Newsweek Ironworker

1950 Chicago

You can call it a dirty-shirt town – one of the most air polluted big cities in the country.

You can walk through 25 square miles of some of the world’s worst slums.

You can find the explosive fear of race riots.

You can be shaken down by racketeers.

You can stroll pass derelicts on perhaps the dingiest Skid Row in America.

And yet-with all this – there is a new Chicago in the making…

Rising out of the Industrial Revolution, South Chicago was a working class city within a city.

A blend of race and ethnicities migrated across the land to work in one of the largest industrial wards of the world. Home to thousands of ironworkers, it was hard work for the strong willed.

John Rukavina grew up as WWII ended, during the golden age of steel making and a thriving South Chicago. Taverns scattered along every neighborhood street corner and stood to greet the constant pulse of men outside the mill gates. To survive the neighborhood, John recalls growing up tough, boxing, riding the streetcar and playing tag around the signboards. It was a time and a place where graphite used to rain from the sky. The glow of molten steel lit up the night. Twenty-four hours and seven days a week the steel mills smoked and churned. For the neighborhood, it was like living next to a fire-breathing dragon.

Cowboys of the Sky traces time through the eyes of a journeyman ironworker reared under the steel mills of 1950 south Chicago as he embarks onto the high steel of Chicago’s rising skyscrapers. As the historian Fredrick Jackson Turner proclaimed an end to the era of America’s western expansion, partaking in the will and character of America’s cowboy, the new frontier stood skyward. During a high point of freedom to connect steel, the sky was the last place for a free man. Without leash or harness, the ironworkers only concern was to make it to the top. Each step was a commitment to get the job done. The journeyman ironworker held belt in hand and with a license to steel strived for the sky job to job.

“Most of us try to eliminate danger from our lives. But high-rise construction workers are a different breed of men.”

What does it take to build a skyline?

“Independent guys who like being alone with the wind at their ears and all of the city and the people in it beneath them…”   ~Journalist Anne Keegan

Follow Adventurous John Rukavina, willing to climb where no one else would climb, and earning a reputation of a guy with no fear. Constantly risking absurdity as he persists beyond any expectations to stand above the shoulders of the windy city sky. Balancing on eyebeams, men unseen, above a city of dreams, they pace their way, to the other side of day. Higher than the clouds they romance the steel, in love with the tenacious rhythm.

Safety speaks over the long exposed years as John Rukavina has witnessed the nature and the style of ironwork progress. As an “old timer” who has predominately changed the Chicago skyline, he has seen the world and the world of ironworking change. Cowboys of the Sky invites you to look up at the high life and embrace what it was and is to ironwork on some of the highest jobs ever.

The making of Cowboys of the Sky

John Rukavina, has been a high steel ironworker on over twenty major antenna installations, topping out over time the country’s tallest skyscrapers. In the city where the skyscraper was born, John Rukavina has placed the highest steel. Currently at 74 he is still involved with high profile projects, still hammering, connecting and leading a crew. Cowboys of the Sky has been in the making for over three years. This story is brought together with decades of archival footage including video, photographs, newspapers, and story telling. Using helicopter, small camera crane, and helmet cam, the viewer will be put in an environment that most will never experience, visualizing how the city moves through the life and eyes of the ironworker.

“When I look up at the antennas from various parts of Chicago they seem as remote and unobtainable as mountain peaks, as I’m sure they do for most people. The towers sit there in splendid isolation, looming over the city, dwarfing everything in sight. It is hard to imagine that mere men put those towers in their perch…”   ~Photographer Jonas Dovydenas

Ironworkers may be the heart of Cowboys of the Sky, but this film also connects the architects, engineers, historians, journalists, and the photographers, who have shared in the growth of a city.

Told through the memories of Local 1 ironworkers, impressionistic narrative scenes recreating the gritty neighborhood of South Chicago’s steel past and featuring the fun exploits of the 1960’s-70’s exposed steel will be encapsulated within the film. This ironworker documentary seeks to display American history with these representations of yesterday re-voiced today. Suspended in the production stage the memory scenes wait to be shot, as this film continues its endeavors for financial support.

The Filmmakers

Cowboys of the Sky film creators, Director/Producer Steve Brown and Writer/Producer Colleen O’Brien grew up as children of the trades. They have a deep respect and admiration for the ironworker trade and the men who do it. Steve Browns first documentary film, Sectors, ventured with world-renowned climbers such as Chris Sharma, in search of the best boulders in New Zealand and South Africa. The filmmakers have been passionately immersed in various artistic projects over the years, in NY Steve Brown worked on FX Rescue Me, at Chicago’s Open Books Colleen O’Brien lead writing workshops, and across the world both have been part of the creation of the elaborate bamboo sculptures of artists Mike and Doug Starn’s, Big Bambu. Steve Brown and Colleen O’Brien are inspired by the true nature of the ironworker and are excited to share the raw spirit of John Rukavina’s journey.

Over the course of making this film, there has been many people who have contributed their time, skills, and services in an effort to help make Cowboys of the Sky.

A Special Thanks goes out to them!