Where Work Disappears and Dreams Die
Not all teenagers are as lucky as J’Len Glass. He trusts his parents. He knows they will always tell it to him straight. Yet the 15-year-old, who wants to be a doctor, can’t help being skeptical of his elders’ veracity—or at least of their memories—when they tell him that his shrinking, economically depressed hometown of Gary, Indiana—Steel City—was, once upon a time, a wonderful place to raise a family. That it had good public schools and well-maintained city parks and streets. That there were department stores, restaurants, movie theaters, nightclubs, and crowded office buildings up and down Broadway, its main thoroughfare. That a young guy could go outside, play some ball, flirt with girls, and not worry about getting killed in a drive-by shooting. That he could graduate high school, and if he didn’t want to go to college or join the military, he could just stay put and make a decent living in one of the smoke-belching steel mills that ringed the city and provided paychecks to tens of thousands of workers. That Gary used to be part of the American working- and middle-class mainstream, a place folks moved to and put down roots in—not some decaying, can’t-wait-to-pull-up-stakes-and-get-the-hell-away-from-here outpost of the Other America, which these days is just about the only America J’Len sees when he walks out his front door.
“It’s hard to imagine the Gary older people talk about,” he says early on a Saturday morning as he and several other teenage volunteers, armed with bottles of Windex, prepare to wash windows in a senior citizens’ apartment building. The teens don yellow plastic gloves and T-shirts that plead Bury Guns, Not People. “It’s nothing like that now. My dad told me how he used to love to play outside. Now there aren’t a lot of kids in our area. Everybody has moved away. When you do go outside, you have to watch to see if someone is following you home. There’s nothing here for young people. No jobs. No future. I’m leaving as soon as I can.”
This is what happens when work disappears and dreams die. A once-bustling American city turns into Gary. A model of industrial might for much of the 20th century, sometimes called “the Magic City” by early boosters, Gary today is anything but. Over the past four decades, the jobs and the people have been chased away as Gary’s biggest employers had to grapple with low-cost foreign competition and responded by installing technology that enables two steelworkers to turn out as much steel as a dozen did a quarter-century ago. The five steel mills of Northwest Indiana—including the largest, the U.S. Steel mill in Gary—used to have a combined workforce of up to 100,000. They now employ roughly 20,000 people and are producing as much steel as ever.
Like Flint, Detroit, Cleveland, and Akron, like hundreds of cities and towns across the once-industrial Midwest, Gary is emblematic of the new American poverty, the poverty that descended when the factories closed down. The city is half the size it was in 1970, its population reduced from 170,000 then to 80,000 today. Its poverty rate is 28 percent. A fifth of its houses, churches, school buildings, and other structures are vacant and boarded-up. The hulking steel mills still line the Lake Michigan shore in northwest Indiana, but they’ve been hemorrhaging workers for decades.
Mary Boner worked in the mills for five years, from 1976 to 1981. She was assigned to the ore dock and was part of a large group of women hired in the late 1970s. Boner’s father worked the mills and tried to discourage his daughter from doing so as well. Too dirty, too hot, too dangerous, he told her. “I had two kids, and I was head of the household,” she says. “I had no choice.”
Before becoming a steelworker, she was barely making minimum wage stitching tarps for cars and boats. The mill paid her $8 an hour more. “I felt economically comfortable for the first time in my life,” she says. “I could have things. I could buy my kids clothes. That job just opened a whole other world to me.”
She bought a car and in 1977 purchased a house for $25,000. “I was on easy street,” she says. Then she got laid off in 1981 and was never called back to work. “Before I knew it, there goes the house,” she says. By 1984, she was living with relatives. Today, at 73, she works as a home health-care attendant. “Lots of people would kill for my job,” she says.
About 30 miles east of Chicago, Gary was founded in 1906 by U.S. Steel for one purpose: to make steel. “To really understand Gary you have to go back to the origins of Gary and Flint, Michigan, and Youngstown, Ohio,” says S. Paul O’Hara, a historian and author of Gary: The Most American of All American Cities. “They were built at a particular time for a particular reason. They were industrial spaces. Their schools, their churches, their pride were all built upon a foundation of industrial labor and wages. Deindustrialization just doesn’t remove the wages, the jobs, the pride—it removes that foundation that undergirds the churches, the social institutions. The soul of the city is tied up in industrial work and now, for most people, that work is gone.”
The city’s tax base has gone with the work. “We base our city services on property taxes,” says Karen Freeman-Wilson, Gary’s first-term mayor. “But people can’t pay their property taxes if they don’t have jobs.”
