center was dedicated as Honorary Zhou Brothers Way.

Mayor Emmanuel and Chinese Deputy Consul General Wang Yong joined Alderman Thompson, Alderman Balcer and Commissioner Daley to extend the honor in front of a large crowd of art lovers from across the city.

The Zhou brothers themselves are Chinese-born, Chicago-based artists of international stature.  In the Zhou B Art Center, they have created a Chicago version of the Kunstlerhaus, a stable home base and launch pad for other artists.  And they have brought Bridgeport to the respectful attention of an audience that once saw little reason to venture south of Roosevelt Road.

The role of the arts in making cities and neighborhoods vibrant has received growing attention in recent years.  And conversely, as the Illinois Arts Council’s Tatiana Gant observed in passing at the Zhou reception, the arts are increasingly asked to justify themselves in terms of measurable impacts.  That’s new, she says.  In the past, funders supported the arts because they believed they made people happy, enriched their lives in immeasurable ways.

But the measurable impacts of the arts are also significant. In 2012 , the 4th edition of a national study called Arts and Economic Prosperity reported that Chicago’s arts sector generates $2.2 billion in economic activity each year.  That includes $1.2 billion in spending by non-profit arts and cultural organizations themselves, and another $1.0 billion in spillover that the audience spends on the cab ride to the show, the dinner at the restaurant afterwards, the hotel and the souvenirs.

The Zhou B Art  Center in Bridgeport clearly has those kinds of impacts, as crowds travel to attend curated exhibits and private events – the Center served as a venue for 80 private events last year – and open studios the third Friday of every month when the whole building swirls with people.

Still, there’s an irony in asking art to sell itself based on such measures.  In the modern world, in the west at least, artistic expression has been cultivated as a sphere of values outside the rigorously materialist one that sees the world as an object to be studied, harnessed and put to use.  Generations of romantic types have worried that the materialist view robs the world of its enchantments and impoverishes people’s lives.  That it leaves them to navigate the world as a bureaucratic maze, reducing them to conformity and obedience.  Or else they make their way by the force of their will to dominate.

The romantics sense there is an alternate sphere of values, of rich experience and genuine feeling, but that their access to it isn’t guaranteed.  It could be suppressed by the demands of an instrumental world, like it was for the man in the gray flannel suit from the 1950s, who put on the harness for the office, and had trouble shrugging it off when he got home.  Or it could be appropriated for someone else’s material gain, like what happened to all those garage bands in the 1990s, who sold their most earnest expressions to a corporate machine that repackaged them, sucked them soulless and sold them back to their peers as cheap imitations of what it had all been back in their garage.

That tension between the sphere of expressive values and of material ones didn’t unfold along the same tropes in Communist China, where the Zhou brothers grew up, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t in play.

ShanZuo and DaHuang Zhou are native to Guangxi, a province in southwest China where you find the strange, green hills you sometimes see in Chinese landscape paintings – a fairy tale landscape. They are members of a Chinese ethnic minority called the Zhuang.  Their family had been scholars and educators for generations.  But the brothers were born in the decade after the Communists took control of the Chinese mainland.  Chaing Kai Chek and his Nationalist Army retreated to Taiwan in 1949, taking as much of the Imperial Art Collection and its 10,000 years of Chinese art heritage as they could carry.

ShanZuo and DaHuang, are names the Zhou brothers adopted for their new life in America when they moved to Chicago in 1986.  ShanZuo was born as Shaoli in 1952, DaHuang was born as Shaoning in 1957.  1957 was also the year their father MengYuan was convicted as a “Rightist” and sent off to a labor camp.

He’d been lured into speaking frankly about the effects of anti-intellectual reforms on the education system by the kind of policy change that made life in Communist China treacherous.  One year Chairman Mao is saying “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend,” because truth will be realized through honest dialogue.  The next year all the voices who ventured to contend are sent off to do hard labor in distant provinces.

Their father’s conviction tainted the entire family, subjecting them to new restrictions and punishments with each new wave of ideological tightening for the next 20 years.  In an essay Dr. Kuiyi Shen wrote to accompany their 2003 retrospective 30 years of Collaboration, the brothers still recall their early years as happy ones.  They lived above their grandmother’s bookstore in the picturesque town of Wuming, they entertained themselves with poetry and amateur theatricals, their grandmother taught them calligraphy, and painting from a classic Chinese text.  In those first years after the Revolution they had access to their grandfather’s art collection of Chinese masters, and their grandmother’s extensive library, they’d found their father’s scholarly writings on Chinese and Western literature hidden away in a suitcase.  Then the Cultural Revolution hit, it took Communist social control to another level, and “brought an end to all dreams.”

But the Zhou Brothers still dreamed of being artists, even when it was technically impossible, especially for young men with a “bad class background.” Paint and supplies were hard to come by unless you were officially employed as an artist, say painting sets for a theater company. Such jobs were only available in cities, and you couldn’t just move to the city to try to work your way into a job.

