Abandoned Gary – A Lost Metropolis of Indiana Industry

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By Jonathan H

Making the drive from Chicago to Detroit, along Interstate 90 is a lot like traveling back in time. The modern roadside outside of Chicago slowly seems to recede into oblivion along the way. Factories and coal fired power stations crop up, and suddenly the hulking mass of the Gary Union Station passes your window – a blemished reminder of a once-grand past.

Union Station, Gary

Though Gary is only 30 minutes from downtown Chicago, it could just as well be in a third world country. Drive through downtown Gary, and you’ll find yourself on a barren boulevard, buffeted on each side by abandoned social clubs, theater marquees, and beauty shops. In the span of about 1/2 a mile of Broadway Avenue, once an exemplar of Main Street USA, you’ll find the buildings to be nothing more than decaying time capsules awaiting their inevitable “demolition by neglect.”

I’m a West Coast native. Everyone with us on the drive to Detroit had never been to the Rust Belt before. Was this the American Hestia of steel we had been taught about in our high school History textbooks? Somehow, it seemed these books had become outdated in little more than a decade. Gary soon makes you realize the pitfalls of modern, free-market capitalism, unhindered by checks and balances, a boom-town driven purely by the motive of profit. What’s truly unfortunate is that Carnegie Steel is long gone, but the children and grandchildren of the men who built Gary are stuck in a place that has little in its future, and a rut of steel to try to dig out from.

Today, much of our steel is imported; our manpower is exported. Our unions no longer exist — at least not in the sense that they once did, when over 40% of the American workforce were members of a union. If Gary is our example, and steel work is the epitome of work, then we are no longer the “Workers of the World.” When I myself brood over our post-industrial lot, I often like to reflect on a little-known introduction by playwright Arthur Miller in a book about Cartier-Bresson. Miller says of Cartier-Bresson’s photos of the decaying roadsides of 1950s U.S.:

The very horizon is often oppressive, jagged with junked cars, the detritus of consumer culture, which after all is a culture of planned waste, engineered obsolescence. Whatever lasts is boring, what demands its own replacement energizes our imaginations.

After rolling up to a side street from Broadway, the five us found the mouldering marquee of a hulking theater on the corner. The lettering advertised the appearance of the “Jackson Five: Live Tonight.” Certainly in jest, the marquee held its own ironical ode to the family that made Gary famous — perhaps more famous than its steel moguls. We peeked inside of the theater to find a different world than the one just outside. Orange seats in the trademark hue of the 1970s stank of mold and rotting wood. The seat cushions themselves were strewn all around the theatre grounds, which had turned from wood or cement (whatever may have been there before) into a mass of organic, decaying dirt, all harboring its own garden of tenacious flora. A grand piano, sans legs, lay belly-down in the orchestra pit, and the original tapestry-like curtain still hung from its rods high above on the stage, itself depicting a lively mediterranean scene but darkened by years of decay.

Palace Theater

It was no longer a theater of echoes, as it likely once was. Our voices carried off into the many holes that weathering had created. Towards the front lobby, up a set of grand, iron-wrought staircases, I fortuitously stumbled inside one of those holes to find that it was a passageway into a completely different building. The building that adjoins the theater is just as incredible as the theater itself. It’s a hodge-podge of apartments and doctor’s offices, connected by cavernous hallways filled with tumbled bricks and a thick, 30-year-layer of dirt. Trumble beds, long collapsed from their closets in the wall, appeared in the middle of rooms. Chairs and pieces of artwork still remained in the rooms.

Apartment Trumble Bead

Deep inside one of the kitchens of these apartments, hidden beneath a caked layer of dust, I discovered a single seashell, likely left by the flat’s last inhabitant in the 70s. It was perhaps the most eerie artefact I’ve discovered during my life as an explorer, simply because of its minimalist display of a life past lived in a place that is geographically distant from the sea. I was forced to visualize the building at its zenith, when young professionals flocked to these apartments, filled with big dreams and a bright future. The reality is that this building probably ended its life as a slum, only to decline into vacancy along with Gary’s entire downtown corridor.

Abandoned Apartment Kitchen

I returned to the theater and hobbled among the cushions for a few minutes. Emerging out of the exit into the light, I felt as if my whole life’s outlook had been altered by a single, hulking brick structure. Everyone had a look of shock on their faces. But Gary was just the beginning of our trip. We had to find the next place to discover. So, with heavy hearts, we hopped into our rental van and departed for another abandonment, another adventure.

29 comments on “Abandoned Gary – A Lost Metropolis of Indiana Industry

  1. Pingback: Flyover Country, indeed

  2. Incredible piece of work Jon! Very impressive language.

  3. Jon H on said:

    Thanks Amy!
    To be honest, I wasn’t too placed with my prose in this one, but I felt the story of Gary needed to be told; I just felt as if anything I presented in words would be inadequate in describing the feeling of actually being in Gary. Hopefully the photos supplement it in such a way!

