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Ironworker John La Monica Forges a Comeback

By Casey Cora | April 3, 2013 6:27am

CANARYVILLE — John La Monica is a guy's guy, maybe the very definition of a tough-talking, blue-collar South Sider.

Hilariously foul-mouthed with big dirty hands, this city ironworker is on a mission to revive the art of manufacturing.

La Monica, 49, recently moved from his old digs at the Butler Street Foundry and Iron Co. to a new shop at Root Street and Normal Avenue in Canaryville.

The old shop at 3422 S. Normal, which he took over in 2005 from family friend, closed in 2011 and was recently bought for use as a Chinese-American grocery warehouse.

With the economic collapse and housing crisis staring him in the face, La Monica saw the end of the foundry coming. But that didn't make closing the 120-year-old business any less painful.

Projects stalled, layoffs began and the company, where workers once turned out iron and steel for factories and projects across the city, resorted to the role of middleman, sending out orders for fabrication instead of creating them.

“It was just a f----- horrible, miserable death,” he said.

Still, there was a bright spot.

Even as La Monica, a former precision instrument machinist at the Illinois Institute of Technology Research Institute, worked to maintain operations at the foundry, he continued inviting teens to the shop to get an up-close view of manufacturing.

“Some kids are good kids and go to college and they’re well-behaved. But sometimes you get this bad kid. Well, this bad kid really works well with his hands,” he said.

At the gritty factory at 35th and Normal, La Monica hosted workshops for University of Chicago charter school students and took two Back of the Yards high school teens under his wing in a mentorship program. In 2010, he led nine teenagers through a project to build a souped-up Santa sleigh.

He also led an attempt to gather neighborhood kids for a restoration contest to clean up the shoreline of Canal Origins Park, 2701 S. Ashland Ave. on the banks of the Chicago River's south branch.

All of the community outreach has won him accolades from the community.

At his office, pictures of La Monica with teen groups share wall space with photos of him with various VIPs and politicians. Tacked to the wall is a 2010 Chicago News Cooperative story from the New York Times in which he’s pictured peering out toward the south branch with Ald. James Balcer (11th).

Balcer called La Monica his “homeboy” and a “decent guy, and honorable man and a hardworking guy who gives back to the community.”

La Monica took a job as a Chicago Department of Transportation ironworker in June 2011, his second stint with the city after a short-lived job as a non-union employee he said ended after about a month.

Now, he spends his days with CDOT working on “wonderful old bridges in the city and a lot of the old wonderful architectural metal work in the city," he said.

La Monica, the guy his buddies call “Tink” — it's even on his business card, short for tinkerer — often punches out and heads straight to his new shop.

Walking throughout the shop, La Monica showed off an array of ongoing projects and industrial tools he's collected over the years.

The new city job is a lot more steady, with regular hours, and he's now plotting a mentoring comeback.

This summer, he plans to work with teens from the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council to create a piece of public art for the Union Stockyards, as well as leading a major picture framing project for the hallways of UNO's Veterans Memorial Charter School campus.

As he walked up the stairs to his office, he surveyed the shop floor beneath him, smiled and hinted at what's next.

"I'm going to call this place the Butler Street Studios," he said.