There was a registry system to stop the populace from abandoning the countryside.  Everyone was registered as a country, town or city dweller.  The system was enforced with ration cards you needed to buy food and dry goods – you could only use your ration cards where you were registered to live.  You could only change your registration status in a few special circumstances, and most of them were closed to the sons of convicted Rightists.

But somehow the Zhou brothers managed it anyway. Shaoli first, then he’d find a way to bring Shaoning along.  First he got a temporary job designing sets for an opera company in Nanning, Guangxi’s capitol.  He couldn’t get admitted to university and then placed in a city job at graduation because of his Rightist background.  But the opera company hired him as a “borrowed worker,” allowing him a series of temporary permissions to live in the city to work.  And once he was in, he managed to get a similar position for his brother - as a set painter at the Nanning Dance Troupe.

So they worked, and painted, in Nanning until the Beijing Spring, the loosening of policies that began a couple years after Mao’s death in 1976.

Li - River of Souls, Zhou Brothers 2012

To put this in context with other Hardscrabbler events, the Beijing Spring unfolded while Dan Davidson was showing his work as a systemic minimalist at the OK Gallery in New York.  They were the same years Joe Mancari and Al Ribskis graduated from De LaSalle High School to make their way through the disruptions of a postmodern economy then unfolding in the west.

1976 was the same year the 1st Mayor Daley died, Jimmy Carter was elected President, and the country was sunk in an economic malaise that seemed like it might signal some kind of more general decline.

In China, the world was just opening up, cautiously, after 30 years of isolation and bleakness.  And the faculty at the Shanghai Drama Academy, where Shaoli had been admitted, was known for being open minded.  In the late 1970s, that meant they were open to modern styles aside from Socialist Realism.

The Chairman Has Come to Our Factory

In his Yan’an Talks on Art and Literature back in 1942, Mao Zedong put forward a vision of art in the service of Revolution.  Borrowing heavily from the Soviets, he declared that art’s theme was more important than bourgeois ideals like beauty and self expression.  Its subjects would be peasants, workers and soldiers, muscular people in upbeat scenes.  They would be portrayed in a realistic style that would be readily accessible to the masses.  And art would be produced by workers, not sensitive artists in the bourgeois sense.  Even students looking to study the Chinese tradition world focus on the work of anonymous craftsman, like religious murals attributed to a collective workshop, as opposed to the fancy landscapes of famous masters who’d spun out frivolities for the elite.

A whole generation of students and artists had no exposure to art outside these horizons.  Then, after Mao’s death, the horizons cracked open.  In a 1977 speech, Deng Xiaoping signaled it might be safe to criticize the excesses of the Cultural Revolution.  By 1980, a handful of special enterprise zones opened doors for private ownership and foreign investment. And the entire weight of Western art history splashed in the doors at once.

It came in through visiting art exhibits, from Romania -- all the more powerful because Romania was a socialist country, exhibiting Expressionist works.  And from the Boston Museum of Fine arts -- which sent Singer Sargent portraits of society ladies, and a Jackson Pollock.  And more curiously, it came in through a spate of “book exhibits,” which put deluxe editions of art books on display for a browsing audience.

The book exhibits were ticketed events, and tickets weren’t available to the general public.  Dr. Shen writes that artists and students who gained admission would recall those shows, and what they saw at them, for years afterwards.  The Zhou brothers visited them again and again, taking notes, and copying pictures they could study in more detail after the Shanghai Drama Academy purchased the 100 volume History of World Art series for its library.

These were also the years that China was building airports, hotels and public buildings, some of which would be visible to businessmen visiting from foreign lands.  They were decorating them with murals that strayed from Maoist orthodoxies – both in their subject and in their style -- and in doing so, they opened a door to a new view of the purpose of art, and the voice of the artist, views more like those that took shape in the West.

Water Splashing Festival mural at Beijing International Airport
Yuan Yengshen, 1979

The new murals portrayed Chinese minority peoples engaging in picturesque rituals and other non-revolutionary scenes.  Dr. Shen writes that these scenes were still politically correct because they promoted the unity of all Chinese peoples, a longstanding theme of China’s 20th century regimes.

But he says minority culture also gave a powerful psychological release from the arid conformity the Cultural Revolution had imposed on mainstream culture, particularly among the Han majority and in the coastal cities.  He says artists traveling inland were refreshed to find rural societies still colored by local tradition. “For artists of a romantic temperament,” Dr. Shen writes “the customs of some rural minority peoples charmed with their primitivism, and the boldness and simplicity of their folk art formed a powerful alternative to the bare concrete political slogans, and slick propaganda images that surrounded urban people.”

Stylistically, artists were beginning to stray from strict realism toward the modern and the abstract.  Abstract art was dismissed as bourgeois in Maoist China.  Its preoccupation with personal vision and self expression was decadent, corrupt.  Its corruption must have seemed clearly manifest in the way these preoccupations splintered western art into obscure movements understood by handfuls of participants, whose work and quarrels seemed incomprehensible and irrelevant to anyone outside their cliques.

