If you just want to read about my recent trip to Gary, Indiana, please scroll down to Part 2. If you want to know about the origins of my pseudo-obsession with the city, please start with Part 1. If you do nothing else, please check out the galleries towards the end for some great scenes of general abandonment and dereliction.
Part One: Genesis
Everybody knows how there are certain things that you can go for 20 years without hearing about, but which once you do hear about, suddenly appear everywhere, making you wonder how you initially went for so long without hearing about them. It’s apparently called the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. Or something.
I like when this happens. It makes me think about those little grey cells, cognitive bias, and all the things we might not miss if our brain didn’t selectively filter out the all the shite it deems to be uninteresting. Of course, this happens all the time, but if, like me, you pay attention to when it does, you find that certain instances stand out. Yes, I know you’re not supposed to have favourites, but we can all agree that this is unavoidable in practice. There is always a winner. Mine is Gary, Indiana.
My first encounter with Gary was as a fresh-faced 18-year-old sometime in 2009, when I was sitting in a politics lecture at the University of Aberdeen learning about the three faces of power. Now, for some background on this cause I know y’all like to learn: In political theory, the first face of power is overt decision making, where power is exerted by means of a fully observable action. The second face is agenda setting, where power is semi-overt and exerted by restricting and influencing the scope of what us up for consideration, and the third face is preference shaping, where an actor with power covertly shapes the preferences of those without power by making them adopt views that are not in their real interests, because they are no longer even aware of what their real interests are. The third face of power was illustrated using Gary, Indiana as a case study.
Matthew Crenson, in his book The Un-Politics of Air Pollution, explored why Gary took 13 years longer to enact anti-pollution legislation than neighbouring cities with similar levels of both pollution and wealth. He concluded that, because of the dominance of the industrial complex in Gary, U.S. Steel was directly associated with the town’s prosperity. Thus, the issue of air pollution did not even enter the political arena in Gary because the power of U.S. Steel, and the anticipated reactions to any proposed attempts to raise the issue of air pollution, meant that the matter never actually arose. U.S. Steel didn’t even have to try to keep it off the political agenda, because even though people were getting sick and dying, the people of Gary had been conditioned to believe that this was better for them than putting any sort of restriction on the operations of U.S. Steel would be. Go figure. The lecture grabbed my attention sufficiently to spark a (very) brief period of interest in the politics of the case, but I was a student and I had better things to do, so I promptly forgot all about U.S. Steel and the poor folk of Gary in favour of gin and daytime television.
The television, incidentally, was the source of my next encounter with Gary. With the death of Michael Jackson in June of that year, and the subsequent media frenzy that went on for months and months and months, it was only a matter of time before I found myself accidentally watching one of these “history of the Jacksons” documentaries, featuring lovely grainy footage of young Michael running around his front garden in Gary, where his father Joe worked under the employ of U.S. Steel. “Oh, I know all about Gary! U.S. Steel really screwed them over…” I informed my viewing companion, who didn’t really give a shit. I had no idea that MJ was from Gary, but I always enjoyed a boogie to his beats, and I get a a reasonable amount of satisfaction from forming mental links between obscure places and random events from different parts of my learning experience, like Gary was somehow suddenly significant because I could now view it in relation to two previously unconnected scenarios, instead of being just an isolated blip in the messy abyss of my hippocampus. I wasn’t consciously aware of it at the time, but that was the moment Gary became a thing, and each subsequent encounter with the name of that doomed little city served only to reinforce its omnipresence. I ended up writing my undergraduate dissertation on the politics of power, referencing U.S. Steel’s hold over Gary, Indiana on more than one occasion.
When I first moved to Chicago, one of the first things I saw on the news was the story of serial killer Darren Vann doing the rounds… in Gary. Months later, I’m sitting at O’Hare airport waiting on a delayed flight, and the group of New Yorkers next to me at the gate are having a long and enthusiastic conversation about the many delights…. of Gary. I watch a documentary on poker with my neighbours and the 2003 world series champ apparently had his first brush with Texas hold’em in some dodgy-ass casino… in Gary.
