Images from the 1920s showed a multitude of smartly attired citizens and ubiquitous Tin Lizzies, against a backdrop of banks and department stores, barely credible as the place I had visited today. One of the few recognizable landmarks was the ten-story grand hotel, now Genesis Towers, a housing department office and home for seniors. Terminal decline had begun back in the 1960s, with the downturn of the American steel industry and a rising tide of cheap Asian imports. Unemployment brought crime, white flight, and the loss of middle class cultural amenities that maintain a civilized milieu. The population had dwindled from nearly 200,000 to 109,000 (and it has since fallen below 80,000).
Gary is Scary
Nearby towns have suffered a similarly cruel impact of global capitalism, such as the hometown of polemicist Michael Moore, whose film Roger and Me portrayed the head of General Motors as callous executioner of the automotive plants in Flint, Michigan. As economist David Audretsch explained in his book Entrepreneurial Society, jobs for life and the managed economy have gone—and may never return. Today, areas that prosper are those that attract dynamic, knowledge-based ventures, such as those in Boston, Raleigh-Durham, Seattle, Salt Lake City, and Silicon Valley.
The extent to which American life revolves around the private car was underlined as I sought a way back to the main road, finding myself marooned between traversing expressways. Back at the shopping center information desk, only vague information on bus services could be procured, and there was no marked stop where I had arrived earlier. I asked a young twosome for directions. While friendly, they looked askance at my enquiry on public transport, and bewildered at my destination: "Downtown Gary? That is scary."
The guy looked unsure, but his girlfriend with nostril piercings thought it adventurous to offer me a ride. Their compact Saturn hatchback, the sort of Japanese-inspired car belatedly produced by General Motors as motorists desert the gasoline-guzzling "land yacht," required a screwdriver to turn the ignition. Interspersed with remarks on my accent, the two students emphasized that neither had they visited Gary, nor would they have any intent to do so. I jumped out at the crossroads where I had changed buses earlier, while they turned back to the normality of the burbs.
It was a long trek to the outskirts of Gary, where the atmosphere was palpably changing. The unemployed daytime had begun, and the tills were ringing at chicken fast-food joints that must have been boarded up earlier that day. This stray white man was now attracting attention. Two youths cycled towards me, and menacingly asked: "Hey, are you gay?" Fortunately my response was acceptable. Overhead a billboard announced a peace rally to stop the murders (I later discovered that Gary had the highest per capita murder rate in the USA).
It was only five o'clock, in full daylight, but already I felt the dangers of the night. I chastised myself: the purpose of my trip was an international conference, not a mission to the twilight zone. Along the way disheveled men cadged cigarettes. To my relief I reached the old hotel, where a congregation of elders sat in the shade. I wondered how they contrasted their arduous careers at the foundry to the hopeless indolence of the younger generations.
From the platform at Gary station I watched an endless procession of freight wagons meandering around the steelworks, all bearing the name Hyundai. This seemed to emphasize that globalization has hit hard. Without radical action, the rustbelt will leave merely a corrosive stain as a legacy of former industriousness. Meanwhile, American society may be forced to reconsider the idea of the city. Dependence on hostile and dwindling sources for oil is focusing minds on sustainable consumption, and the car may have passed its zenith as a cultural symbol. Investment in the piecemeal public transport network, reversing decades of neglect, would be a start. The demise of the railroad was poignantly demonstrated back in 1969, when the Grand Union Station in Chicago made way for office blocks, leaving only escalator access to dimly lit, sparsely populated platforms below. Yet in the 1980s, against the odds, a public campaign saved Gary's train link to Chicago. That spirit may survive, a dormant energy biding its time. The people of this deadbeat town need hope, a spark of life, and to be served ultimately to serve themselves.
Niall McCrae is a lecturer and researcher in mental health at King's College London with a particular interest in the history of psychiatry and mental health care in Britain. His book The Moon and Madness was published in 2011, and he is now writing a history of the asylums and mental hospitals, with a focus on the experiences of nurses.
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