But by the late 1970s, Chinese artists were striving to develop their own aesthetic language too.  Dr. Shen writes that’s what the Zhou brothers set out to do when they came out from art school.  Returning to Nanning, the provincial capital, was something of a letdown after the stimulations of Shanghai.  Their ideas about art were met with incomprehension, their reputations still vulnerable to accusations of infraction against socialist ethics.

But Guangxi was also where there roots were, as members of the Zhuang ethnic minority.  And as they turned their attention to developing their own aesthetic language, they rediscovered the Huashan cliff paintings that they’d known from childhood. 

Huashan Cliff Paintings

The Huashan paintings are scattered across the cliff faces above the Ming River for 180 miles.  It’s not clear when they were painted or how, but they are old enough that their ochre pigment has fused into the rock.  Some scholars estimate they were painted during the Warring States period, in the first centuries BCE.   They depict myths, rituals, the daily life of the ancient Zhuang people.  The figures are simple, direct, they evoke the power of myth.

At first, the brothers made a study of them, and began copying them.  Gradually they absorbed them into their own style.  Years later in Chicago, ShanZuo would tell the artist and critic Fred Camper that rediscovering them was “the golden key” to their aesthetic vocabulary.  They used simple terms to convey deep meaning, like poetry, ShanZuo said. “From that time on we felt we could do anything.”

detail from Golden Dream, Zhou Brothers 1976

Dr. Shen says their emerging language spoke on two levels.  On one, it evoked China’s glorious heritage.  Standards of living in China were still modest, and “this claim to ancient greatness provided, at least for a time, a distraction from the realities of the present day.” On another, “artists familiar with Western modernism would understand that the brothers were operating within the still prohibited modernist tradition.”  In public, though, “all would speak in very different terms.”

The figures from Huashan would appear through the Zhou brothers’ paintings for the next 40 years.  In the late 1970s, they began incorporating them into long scroll paintings with sweeping themes. Heaven and Earth, Light of Wisdom, Cradle of Life. They showed them in a series of escalating exhibits, first in Guilin, then in Beijing, and in Shanghai.  Their fame and prestige grew in China, it spoke to the country opening up to the west, but with its own native voice.  It spoke to the power of history and also of resilience springing back from the tests of the Revolution.

The Zhou brothers had achieved all the status and prestige that China has to offer them.  But the political climate was still subject to reversals, including a brief crackdown on “bourgeois liberalism” at the end of 1986.  It must have been clear that their success was still unstable, subject to abrupt turns in the current, they might lose everything in an instant.  So when they got an invitation from the Chinese owner of the East West Gallery to show their work in Chicago that year, they packed all the paintings they could fit into suitcases, and they left.

From Heaven to Earth, Zhou Brothers 1977

In Dr. Shen’s narrative of the Zhous in China, abstract art represents liberty, freedom of expression, even the artist’s compulsion to create his or her own aesthetic language.  But as a language, abstract art is fractious and argumentative.

In the decades after Mao laid out the case for Socialist Realism as the Revolution’s standard for art and literature in China, the Chinese experienced the enforcement of one aesthetic language by a central cultural authority as a definite impoverishment.  They craved freedom of artistic self expression.  Art defined by one school to advance a centrally determined agenda wasn’t enough.

But during those same decades, westerners have found that the retreat of the cultural authorities leaves you with different problems.  The aesthetic language fragments into dialects, and it becomes harder for critics to judge with authority, for artists to communicate clearly, for an audience to appreciate with confidence.  Art is still important, so communication must still be possible.  But without the illusion of aesthetic universals, the audience splinters into taste groups, and it’s a lot less clear how they develop those tastes, or come to agree that something is good.

After Babel, success can seem arbitrary.  The success of other artists in particular may seem to be a matter of cronyism, hype, commercial gimmickry.  Which are all the kind of things some anonymous locals were telling Fred Camper when he wrote an about the Zhou brothers for the Chicago Reader in 2001.

By then, the brothers were world class artists whose paintings and sculpture commanded great prices.  Their aesthetic language intrigued gallerists and collectors from the start, but that doesn’t mean their success was assured. When they’d first arrived, and were still laboring in obscurity, friendly critics sometimes encouraged them to try painting something more like the pictures of beautiful Chinese women in exotic costumes some of their fellow expats were producing for the interior decorator market.  One suggested their problem was that they were still painting for museums, without having the stature to attract museums in the West.

But their poverty was offset by their sense of freedom. For the first time they were working without looking over their shoulder, worrying about the political temper, whether their work was allowed.  They stuck to their vision, they absorbed some lessons from Western artists (They told Fred Camper their work had become less cluttered, more clear, from studying Western artists who “totally forget everything and develop one idea very directly.”) And relatively quickly, their stature grew.

They were selling paintings, some of them to important Chicago area collectors.  Within a few years, they attracted the attention of a couple German gallerists who promoted their work in Europe.  So they were making money, they were growing in prestige.  By the year 2000, they were invited to demonstrate their celebrated joint painting style as a performance at the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland.