    Cheers,
    J

  4. Eric Kroczek on said:

    This is totally awesome. I grew up in Michigan City, 1/2 hour from Gary, and I never knew all this stuff was there (I was born in 1970). Ironically enough, I now live in Pittsburgh and my fiancee and I do these little archeological photoessay things about postindustrial Pittsburgh, the legacy of the steel mills, etc. It’s great that you found the same kind of thing right near my hometown. Keep up the good work–I’ve got a few albums of related stuff on my blog and on Facebook, if you’re interested.

  5. virginia madison on said:

    was glad to find your website. As a native of Gary, Indiana from 1941 to 1972, I too found it sad to see my hometown so badly in ruins. Does anyone remember a theatre accross the street from the Palace called THE GRAND? I seem to remember it back in the 50″s. thanks.

  6. courtney on said:

    Funny. I was born in Gary in 1975, lived there until 93, and visit at least once a year. My grandfather worked in the mills, as did my father. I have a love affair with entropy, I joke that it’s because of where I grew up. (a common question of mine: “how will it decay?”) Not everybody feels the same way about it, or about living there. My older brothers (10 and 14 years) have this weird mix of pride and dismay about the city, my guess is because they were teens for the bulk of the decline. By the time I came along and knew what was going on, the city was already a shell, but it was the only home I knew. By that point, you either hunt down the beauty or give up. Most of my peers (and i) were raised to run. I graduated from hs on a Monday night. My gift was a full set of luggage. By Wednesday, I was living in Iowa. It breaks my heart to know I can’t go back there, not to live. The west wing of my high school collapsed a few years back, likely from neglect. I talked with the salvage crew and took a brick from the rubble. Living there and being from there is really bittersweet. It’s also a nasty juxtaposition when you tell someone that’s where you’re from and they start to sing “Gary Indiana” from the music man at you. (note: that noise is. not. cute.)

    Anyway, thanks for the piece. I like to see home through other people’s eyes, especially when they acknowledge the beauty that’s hiding there.

  7. colonelgirdle on said:

    I grew up and still live in another city that is a former industrial giant: Dayton, Ohio. This article is heart-breaking because I see the similarity to my home town. Thank you for preserving a record of the decay places that were once vital and prosperous.

  8. Richard on said:

    Very interesting photos; thank you for taking me back into buildings I haven’t been inside of in over 30 years. One photograph showed my doctor’s office door and several others were of the inside of the Palace Theater which I was last in about 42 years ago. Two little know areas that you might be interested in, and which I have yet to see anyone explore, are the neighborhood of Cudahey and the underground missle silos used back in the 50′s. Cudahey is on the far West side right off of 5th Ave and Cline. You can still see some brick fire places and I believe the screen from a drive in theater. For some reason, all of the occupants were moved out and one of the now abandoned factories took over. The NIKE missle site is right off of Industrial Clark Road heading into East Chicago aka the Harbor. It’s all over grown but it’s there. I believe the property is owned by the Gary/Chicago Airport. If you ask, they’ll tell you where it is.

  9. Terry Ross on said:

    First–kudos to you for your beautiful photographs. I found you while searching for photographs of the Concord and Grossinger Resorts & went on the enjoy the Pac-Bell essay, Key System, and Gary essays.

    I did notice that several times you use the word “nadir” to mean a location’s heyday. It means just the opposite. It means the very bottom/worst time. For example, the nadir of a movie palace would probably be when it’s carved up into a 5-plex to show porn movies.

    How about some photos of the Trans-Bay Terminal (on the chopping block, I believe and more art deco & art moderne structures? Good luck to you.

  10. Jonathan Haeber on said:

    Terry: Thanks! Apparently I’m dyslexic :-) I appreciate the good words. The Trans-Bay Terminal is not yet completely abandoned, but it’s on my short list. I’ve been in it quite a number of times and haven’t been too interested in its potential, but perhaps time will fix that shortcoming. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for more Art Deco. It’s quite rare around here.

  11. Jonathan Haeber on said:

    By the way I changed the two instances of “nadir” to “apogee” and “zenith,” respectively. Vague memories of high school SAT flash cards are going through my mind now.

  12. Tenia on said:

    Is it dangerous to go to this area and take photos? Is it allowed? Are gangs a problem or is it pretty safe during the day? I’d like to get some photo’s. Please let me know if taking a trip to this ghost town would be well worth my trip.

