High Steel - Directed by Don Owen(1965)
Native American Iron workers, specifically those from the Mohawk tribe from the Kahnawake Reservation just on the Canadian side of the border with NY, happen to be responsible for erecting a large part of the Manhattan skyline as it exists today - the Empire State Building, the George Washington Bridge, the Triborough Bridge, the Waldorf-Astoria, the Henry Hudson Parkway, the RCA Building, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge( and the World Trade Center).
When things were really booming in the fifties and sixties, there was a Mohawk community of nearly 700 in my hood of Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, where Iron Workers lived with their families, went to church, and would head up to the Kahnawake reservation every summer.
“Then they were gone. Extinct it seemed. The local mail drops like the Wigwam bar closed, and the last Mohawk at 375 State Street, an apartment building where for decades there was a Mohawk name on every buzzer, moved out five years ago. The Indians just packed up and moved away.
There was the building bust. But before that, the neighborhood went bad with drugs and crime. And in 1967, the last 172 miles of the New York State Thruway to the Canadian border were completed. The men no longer needed to tear their families away from home. They began to leave them and make what was now a six-hour commute on the weekends.
Instead of brownstones, the Indians nowadays take rooms in boarding houses or cram themselves into apartments or shabby motels. They are scattered across the metropolitan region, living in places like New Rochelle, N.Y., Hoboken, N.J., and the West Village. A group of about 70 men live in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
These men will tell the children later, maybe over breakfast, the stories from the city and then tell them that they must work hard in school. But the older boys do not pay attention. It doesn’t make sense. They know where they are going. Up on the steel.”
- from Charlie Leduff’s great article on the Mohawk Ironworkers from 2001
High Steel is great - there’s a bit of a jazzy, experimental editing style I really like, and the cinematography is fantastic, not just the obviously impressive, vertigo-inducing shots up high of the buildings being erected in the swirl of Manhattan, but also the contrasting shots of small town life in the res - people biking, playing lacrosse, white picket fences.
Here’s the official synopsis found on the films page:
This short documentary offers a dizzying view of the Mohawk Indians of Kahnawake who work in Manhattan erecting the steel frames of skyscrapers. Famed for their skill in working with steel, the Mohawks demonstrate their nimble abilities in the sky. As a counterbalance, the viewer is also allowed a peek at their quieter community life on the Kahnawake Reserve, in Quebec.