Balloon, Zhou Brothers 1990

Western critics saw the same things the Chinese ones did but from the other side of the mirror.  They saw resonance with Western modernists like Miro in the Huashan figures, but also references to Chinese philosophy and exotic aesthetic principles like the balance of matter and emptiness, air and harmony.  If their audience in China appreciated references to forbidden modern styles from the west, the western audience must have appreciated the mystery of something new emerging from a powerful, ancient civilization that had gone dark for 30 years.

"The Zhou brothers struck a chord with me," Richard Cooper told Camper.  A top Chicago collector, Cooper was one of the first to buy the Zhou brothers work when they arrived in the West.  “They weren’t doing the political art that usually comes out of a repressive society as it starts to mature,” he said “They seemed to soar with a spirituality that combined Eastern and Western feeling, an abstraction that seemed soothing but meaningful, that seemed to bridge both cultures.”

Life Temperament III, Zhou Brothers 1993

Camper’s Reader article was titled “Too Hot to Be Cool.” In writing it, he wanted to know why the Zhou brothers’ work, which was so well regarded outside Chicago, wasn’t represented by a single local gallery in 2001.  Northwestern University professor William Conger spoke up as a supporter.  He said he thought the Zhou brothers’ work has a lot in common with the figurative and surrealist art often embraced in Chicago.  “What is absent,” he told Camper “is the notion of the ironic distance.”

Painter Li Lin Lee agreed.  “Art has become very cynical and jaded, a stylistic and philosophical pastiche.”  He said the Zhous might not be fashionable in that context, but they are like other immigrants in their energy and hope.  He said their lack of irony stems from their faith in painting.  It reflects the fact that they “passionately believe in the ability of painting to communicate.”

Open My Door #7, Zhou Brothers 2001

Michael Zhou is ShanZuo’s son.  He was born in China and lived there with his mother until he was 8.  They joined his father in 1990 – the same year ShanZuo and DaHuang bought their studio on Morgan Street.  It had been a Polish social club nicknamed the ‘Bucket of Blood’ for its bar fights.  Inside, the Zhous built a spacious studio where they could work in peace.  Outside, Morgan Street was still rough for a long time.  Michael remembers that in China everyone thought the United States would be utopia.  When he moved to the studio on Morgan Street, the corner of 32nd Place was a gang hotspot and he wasn’t allowed to go outside.

Growing up, Michael says he wasn’t particularly interested in art.  He saw his father and uncle painting in their studio, but says “they painted in privacy, I didn’t realize how important they were.” He was more interested in sports.  When he went to college, he studied business.

But after graduation, in the mid 2000s, he started a venture with Rhett Johnston, the son of one of the Zhou brother’s early collectors, partly to showcase Rhett’s art.  They collaborated with brands like Nike, and incorporated Rhett’s hip hop and graffiti inspired designs into sweatshirts and gym shoes.  

The business was called MadeChicago.  They had a storefront a few doors from the Zhous’ studio but they mainly sold wholesale to clothing boutiques in Wicker Park.  There wasn’t a lot of foot traffic from Morgan Street, though Michael recalls young gang bangers appreciated the store’s visual language, “They used to come in and want to hang out.”

Today, Michael Zhou is Executive Director of the Zhou B. Art Center at 1029 W. 35th Street.  He works closely with Sergio Gomez, the Center’s Curator and Director of Exhibitions, and Donna Bliss, Vice President Creative Development.

Michael says his father and uncle once considered moving to New York because conventional wisdom said that to be successful as an artist, you had to be at the center of things.  But they knew New York was unstable -- artists would raise the profile of a neighborhood, then the developers would come in and rents would explode.  His uncle was particularly reluctant to follow the herd – he said their studio in Bridgeport was a creative paradise. 

They decided to stay and build on it.  In 2003 they purchased one of the Speigel warehouses on 35th Street.  Michael says their friends were concerned they’d got in over their heads.  There were holes in the walls and floors, and it was filled with debris, old cars and printing equipment.  They spent the first year clearing it out.

Michael says there was no business model for converting a warehouse space to an arts institution, they were learning by doing.  There was some friction from the city early on. “It was after the E2 nightclub disaster,” where dozens of people were crushed in a rush for the door, and the city was hyper vigilant. “They thought it was a rave space.”

The actual vision was something more along the lines of the Kunstlerhaus, a type of artists’ association the Zhou brothers had come across while teaching in Germany.  Artists work in the same building, providing both a material base and opportunities for dialogue.  “For an artist, the most important thing is the studio practice, having a permanent space to work and to show your art,” Michael Zhou says “and where rent is not going to explode 1000%.”

Part of the core mission of the Zhou B Art Center is to promote dialogue between artists and collectors and others who look at it.  That dialogue helps artists sell their work, but Michael says they wanted to create an alternative to the gallery system, one that promotes artists and their work, but that isn’t based on sales.