For some reason, I offhandedly mention my interest in Gary in the presence of some of my new neighbours, and casually suggest that I might perhaps like to visit the city and check out its offerings since it is so easily accessible from my new home. Immediately I am informed that I “must be missing an important part of my brain”, that “anyone trying to get to the other side of Lake Michigan would rather swim or take a 700 mile detour through rural Kentucky than risk breaking down anywhere near that hell-hole”, and that “beloved Uncle Jimmy went down there in ’98 and we haven’t seen him since”. I am paraphrasing here slightly, but you get the gist. Apparently people don’t go to Gary just for fun.
Naturally, this only served to coat Gary in a thicker layer of mystique. Any place that provokes such strong cautionary reactions from so many must be truly extraordinary. That same week I was reading, for work, a Bloomberg article about Robert Mugabe’s relationship with U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe James D. McGee, which, in the opening paragraph, dutifully points out that he was “raised during the 50s and 60s in the shadow of the steel mills of Gary, Indiana”. Of course he was. You know who I then discovered was from Gary? Joseph Stiglitz. That’s right, Gary only goes and produces Nobel Prize winning economists. I suggest you go read The Price Of Inequality, and then once again thank Gary for its service to humanity.
The only thing I can conclude from this is that Gary is clearly the centre of the Universe. The point in space towards which everything in existence gravitates, and to which everything that has happened and that ever will happen is inextricably linked. I need to go there.
Part Two: Fruition
Under normal circumstances, a white girl from Scotland would not wake up on a sunny Saturday morning and immediately start planning a day trip to the South Shore’s epicentre of industrial decline. As we have already established, though, my feelings towards Gary, Indiana are anything but normal.
Three factors converged that day which sealed the deal for Gary, the first of which being the fact that it happened to be the opening weekend of the 2015 season for the South Shore Railcats, Gary’s very own minor league baseball team, of which I am, naturally, the number-one fan. The second was that it was a holiday weekend and everybody in Chicago had participated in a mass exodus to either the suburbs or neighbouring states for family-related frivolity, and as my family are 3000 miles away, this left me in need of organising some of my own frivolity. The third factor was that it was supposed to be a glorious sunny day in Gary, and if you’re going to venture somewhere with a sky-high homicide rate you’re best to do it on the sunniest day possible. People don’t kill people when the sun is shining, right?
Happy that logic was finally pointing me in the direction of my long-time bucket list-topper, I made myself a bangin’ hip-hop playlist and hippity-hopped aboard the South Shore Line.
On the short walk from Gary’s train station to the U.S. Steel Yard ballpark there are many interesting attractions, such as this nice statue of Gary’s founder, Elbert, H Gary, who looks very good in a selfie.
And this great flowerless garden greeting. All the cheer of a regular garden greeting but with none of the maintenance. You go Gary!
And finally this very accurate sign. Because you might as well blow your own trumpet. Nobody is lining up to do it for you.
The U.S. Steel Yard is a great ballpark. Tickets are super cheap, ranging from five to ten dollars a seat. I went the whole hog and got a seat right behind home plate, and got two fives back in return for my twenty. Each one of those fives also got me a pint of beer, with 50 cents left over to buy a stick of gum from the station vending machine. As the Railcats were playing Quebec, we got to hear two national anthems, which were sung by a lovely octogenarian with a fabulous tenor range. The commentary was fun and light-hearted, as was the inter-inning entertainment, and my $3 hot dog was as good as any I’ve had at a sporting event.
The 6,000 capacity stadium was about a third full, which was enough for a decent atmosphere, but for a city with the highest percentage of black inhabitants in the US (around 85%), it was interesting to see approximately none of them at this baseball game. Where are all these white folk coming from? I left the game just before the 10th inning, with the rail cats losing 2-3, in order to catch my 6:11 train back to Chicago, leaving enough time for a quick scout about the immediate area in search of some industrial decline to photograph.
