Gary, Indiana: From “Music Man” to Urban “Hellhole”

(Photoo by David Tribby)


"There is just one place that can light my face -- Gary, Indiana," crooned con man Harold Hill in The Music Man -- cheerfully oblivious to the knowledge that the idyllic Midwestern town that once abounded in opportunity would one day become a blighted urban "hellhole."

"Once the center of the country's booming steel industry and known as the City of the Century, Gary, Indiana now lies in ruins as a sad example of American industrial decline," reports the Daily Mail of London. "Founded in 1906 by the US Steel Corporation, Gary's heyday was in the post-war boom of the 1950s when almost 200,000 people lived and worked in the bustling city, 25 miles from Chicago. As the American manufacturing sector contracted, Gary's population fell by over 50 percent and no one now uses the once-bustling train stations, churches and auditoriums that are now decaying as they are left to the elements."

Decades ago, Gary epitomized the Midwestern ideal -- an economically progressive town large enough to attract big-city amenities and culture, while preserving the mores and habits associated with small-town living. Tragically, the former boomtown has degenerated into one of the most dangerous cities in the region; its churches, cultural centers, and public buildings are vacant and decaying, and grass is growing in empty streets.

Author James Howard Kunstler, who chronicles what he calls the "Long Emergency" brought on by "converging crises" in energy, industry, and the economy, offers a grim eulogy on the basis of a recent visit to Gary:

Between the ghostly remnants of factories stood a score of small cities and  neighborhoods where the immigrants settled five generations ago. A lot of it was foreclosed and shuttered. They were places of such stunning, relentless dreariness that you felt depressed just imagining how depressed the remaining denizens of these endless blocks of run-down shoebox houses must feel. Judging from the frequency of taquerias in the 1950s-vintage strip-malls, one inferred that the old Eastern European population had been lately supplanted by a new wave of Mexicans. They had inherited an infrastructure for daily life that was utterly devoid of conscious artistry when it was new, and now had the special patina of supernatural rot over it that only comes from materials not found in nature disintegrating in surprising and unexpected ways, sometimes even sublimely, like the sheen of an oil slick on water at a certain angle to the sun. There was a Chernobyl-like grandeur to it, as of the longed-for end of something enormous that hadn't worked out well.

Writing at the Economic Collapse Blog, Michael Snyder lists Gary at the top of a dismal roster of "12 Hellholes" that typify what America has become in the wake of the housing bubble's collapse.

"This is what happens when industry leaves and there are no jobs," Snyder writes. "Gary has become a wasteland and there is essentially no hope for a turnaround."

As the economic crisis deepens, more cities are succumbing across the country -- Detroit, Flint, Stockton, West Philadelphia, Camden.... The roster will continue to grow.

Read more here.

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3 Responses

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  1. author

    glacialhills4 years ago

    My family would drive through Gary on trips to Chicago when I was a boy back in the late 60’s early 70’s. It was so polluted that you could not even see the sun though all the smog. The trees that were growing (most were dead) were all covered with black and the smell was unbelievable. I remember being all excited saying “look at all the pollution” and seeing smokestack after smokestack spewing out unfiltered raw filth.

    I am all for industry and it is so sad that all of those high paying steel jobs are now gone, but to look back and say how wonderful Gary was and that it was a cultural center is, well, misguided. Maybe it was that way in the 50’s, but before the end and before we no longer allowed unfettered industry with no standards it was a hell hole even when in full operation.I am sure in Brazil and India and China, where those same plants set up shop, you can see the same unguided, and unsustainable pollution and greed.
    When you dont care how you make money, the poor unregulated countries will always win the manufacturing race. There is a saying in the construction industry that holds true here, “Fast, Cheap and Good—pick two”. The world has decided they wanted fast and cheap and to hell with the environment. we decided we could not do fast and cheap and follow the new EPA laws.

  2. author

    glacialhills4 years ago

    Oh and nobody wants to pay for fast and good which we could have beat anyone at.

  3. author

    Ernest3 years ago

    Like glacialhills we took the same route to Chicago and never stopped in Gary. I remember being in Chicago during the riots of 68. I could not believe that human being could act so clause as to destroy the neighborhoods they grew up in. Then I got bussed to a new school built on the edge of the black section of town. Thus my education began, we are not all alike, we do all have the same opportunities and it is what we make of those opportunities that counts. My last trip threw Gary was on the way back to school at the Navy Fleet training school. The bus stopped for a short layover when most of the people got off the bus. The driver recognized me as a service man and started a conversation. He asked why I was getting off the bus and I told him I was going to find something to eat. He was an older black gentleman who had retired from the Navy. He cautioned me to stay in the bus terminal and volunteered to get some food for us. When he got back to the bus with our whoppers he told me rule number one while traveling was to observe your surroundings. He told me that if I had got off of the bus I more than likely would not only be killed but possibly eaten.


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