“A lot of our artists were students at the School of the Art Institute,” Michael says.  “In art school it’s easy to get lost in criticism.” They come to the Zhou B Art Center afterwards and can step out from the criticism and find their voice, “to find their visual language,” like his father and uncle found theirs in Guangxi.

Hebru Brantley is one artist who took root at the Zhou B Art Center in that way.  Brantley’s web site describes his work as “pop infused contemporary art inspired by Japanese anime and bold aesthetics of street art pioneers like Jean Michel Basquiat.”  Michael says he was personally drawn to Brantley’s animations, he encouraged him to develop the figure of Flyboy as a central character in his work.  “We gave him his first solo show in 2005 or 2006 – that was his big break, now he’s one of the most successful artists in Chicago.”

Wedding, Rine Boyer, 2015

Rine Boyer is another. Boyer often portrays small groups of people in her work, she says she is interested in how they interact, how people look at and appear to one another.  Having her studio in the Zhou B. Center helped her make a connection with the Bluerider Art gallery in Taipei.

The owner of Bluerider Art met Michael at a Sotheby’s seminar in Hong Kong.  She hadn’t opened Bluerider Art yet, Michael recalls, she was talking about it.  But she went out the next day and signed a lease on a 10,000 square foot gallery space.  Then chose artists out of the catalogue the Zhou B Center creates each year for a show called “Chicago Invasion.”  Rine Boyer was one of those artists. Now, Boyer says she does a lot of paintings on commission, many of them portraits, for collectors from overseas. 

Her Taipei gallery may also add new connotations to her visual language. The Bluerider Art website describes Boyer as an American artists whose work illustrates the intrinsic connections between art and culture.  “Modern culture is increasingly defined by its emerging subcultures.  ‘Hipsters’ stand at the forefront of the artistically aesthetic lifestyle.  Boyer masterfully depicts this trending group of style setters and seekers of authenticity.”

In the West, or at least in Chicago, the hipster and his aesthetic lifestyle aren’t always considered exemplars of the search for authenticity.  It might take a viewer regarding him from across the seas to remember the immaterial impacts he represents.  That is, the psychological riches of a culture where self-expression is encouraged as a sphere of real value.

Water Lily, Zhou Brothers 1976

The Zhous themselves are still building and extending their model of creative paradise.  They’ve kept their eye out for other properties in Bridgeport and Chicago.  Currently, they’re in the process of building an art center in Beijing. Their own artwork continues to change, probably as their lives unfold and give them new points of view.  One recent series of paintings was inspired by a return trip to China, where they revisited the rolling hills on the Li River – the “River of Souls” -- in Guangxi.  Another features world leaders, like President Obama and Chinese dignitaries.  But for the dedication of Honorary Zhou Brothers Way, they put up a preview of a new series of their own paintings on the first floor of the Zhou B Art Center, called “Water Lily Pond of Life.”

Back when they were young painters, when they first returned to Nanning from Shanghai a little isolated and unheard, they set up a studio in a drab warehouse, and they poured themselves into painting. They painted water lilies, thousands of canvases of water lilies.

The canvases in Water Lily Pond of Life have the monumental scale, the familiar figures from the Huashan cliffs, but in vibrant colors that gives some of them an urban graffiti-like effect.  They still have confidence in the power of painting to communicate grand themes.  Sergio Gomez’s curatorial notes in the gallery say that the theme of Water Lily Pond of Life is liberty.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Two Careers in Rolling Steel

Tapping a Blast Furnace, image from ArcelorMittal

Before he came to Blue City Cycles to work as a bike mechanic, Mike Okelman got 2 engineering degrees and worked at a steel mill in East Chicago –  home of the largest blast furnace in the Western Hemisphere in fact – where he made 4 times as much money as he ‘s making now.

Engineering is the kind of profession his parents wanted for him, and steel mills offer the kind of secure, well-paid jobs that have become hard to find.  But after 4 years in the mills, Mike says the work he does at the bike shop is more satisfying, and it also supports a more sustainable lifestyle.

Mike always knew he wanted to do something technical.  He had an idealistic admiration for American manufacturing and an abiding respect for the labor unions that made industry a source of good jobs. His parents wanted him to pursue a professional career, so he enrolled at University of Illinois Urbana Champaign to study mechanical engineering in 2002, and worked straight through his bachelors and his masters by 2008.

Back in 2005, he toyed with the idea of trying out an internship in the auto industry. “I was imagining working on energy efficiency and fuel cells,” he says, but GM’s presentation that year was all about the Hummer.  Instead, he found himself at a job fair talking to 2 guys from International Steel Group.  They had a table top model of a steel mill they’d probably last used to recruit new talent 25 years ago. “No one was talking to them,” Mike recalls.

Ladle of Steel
photo from NW Indiana Steel Heritage Museum photo gallery

2005 was an excellent year for steel makers worldwide, as economies boomed the mills couldn’t pour metal fast enough.  But American steel makers had been in decline for decades.  In 1967, the industry represented almost 5% of US manufacturing output; by 2001, it represented less than 1%, and the labor needs of the steelmaking process had dropped by a factor of 1,000.  Recruitment hadn’t been a priority for most mills in recent years, as evinced by that dusty table top model.  Plants that hadn’t shut down were still rearranging themselves to find a comfortable position.