The “stated unemployment rate” in Gary, she says, is 9 percent. “But the only way you can get a rate of 9 percent is if you count the number of people who are looking for jobs. There are a significant number of people here in Gary who have never held jobs, who never started looking for jobs, or who have stopped looking for jobs a long time ago. I would estimate our unemployment rate is at least 20 percent.”
Indiana changed the way property taxes were assessed in the state a decade ago, shaving tens of millions of dollars off the steel industry’s tax bill. “Gary was hit hardest by the change,” she says. “We lost $40 million from our budget.”
Every imaginable city service and amenity has been affected by the loss of jobs and tax dollars. Gary is currently facing a projected $15 million deficit on its budget of $60 million. Without the revenue from two riverboat casinos on the edge of town, Gary’s budget would be $37 million, the mayor says. The sight of cars with Illinois license plates in the casino parking lot gladdens her heart. If enough losers come to town to visit the boats, Gary can keep the lights on for a little longer.
Last year, the lights were turned off for good in the city’s main downtown public library. The school district is currently laying off 169 of the city’s 732 teachers to make ends meet. Gary has 57 public parks but only enough money to maintain six of them. Freeman-Wilson put out a call asking church groups, high-school students, and social clubs to volunteer to clean the parks. “People have really stepped up to the plate,” she says. Next they may have to step up to the curb. Gary does not have a working street sweeper, and at one point the mayor contemplated dispatching people doing community service into the streets with brooms.
The city’s population decline means that there are far fewer children in the classrooms, leaving 10 to 12 empty schools that have become the targets of vandals who rip off the wiring and plumbing fixtures in hopes of making a few bucks at the local scrapyard. As she drove through her city recently, Freeman-Wilson noticed a suspicious white-paneled van parked in front of the open door of an abandoned school building. She called the police. “People are desperate,” she says.
Once a week since January, when she became Gary’s first woman mayor, Freeman-Wilson has opened the doors of her city-hall office for two hours to Gary residents for one-on-one sessions. Each citizen is allotted 15 minutes to discuss whatever he or she wants about life in the city. On a recent spring afternoon, Freeman-Wilson sits in a cream-colored chair next to a matching sofa where a woman is perched, rifling through photographs. Freeman-Wilson takes notes on an iPad.
The woman says she is caring for her elderly mother and that the sidewalk in front of their home is so cracked and uneven that it is dangerous for her mother to walk outside. “I’ve been calling General Services for years to get it fixed,” she says. The woman hands the mayor a photograph of the sidewalk, which looks like it has been blown up by dynamite. The mayor shakes her head as she examines the picture. “I can’t sit here and tell you I’m going to fix your sidewalk next month or six months from now,” she says. “Unfortunately, we just don’t have the money.” Vernon Smith, who represents Gary in the state legislature, praises Freeman--Wilson for “surrounding herself with competent people. But she has a major task ahead of her, because she doesn’t have the financial resources.”
Even a Harvard-trained lawyer such as Freeman--Wilson will do crazy things for love—like run three times to become mayor of Gary, as she did before finally winning last November. Indiana’s former attorney general, Freeman--Wilson, who was born and raised in Gary, remembers the city that J’Len’s parents and grandparents tell him about. That Gary, she says, is worth fighting for. That Gary can make a comeback. “I want to rebuild Gary on existing assets,” which include Gary’s proximity to Chicago, its easy access to highways and Lake Michigan, and its underutilized airport.
“There is a real sense of indebtedness I have to Gary because whatever success I’ve achieved is attributable to people in Gary,” she says. “And I like a challenge. The biggest challenge I have is instilling hope.”
Then Gary’s new police chief, Wade Ingram, walks into her office.
“How are you doing, Chief?” the mayor asks.
“Fine until a minute ago,” he says. “We just had a drive-by at 43rd and Massachusetts.”
Ingram was one of the mayor’s first hires. A police officer for more than three decades, most of that time as a member of the Chicago Police Department, Ingram says he had never been to Gary until he was hired to lead its 246-officer department. “I don’t know the city very well yet,” the chief says. “But I do know human nature after 32 years as a police officer. Poor, uneducated, lacking economic opportunities—it’s a deadly mix. I think jobs will make a big difference. But around here there aren’t any.”
When he arrives at the scene of the shooting, an ambulance is speeding the 21-year-old victim, shot in the leg, to the hospital. The street is filled with police officers, the stoops with young men. Suspicion and fear hang in the air.
“Hey, Chief, we need an explosives dog,” an officer says.
“We’ve got to come up with some more money first,” Ingram replies.
“I still have eight puppies at home,” the officer says. “I’ll give the city a good deal on them.”