I headed down what I only found out afterwards was Gary’s main street, past the 1927 Gary State Bank building, which, at 10 stories is Gary’s second tallest building. Also notable in that all of the windows are still intact.
I took a left along 6th Avenue, as it looked promising in terms of general abandonment. The first semi-derelict structure I came across on this street was a former Americorps National Service building.
Diagonally opposite, on the south east corner of 6th Avenue and Massachusetts Street is an big, imposing factory building of some sort. Again, totally abandoned.
I walk down the length of it, taking pictures of its peeling paint and broken windows, wondering what scenes of abandonment might be lurking behind them. Then I come to a door. A casually open door.
Now, I have about 10 minutes to get back to the train station before my train comes, and the next train is not for another three hours. Do I: a) Ignore the gateway into the potentially fascinating but also potentially dangerous derelict factory and go get my train back to cosy Chicago, or b) Go, alone, through the open door into the creepy derelict factory because It’ll probably be fine and the photo opportunities are probably good. Choices, choices.
Yes, obviously I chose option b, otherwise there wouldn’t be much to write about, and there would have been no point even mentioning the above dilemma.
I go through the door, and right away there’s a set of stairs going down into pitch darkness. I take a flash photo, and see that they continue down to the left. Not wanting to give up at the first obstacle, I go down them. I turn to the left and continue downwards, and in a sickeningly cliché manner, walk face-first through a bunch of spider webs that had been spun across the passage. This actually reassured me somewhat as it suggested that nobody had been there for a while, which hopefully meant that nobody was using this place to manufacture meth on the sly. I didn’t want to have to be silenced. As I brushed spider webs out of my eyes and crept through the darkness I got this weird fleeting sensation that I might actually be dreaming, as what I was doing in that moment was so far removed from anything I thought I would be doing when I woke up that morning that it couldn’t possibly be real.
Once I got into the main room, there was actually light coming through the windows, and I found myself in some big, empty basement. There were a few rooms to explore, and a chute of some sort in the middle, but nothing particularly interesting. Here’s the gallery anyway, for your enjoyment.
Off to the side, I found a set of stairs leading up. At this point, I am feeling more confident about being alone in this decrepit place, and my curiosity is telling me just to get on with it, so up we go. And gosh oh golly wasn’t it worth it.
The sun is pouring into this place from three large skylights in the ceiling, not just bringing light but also life. This building must have been abandoned for so long that it’s beginning to form its own ecosystem. There were little birds flying in and out of broken windows, in places there were carpets of grass growing from the filth of the wooden floor, and right in the centre, just beside an upturned toilet and a broken stereo, was a tree. It was beautiful. Beautiful that amongst all the decay and piles of abandoned crap, in this place forgotten by everybody, a tree has just been growing for years, reaching skywards towards the light, covered in fresh, healthy new green leaves, a powerful symbol of the original regeneration, of nature reclaiming back from man.
Once I was comfortable that the floor was not going to give out beneath my feet, I began to explore. Again, there were rooms around the edges, two of which had long-abandoned mattresses in them. The graffiti on the walls provided some enjoyment, primarily the section where some newly-engaged couple had used the wall to stencil the information for their save-the-date. Their originality was admirable. There was also some seriously weird shit, like an old Panasonic television, with a shoe and some feathers inside, on display in a recess in the wall. Also another tree.
Here’s the gallery:
I exited through a different door out into the heat of the Indiana sun. Buzzing that I had survived my first urban exploration experience, but unsure what I’m going to do with the 2.5 hours I now have to spend in Gary. I mean, what are the chances of stumbling across another open door…
I walk through an empty car park, and down the edge of a grassy park where some kids are playing. Up until now, the streets have been mostly deserted, but now there’s a guy walking behind me. Not really thinking, I take a rogue left, mostly because I don’t like being walked-behind. This wasn’t a great idea, because the dude also takes a left and now I’m walking down some dodgy, deserted alley lined by crumbling buildings and burned out garages listening to this guy’s footsteps get closer. All the warnings about Gary flash through my mind. Oh well… My life may have been short but at least I got to go to Gary.