International Steel Group had just purchased Acme Steel, a venerable Chicago company whose fortunes more or less tracked the local industry – starting in 1880, when Acme first opened as a maker of steel clasps and barbed staples. In the 19th Century, dozens of small makers of steel goods were embedded in Chicago neighborhoods.

Over decades they tended to combine into big vertically integrated operations that could smelt iron from ore, make coke from coal, turn iron into steel, cast it into blocks and roll it into finished materials. They also tended to precipitate on Chicago’s southern edge, by Calumet, where raw materials could be brought by the barge-full to their doorstep, and from where the beams, rails and pipe they produced could be shipped to all points of the country, if they weren’t absorbed into the construction of Chicago itself.

Acme opened a plant in Riverdale in 1918 as the Acme Steel Furnace Company.  Acme Steel employed 1,400 workers during the Great Depression, and by the 1950s ranked among the top 300 largest manufacturing companies in the nation. In 1964, it merged with Interlake Steel, itself a combination of Federal Furnace and the By Products Coke Company – they were located just across the Calumet River from Acme’s plant.  By the 1970s, Interlake Steel Group employed 3,500 in the Chicago area and posted annual sales of nearly $700 million, even though the American steel industry had already started its uneven descent.

Smoke Rising from the Indiana Harbor Works Plant
image from NW Indiana Steel Heritage Museum photo gallery

Steel making is dirty, dangerous and energy intensive, so maybe it’s natural that the industry should move to emerging economies less concerned with protecting their labor force and their environment.  When the steel industry first got started in the US, native born workers wouldn’t take those jobs, but the steel mills could staff themselves with immigrant labor.  The immigrants worked 12 hour days until late in the 1920s, and the unions didn’t get a foothold in the mills for another 10 years.

Decades later, when foreign competition gained ground with lower labor costs and government subsidies, the Americans still had the advantage of massive capacity in plants already built, but their calculations about whether to maintain or modernize them were getting more complex.

The big integrated mills weren’t just expensive to build, they were hugely expensive to operate.  Reheating a blast furnace after it’s cooled down costs a lot, both in energy and in stress on the equipment, so the blast furnaces would run continuously for years at a time.  Every 15 years or so they’d need to be overhauled, their insides gutted and relined with new refractory brick.  When the No. 7 furnace in East Chicago was overhauled in 2014 the operation took all summer and cost $70 million.

By the 1980s, more steel makers faced with maintaining old equipment were opting to reconfigure as “minimills.” They’d skip the costly process of reducing raw iron in the blast furnace, and focus on the latter stages of processing steel.  A minimill might have an electric arc furnace for melting steel scrap, another furnace for finessing the alloy’s chemical balance, and a continuous caster for extruding semi-finished goods.  To be cost effective, integrated mills need to put out at least 2 million tons of steel a year.  A minimill might put out 200 to 400 thousand tons a year, and the electric furnace could be started and stopped to meet changes in the marketplace in something closer to real time.

Relining Acme Steel's Former Blast Furnace

Acme Steel spun off from Interlake in 1986, unhitching itself from its blast furnace and the coke ovens on the other side of the Calumet.  By the early 1990s, it employed 1,200 workers, about the same number the old Acme Furnace employed at its Riverdale plant.  It was still using oxygen furnaces from the 1950s, but in the 1990s they invested in a continuous caster – a major modernization that would allow them to skip the intermediate step of casting molten metal into ingots first, before rolling it into sheets, bars or rods in a separate process.  The continuous caster extrudes metal through a track of rollers into long, semi-finished products.  Acme’s new caster was employed rolling out spools of pipe.

They never quite recovered the investment. Mike says it helped put the old Acme Steel out of business.  By 2001 they were in bankruptcy protection and finishing a phased shut down.  The next year, the shuttered plant was acquired by investors headed up by WL Ross.  Ross got his start as a bankruptcy adviser, he says he helped clean up the mess left by Mike Milken’s junk bond buyouts in the 1980s.

By the 2000s, he wanted to intervene more directly to turn troubled industries around. And there was clearly still money to be made in steel.  Competition is global and margins are slim, but world consumption was exploding.  The US was enjoying its housing boom and a new heyday for really big cars.  Emerging economies were racing toward the middle class, pushing up prices for commodities of all kinds, from metal to meat.

Ross’ investment fund first created International Steel Group to reorganize Pennsylvania Steel.  In 2002, ISG Riverdale reopened as a minimill employing 250 workers.  In 2005 the company merged with Ispat Inland Steel Company in East Chicago, and LMV, a holding company controlled by an Indian steel magnate, to form Mittal Steel USA.

Blast Furnaces of the old Acme Steel

That was also the year Mike took an internship at the ISG Riverdale plant.  He says it was different from a big, union shop. Which is not to say the workers at Riverside weren’t unionized.  They were a rough around the edges, but their roughness mainly expressed itself as hijinks.

