By Jeff Tangel
Re-posted from South Side Weekly, April 12, 2017
Last August, construction started on the Jeanne Gang-designed, Chinese-funded downtown skyscraper Wanda Vista, which will be the third-tallest building in Chicago when it is completed. The building has been heavily promoted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration, but for some, it has become a symbol for the divisive effects of globalization on local economies once reliant on now-outsourced jobs, from manufacturing and engineering, to tech support and reading x-rays.
Sam Wilson is seventy-three years old, tall and gregarious with an infectious elfin laugh. Whenever he shows up to volunteer at the Canaan M.B.C. Food Ministry in Englewood, where we work, he announces with a challenging grin, “The real man is here.” Everyone laughs.
Sam came to Chicago as part of the second Great Migration, arriving in 1960, an eager young man of seventeen from Senatobia, Mississippi. Work was easy to find back then, and he quickly landed a job as a janitor for FS Tiger, a Jewish family-owned clothing manufacturer. FS Tiger was one of many similar Chicago companies that made high quality clothing for local and national markets. Everyone needed clothing, so the work was good.
Young Sam was a good worker. “I see so much more you can do, Sam,” FS Tiger’s foreman Mr. Wagner told him—and so he was well-paid, mentored, and regularly promoted. The family came to rely on his skillful ability to cut mounds of expensive fabric with exacting detail, and often sought his guidance on how best to conduct important parts of their business. When the company was struggling, Sam saw a way to turn fabric waste into revenue by selling scraps to a cap manufacturer across the street. And so a small ecosystem flourished.
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Image Source: South Side Weekly 4/12/17, photo by Steven Vance (cropped)