Just then, an officer chases a woman out of the middle of the street. She was walking through the crime scene. The police had not cordoned off the area with yellow tape.
“Don’t we have any?” the chief asks.
“I just sent one of the guys to my car to get what little I have left,” an officer says.
“We go through a lot of tape,” the chief says, shaking his head.
The food bank at First African Methodist Episcopal Church is busier than ever. The church opened its food bank in the 1960s, when fewer than 60 people used it in an average week. Now, about 150 people visit the bank weekly. Recently, 175 people came. “Before, the food bank for most people was a supplement,” says Maurice Preston, who oversees the bank. “Now it’s a necessity. Nobody’s working. Everybody is laid off.”
As the need increases, the Sunday offering keeps getting smaller and smaller at the church. It’s hard to tithe when your pockets are empty, says the senior pastor, the Reverend Emmanuel Vaughn. There are also fewer people in the congregation to give. “We have a lot of people moving away, especially the young people, looking for work,” he says. “There’s an age gap in the congregation. We have the very young and the old. We’re missing the middle.”
So far, Catherine Hopson, 20, has decided to stay, at least until she completes college at Ivy Tech in Gary. She had a job during the Christmas season at a big-box toy store in a neighboring town. No such stores exist in Gary. When Christmas ended, so did her job.
“The few jobs that are available,” she says, “are filled by older people.”
“Even McDonald’s employment is extremely competitive,” Vaughn adds.
There is no movie theater in Gary. No Gap or Apple Store. Starbucks, it seems, has an outlet on every corner in the world—everywhere, that is, except Gary. Freeman-Wilson says she can count the number of restaurants on two hands and have plenty of fingers to spare.
Gary has been shrinking for decades under the weight of so much hardship. When journalist Marshall Frady visited the city for Harper’s in the late 1960s, Gary had a much more diverse population than it has today. “Its population over the past 60 years,” Frady wrote, “has accumulated almost exclusively through great migrations that attended the mill’s boom times, so that now it is made up of a kind of global tumbleweed: Poles, Czechs, Irish, Swedes, Lithuanians, Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians, Mexicans. More recently, there was a surge of Negroes from the South, who were shortly followed by the New Oakies: Appalachian whites, wandering up from the gullies and honeysuckle into the clashing steel and treeless asphalt, lank and quiet with a certain blasted look after a while in their pale blue eyes.”
Today, Gary is 85 percent black, 5 percent Latino, and 10 percent white. Much of the white population fled the city shortly after the election in 1967 of Gary’s first African American mayor, Richard Hatcher. “There were key structural changes happening in Gary at this time,” says O’Hara, the historian. “People were moving out of the city. The suburbs were growing. Racial segregation was becoming more clear, particularly as capital pulled out, not just factories but banks, stores, everything.” Most of the steelworkers still employed by the plants—who make among the highest blue-collar wages in the country—have fled to the suburbs, too.
The story of Gary’s racial transformation obscured the story of its deindustrialization. “The people fleeing the city were so obsessed about race that they didn’t notice, or they didn’t care to notice, that mechanization was taking away jobs,” O’Hara says. “Within the American imagination, job loss, poverty, and crime in Youngstown and Flint is seen as tragic and unfortunate, when we so rarely apply that to Gary because we think in terms of race. There is no one talking about Gary the way Michael Moore talks about Flint.”
The men’s homeless shelter in Gary is named Brothers’ Keeper. It is located in a single-story gray building that used to be a tire outlet store on Broadway. Unlike so many other buildings on Broadway, at least the old tire store is being used for something more than a house for ghosts. For the shelter’s longtime executive director, Mary Edwards, “being our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper is the only way Gary is going to survive, because no one else is looking out for us.”
Edwards has been working at the shelter for 24 of its 26 years of existence. At one time, she says, there were as many as ten shelters and flophouses where a man, down on his luck, could find a meal and a place to sleep. “Those places are all gone,” she says. “No money to keep them open. The government has downsized the role it plays in the lives of poor people.’’
Two of those luckless men, shelter residents Levi Gildon, 60, and Charles Byrom, 58, sit in Edwards’s office and talk about the Gary they remember and the Gary they know today.
“You could leave a job on Monday and have another job by the end of the week,” says Gildon, who worked as a heavy-machine operator at construction sites around town. “There were so many little plants and factories, all kinds of feeder plants to the mills. Now they’re all gone.”
The men fall silent for a moment. Gildon shakes his head and sighs.
“They left a downtrodden city behind,” he says. “It’s almost to the time there should be a eulogy spoken over the city.”
“It’s not dead yet,” Byrom says. “But it’s definitely on life support.’’
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