They used to call him Monica (you know, because he was the intern); they once glued a little crown cut from a styrofoam coffee cup to the top of his helmet and called him to the shop floor to see how long before he figured out why everyone was chuckling.  But then when he broke his foot in an accident involving a radio flier wagon and a flight of stairs (not at work) the guys in the machine shop made him a little stick figure model to commemorate the incident.

Mike says the Riverside plant itself was almost quaint.  The carts and moveable equipment all still said “Acme” on them.  They didn’t melt their own iron anymore, it trundled over from Indiana in torpedo shaped rail cars, the big vessels of molten metal passing through residential neighborhoods, apparently without incident.  If it were to harden en route they’d never extract the iron from the car.

They made it into high alloy steel in oxygen furnaces that date back to the 1950s.  The whole room was coated in thick coat of kish – carbon particles exhaled as graphite dust by the steel as it's chemistry is refined.  Mike says it glitters in the air, it rains over everything, settling as a thick gray smudge.  The continuous caster was newer of course.  They used it to cast high alloy steel into spools of small pipe that would be used for making things like knives and golf clubs.

After graduation, when he took an engineering job at the former Inland Steel mill in East Chicago, their continuous caster would be turning out spools of pipe for oil pipelines and sheet metal for the auto industry -- materials for big industry and massive infrastructure projects.  A 3,100 acre integrated mill, the East Chicago plant, now known as ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor, is the largest plant in North America.  It employs 4,900 workers and puts out 9.5 million tons of metal a year.

Collectively, America’s big integrated mills still produce almost 90 million tons of steel annually, and have remained attractive acquisitions, even if no one is building new blast furnaces in the States anymore.  Inland Steel was acquired by ISPAT, another company controlled by the Mittal family, in 1998.  Ispat Inland became part of Mittal Steel USA in 2005.  Then, in 2007, Mittal Steel and Arcelor, the 2 biggest steel companies in the world, merged into one.

Indiana Harbor Ship Canal
image from NW Indiana Steel Heritage Museum Photo Gallery

When Mike came to work at the Indiana Harbor plant in the summer of 2008, world steel was still booming and the ArcelorMittal was on a buzz, calling meetings at their Indiana plant to announce all the great new benefits they’d be extending.  A few months later big banks were collapsing and all those new benefits were quietly dropped.

The steel industry has always cycled between boom years and catastrophe – by 2010, the industry was cautiously recovering, by 2013 it was declaring a rebound.  Back in 1999, the Chicago Tribune ran a feature on the steel industry that profiled Inland’s famous No. 7 furnace (built in 1980, 10 years into American steel’s decline) and the trends that had gone on to close two-thirds of the nation’s blast furnaces in the 20 year since it was built.

Workers were boasting to the reporter about the hellish working conditions, and about their deep attachment to their work, an attachment the reporter attributed to “the lore of the furnaces, and the psychological rush of harnessing raw – and potentially deadly – power to create something.”

The reporter observed that the process of steelmaking is basically unchanged from what it was a century ago, when Inland first opened the mill.  But engineers are still employed refining the process, partly because molten metal doesn’t readily submit to controlled study. Before computers, Mike says engineers would use water models to project how it would behave, because water has the same “kinematic viscosity,” it pours the same way.  Now they use computer modeling to study fluid flow, heat transfer, factors that might cause molds to break, or cause defects in the steel.  They’d test the latest equipment being pitched by vendors.

Steel mills use water applied with a system of nozzles for cooling.  One of Mike’s projects at the East Chicago plant was to investigate a new cooling system.  For a year, they took measurements, studied blue prints, consulted with nozzle makers and other engineers, and concluded the new system would have definite advantages – it was more flexible and could reach parts of the process that were particularly hard to access.  But in the end it was shelved as too expensive to implement.

The global financial meltdown did not help.  The Indiana Harbor Plant tightened its belt. Workers who could retire did so.  The company reassigned engineers, including Mike, to work as supervisors on the floor. That was technically a step down, though Mike says he liked the work more.  He hadn’t been drawn into the field by the promise of computer modeling. “I’m very hands on.  I want to build things…I want to be part of the process.”

On the floor there was lots of moving equipment and parts were always breaking, there were literal 
fires to put out.  Between castings, the supervisors and their crews would go over every part with a checklist, performing audits and writing maintenance reports.  The supervisor takes attendance, makes sure everyone’s appropriately deployed – and then inspects the quality of the steel as it rolls out from the of the caster.

Steel moving through a continuous caster
image from ArcelorMittal

The molten metal starts to cool as it passes through the casting machine, it forms a hardened skin, or sleeve, that allows it to move smoothly over a system of rollers that are working it into shape as it passes over them.  If the metal cools too fast or too slowly, it might break out of the sleeve and create big problems.  Or if a roller gets stuck, or mucked up with pieces of debris, it’ll leave tell tale imprints in the finished steel.

