Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

February 19, 2013

Documentary filmmaker looking at AK Steel coke plant

Mike James
The Independent

ASHLAND — Every day there is a little bit less of AK Steel’s coke plant in south Ashland.

An industrial demolition company is dismantling the plant piece by piece and trucking the pieces away for disposal or salvage.

Another once-bustling plant, doing the work that made 20th century America the world’s preeminent economic powerhouse, is disappearing from the landscape.

It is a process carried out over and over in industrial areas like the Tri-State, where smokestacks once belched fumes that fouled the air but smelled like money to blue-collar families.

Marsha Walker does not want that fact to go unnoticed. An Ashland native, she now is a writer and filmmaker in Denver, Colorado. She sees the closed coke plant, where her father worked for 35 years, as a symbol of the Ashland she once knew and a city facing an uncertain future.

One way to explore her own musings on the past and future is to document the demolition process and in the process talk to other people whose lives are bound to the plant.

“I’ve always thought of myself as a girl from a factory town. My father worked for a factory. It seems strange to have it disappear,” Walker said Monday, during a visit to Ashland.

What she wants to do about it make a documentary, not simply a film but a multi-media construct of stories, short films and pictures. It most likely would be web-based and would include interviews and stories about former plant workers and other locals.

“This is a piece of my past that is going to be completely obliterated. I wonder how others will feel about it,” she said.

The stories would look at the economic, psychological and environmental impact of the removal of a formerly vital piece of the Ashland landscape. Some would delve into the history of the plant and the steel industry in the region.

“Would,” Walker is careful to say, because there is no certainty the project ever will be completed. The documentary business is notoriously uncertain and underfunded; Walker has started to send out feelers for grant funding and has hopes she can recruit some collaborators. “Maybe we can find enough people to get an interesting project going,” she said.

Whether she will be able to get inside the gates for film of the demolition is unknown. Walker has contacted AK Steel; the company’s response has been so far noncommittal. On previous visits and on Monday she has been limited to taking photos and making observations from outside the chain-link fence guarding the property.

Her vantage point is a crumbling asphalt drive across a long-unused rail siding, between the gates and two former union halls. From her childhood, she remembers waiting outside the gate for her father to get off work.

From there she has noted the slow deconstruction of the plant.

Walker received her film training at Temple University, from which she holds a master of fine arts degree. She has taught screenwriting and film studies at Temple and has received story grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Kentucky Foundation for Women.

She has a website, openeyemovies.com, with contact information and is interested in hearing from former AK workers and others with insight about the plant.

MIKE JAMES can be reached at mjames@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2652.