"My kind of town" sang Sinatra of the second city of the USA. Yet if past entrepreneurial fortunes had turned out differently, "Old Blue Eyes" would have needed a different line. At the beginning of last century, as Chicago was recovering from its great fire, another town vied to become the engine room and principal city of the lakes. Thirty miles along the mud flats of Lake Michigan, on the short stretch of shoreline belonging to Indiana, is the municipality of Gary.
Enormous steel mills were established here, followed by processing plants for tin, tubing and all things ferrous. Today, it lies trapped in the rustbelt, a world away from the imperious towers and vibrancy of the neighboring metropolis. The late "king of pop" Michael Jackson, was not stirred to immortalize his birthplace in song.
An hour after emerging from the shadows of gleaming corporate skyscrapers, the train pulled in at Gary Metro Center. Only four others alighted at this deserted precinct, a failed regeneration project with most of its retail units boarded up. To the north were the lakeside furnaces of U.S. Steel, and nearby a modern baseball stadium, appropriately named Steel Yard. Two domed civic buildings, relics of an optimistic past, brooded over the now deserted Broadway.
Strolling for a few hundred yards down this wide boulevard, I passed a continuous facade of dereliction, the only surviving enterprises a bargain clothing retailer trading three-dollar tops, and Jack's Loans. Emboldened weeds rose from cracks in the roadside. Just off the main thoroughfare was another tomb from a forgotten era, the lofty red-brick academy for performing arts, guarded by fencing. High culture had long departed.
A sense of Armageddon was partly relieved opposite the defunct Palace cinema. A petite, chirpy white girl with pink tongue stud and clipboard approached from the doorway of a community center, checking if I had registered to vote. According to this campaign officer, engaging the disenfranchised in the democratic process was often a thankless task; many people could not be bothered completing a single-sided form. To my enquiry as to the whereabouts of the central hub, she replied "This here is Downtown." Overhearing our conversation, a congenial fellow beckoned me, and before I knew it I was on a bus full of sociable African Americans heading south.
Bereft of a Cultural Heartbeat
My impromptu guide, whose father had worked at a recently mothballed car parts factory, claimed that so many workers had been laid off because none of the businesses was in black ownership. So what did I think of Obama? Being no expert on U.S. politics, I returned the question, and was surprised by his ambivalence. "Ninety-eight days to go," he sighed, perhaps betraying decades of disillusionment, before switching to a topic more interesting to him: British television shows. Are you Being Served was his favorite, and he wondered whether I lived near the depicted Grace Brothers' store. A surreal tribute to the antics of Mrs. Slocombe et al continued until his stop, when he left me in the hands of his fellow passengers. "Make sure he gets off at K-Mart."
Straddling the highway was a montage of faded strip malls, built successively further out of town with ever-larger units and forecourts. A superstore reincarnated as "Mega Thrift" had attracted two cars. After several miles a cluster of modern steel and glass offices of national banks appeared on a landscaped contour, but I doubted whether many employees lived in Gary. Most mid-American cities grew during the automobile era, and as Robert Kaplan observed in Empire Wilderness, conurbations have developed without an obvious center, existing instead as nebulae of socio-economically demarcated townships. Unlike European urban ecology, metropolitan America gravitates outwards, leaving only the impoverished behind. Bereft of commercial and cultural heartbeat, a city dies.
At a noisy intersection, everyone disembarked for a connecting bus. I considered aborting this unplanned journey to nowhere in particular, but across eight lanes of speeding vehicles I saw no bus stop in the opposite direction. While my fellow travelers were untroubled by the searing midday sun ("Like Florida", one gent enthused), I took refuge in the doorway of a disused Army recruitment office. The eventual destination, an indoor plaza owned by Westfield, was of little interest to me. However, it had a Borders bookstore, and in its local history section I learned of the sad demise of Gary.
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