A ladle of molten metal can be worth a million dollars.  Mike says you’re taking chemical samples throughout the process to make sure the composition of the metal is right – if it’s not, you can sometimes fix it, but steel can also be “poisoned” by an excess of certain ingredients, like copper for instance.  And once it’s poured, if it doesn’t react the way it’s supposed to in the mold, it could spill over, or explode – like a lethal home baking project.

So the work was interesting, but the atmosphere was tense.  And that rash of retirements only widened an experience gap created by decades of industry consolidation. The floor was manned by a lot of guys with 30 or 40 years of experience, and a few new guys with 1 or 2 years.  It wasn’t easy to be a 27 year old, supervising salty workers in their 50s and 60s.  And there was nobody with 10 to 15 years who could remember how they were trained.  The old guys were often impatient to stop and answer questions, or to show the new guys what they knew.

He recalls there were a lot of strong egos, a lot of communication accomplished by in your face shouting matches – a method encouraged by the physical intensity of the mill, which is basically a huge open air warehouse.  It’s freezing in winter, or sweltering when they’re pouring steel.

“You can easily kill yourself.  You’re not always sure what you should or shouldn’t do,” Mike recalls.  There’s molten metal, poisonous gases and explosive steam.  “Mistakes are either life threatening or they cost a lot of money.”

There were several guys who died while he was at East Chicago plant.  One guy got crushed by a leg of a gantry crane; another was crushed in a truck-rail collision.  One of the supervisors was killed by a sudden steam explosion; a senior supervisor he knew succumbed abruptly to mesothelioma -- he woke up one morning and he couldn’t breathe, they rushed him to the hospital and he was dead before afternoon.

The mills needed to be staffed around the clock, and they were short staffed, so everyone was logging in long hours. The long hours meant that Mike was making good money, and also that he had no outside life, so he wasn’t spending any of it. He paid off all his student loans, and then he started socking as much as he could in retirement account. And then, after 4 years, he had enough.

Inside the Shed
image from NW Indiana Steel Heritage photo gallery
“I got to the point I realized it was important to me to respect and like the people I work with,” which was not the overriding atmosphere at the mill.

Now, he jokes that he uses more of the skills he’d hoped to use as an engineer working at the bike shop.  It’s certainly a hands-on job – with a lot less housekeeping and filing of reports.  The mechanics each have an area of unofficial specialty based on their favorite kind of bikes.  Owen Lloyd, one of the shop's owners, gets any English tourers or racers that come in the door.  “Owen’s an English three speed kind of guy,” Mike’s a Japanese road bike kind of guy himself.

Even customer service never approaches the stress of the mill.  A lot of Blue City Cycles’ customers are in the service industry, they’ll do the mechanics little favors, like bringing donuts to the shop.

Some customers won’t bring their bikes in for service until they’re completely unrideable, they make for entertaining stories -- like the guy who came in with a flat that he’d kept riding even as the inner tube was forced out of the tire and wrapped around the rear gears, he rode it until the wheel wouldn’t turn anymore.

Then there’s the customer who had her bike in for brake adjustments a few times, and then came back one day to buy the tools and cables to do the repair herself.  “We love that,” Mike says “We were like give us a call if you have any trouble…”

Feel good stories aside, you’d expect the most significant drawback to Mike’s career change would be the effect on his financial well being .  His earnings have been greatly reduced.  Probably part of the reason he can swing it is because he’s not raising kids right now.

But the bike shop also helps sustain him in indirect ways. Because it effectively ties all of them in with a community -- of customers, and of owners and employees of the neighboring businesses .  They’re embedded into the neighborhood; it’s quality of life benefit that spills over in immeasurable, but material ways.

The clearest example is Mike’s apartment.  It’s just few blocks from the shop; he pays a very reasonable rent.  He leases it from the girlfriend of the owner of a business across the street.  It’s an apartment that’s been in her family for many years, so she probably doesn’t have to bring in big rents, she rents the other apartment to one of her boyfriend’s employees.

Trying to live on a bike mechanic’s wages would be very different in Logan Square, where DNAInfo just reported a developer’s plans to build 500 square foot “micro apartments” with rents starting at $1,200 a month.

Logan Square renters are paying a lot for their neighborhood’s amenities – it is better stocked with hip restaurants, boutiques and bars -- and for the street vibe that comes with them.  Bridgeport has a street vibe too.  It’s not based on cool-factor or cache, it’s the vibe you get from running into 5 people you know between the coffee shop and the drug store, and Mike thrives on that.

He lived in Humboldt Park near Logan Square before he worked at Blue City Cycles, he says it felt more transient, people live in an apartment for a few years and then they’re gone.  There were plenty of neat restaurants and neat little bars.  “I’m the target demographic for a lot of that,” he says but he thinks there’s something a little artificial about them, like they’re decorated new to imitate the kind of quirky, run-down color you find at a place like Bernice’s. “Why not just go to Bernice’s?” The beer costs half of much.  And you might swap some stories with Mike Okelman there.