Hey! You single?
The guy’s opener left a lot to be desired, but was oddly reassuring. Rapists, murderers and serial killers don’t care if you’re single, right? I turn and smile apologetically, explaining that, unfortunately, I was not (do people ever say anything else in these scenarios?). Happily, this terrible news did not dampen the lad’s spirits, and we struck up a nice little conversation. When he asked if I was from around here, I said I was just exploring the area, and, like everybody in the world, he dutifully informed me that this was not the wisest way I could be spending my Saturday afternoon, single or not. He also told me that he was also living in Chicago, and was only here to visit an uncle. He gave me a wee summary of Gary’s problems (I didn’t tell him I was already an expert), the recommended that I just stick to Chicago from now on.
We found ourselves suddenly in a surprisingly nice-looking neighbourhood. A charter school, a couple of streets of new detached houses (some complete with columns and a pool), surrounded on all sides by abandoned, falling-apart everything. Oh Gary, ain’t you just full of surprises. It is here that my newest friend and I said our farewells. I took a quick selfie for posterity, we shook hands, and walked in opposite directions; me now heading towards another building I’d spied out of the corner of my eye during our chat.
Gary’s City Methodist Church is a sight to behold. It was built in the late 20s, partly funded by U.S. Steel, and was abandoned in 1975 after the fleeing population shrunk the congregation to the point of no return. There’s a pretty solid metal fence all the way round the building, supposedly to stop people walking in and getting crushed by falling pieces of what was left of the roof, which looked like it could cave in at any moment. Fence schmence.
Attached to the church is a brick building. A short walk down an alley at the side reveals what I had been hoping for. A hole. Through the hole is an old auditorium. There’s a stage, a balcony, and wires and metal beams hanging precariously from the ceiling. A dark side-passage leads to an open door, which leads out into what would once have been the church’s garden. We are now inside the fence, right where we wanted to be. Hurrah.
I’ll let the gallery below do the rest of the talking. Rest assured it was every bit as stunning as you would expect a semi-ruined church to be on a beautiful summer’s evening.
I didn’t think that anything could top that in terms of spontaneous urban exploring, and it was getting close to the time the next train was leaving for Chicago, so I headed back to the Metro Center. On the way, I met Gary’s not-quite-as-famous Statue of Liberty…
…And a tribute to the industrial giant credited with the making and the breaking of the city.
Once there, I met a trainee trucker who offered me a free ride to Alaska when he gets his 18-wheeler… Awesome. Finally, as the train was approaching, I got a fabulous sunset to boot. Gary really wants me to come back…
And, you know what? I will be back. For a day spent 99% alone, I’d had a pretty damn good time. The U.S. Steel Yard put on a great show for the Railcats game; it was cheap as chips to get here, to attend the game, and to buy food and drink at the game; The people I did meet and speak to were super nice; and there’s a rare beauty in being able to just walk into abandoned buildings and see nature taking hold of man’s forgotten spaces.
Gary’s had a pretty rough time the last few decades, and it shows, but the city still has spirit and it deserves not to be shunned and avoided, but shown some good old fashioned love. I’m going to try my damn best to let people know that Gary’s not the end-of-the-earth shitehole that people seem convinced it is, and hopefully next time I’ll be able to bring a friend. Maybe two friends. Maybe my whole bloomin’ building. Because Gary needs people to go there; to spend a little money at the baseball or on lunch, or whatever. Give the place a little boost, people!
So, internetfolk: If you want to go to Gary, hit me up. I’m pretty sure we’ll have a jolly old time.
YOU GO, GARY!