  13. I was born in akron ohio, once the rubber leader of the world. Today you go through akron and everything is dead. Rubber plants have all closed and left, today there are huge factories falling apart that remind us all, of a once proud America.
    I spend a few years down by Wheeling Wv, once had steel mills,Textile mills, chemical facotries, and much more all long the wheeling metro area. Now only a few are open. That city is nothing but Empty buildings and Factories. Wierton steel, Wheeling Pittsburgh steel corporation , And Many old glass factories now sit empty. Although some of the mills are running they are running near only 1-10% fully.
    Ive grown up in the rust belt. Ive been to Detroit to chicago to Pittsburgh. If you want a good example of a dead america Cleveland Ohio, Detroit MI . Wheeling Wv,Akron Ohio, Gary Indiana, Canton ohio, and Youngs town ohio. If you want to see over 10 miles of closed steel mills go to Youngstown ohio, they have lost over 100,000 in population, its a mini Detroit i guess you can say.
    May the rust belt return one day ,
    Mike

  14. Chuck Shepard on said:

    I was born in Hammond, IN (you pass thru it getting from Chicago to Gary.) The city was part of the NW Indiana rustbelt. All of the cities west of, and including, Gary to the Illinois border were built, mostly by East Europeans, to support the industry in the area- many, many of them both large and small. The biggies were steel and oil. As the suburbs south of the area grew those cities close to the industries began to decline in White population. Gary, like some other areas nearby, became heavily Black in population. A lot of the “Darkside” moved in and Gary went rapidly downhill. Nobody, not even Blacks from other areas would go anywhere near the city. It died a slow death. Not even an influx of Federal money helped. Its reputation lingers on though I don’t know what it is really like now as I was smart enough to get out of Indiana a long time ago.

  15. Judith Latham on said:

    Hello!

    You asked about a theater across from the Palace on 8th and Broadway (main street)in Gary, IN. I remember going to a State Theater, but it wasn’t directly across from the Palace. It was, to be sure, on the opposite side of the street to the Palace, but about a block up. Entrance was on 7th Avenue, which was a side street that intersected with Broadway. Walk was less than a block from Broadway. Hope that helps.

    Side note: Gary was such a beautiful city, which you probably already know, since you said you lived there from the 40′s to the 70′s. Really sad to see what has happened. Looks like something you’d see in Haiti, another place also affected by political corruption and “progressive” policies.

  16. thank you for taking these pics. my mother lived in apt 302 she worked for the doctor valenzuela that was her first apt. she thinks she paid like 60.00 amonth rent, she couldnt belive how the mayor let historic buildings slip thru his hands thinking that spending money on useless ideas that didnt work out and did nothing to restore. Gary failing, was the result of the mayors.not just hatcher, but the others to follow,they could had turned that city into millions, and now hatchers daughter is gonna run for mayor?? what else!??

  17. Richard on said:

    Hatcher is very much to blame. Not he alone, but none the less, very much to blame. Gary was always a very tough city, before Hatcher took over, but it continued to grow. I truely believe that Gary was a social experiment from it’s inception. There is a lot to Gary that escapes the average person’s interest or comprehension, but never believe for one minute that Hatcher had nothing to do with the demise of the city. Just last year I heard that he was convicted of Tax Evasion but have heard nothing since then.

  18. Ashley on said:

    Hey, Your photos are beautiful…Where is this place located? I am a photographer and I love taking photos in abandon areas, I’ve been looking for a new location because the one place I usually go to on 6th and Washington (the Methodist Church), although beautiful, it’s becoming too popular.

  19. Pingback: America’s cities are turning into ghost towns… « Veritas Aculeus

  20. Niall McCrae on said:

    Regarding Gary, Idiana, I visited this epitome of the rustbelt five years ago while at a conference in Chicago (my first time in the USA). I wrote a short essay of my walk from Gary Interchange station to the Westfield shopping centre (7 miles), and my observation of the scenes of desolation. I am an academic writer but could not find a periodical to publish this. However, if anyone is interested I would be delighted to send a copy.
    Dr Niall McCrae
    King’s College London

  21. Rick Drew on said:

    Check out http://www.add360.com/UrbexTour/virtualtour.html – I’m putting together a virtual tour of the entire area!

  22. Jon H on said:

    Rick,
    Great work. Love the tour.

    Cheers,
    Jon

  23. christopher on said:

    i wonder how many folks reading this want for their child to grow up working the factory floor of a steel mill for 30 or so years? probably not very many.

    i took umbrage at your remark about unfettered capitalism and greed, etc. causing the decline of unions in america. look at the other side; unrealistic wage demands, protectionism, jobs banks, stratospheric benefits. there is a reason why companies move overseas and when they are stuck between a rock (union demands) and a hard place (an actual free market), something has to give.

  24. Paul Bailey on said:

    I lived in Whiting for a year after high school. I saw Gary decline from the 1970′s to the pics we see now. What a wast of construction because of greed and bad leadership. Christopher, The reason why unionship rose in the first place was because of cororate greed and a work camp mentality forced upon the workers. When the companies found a way to make more money at a lower cost they moved on and left this mess behind. The rich decided to flee while shirking the responsbility onto the poor qnd this is the end result 40 years later.

  25. rick moreland on said:

    I grew up in Gary in the 50s.I have a lot of fond memories of those years.Attended Emerson High School.Lived on 4th and Maryland St.Would love to reconnect with some of the folks I knew and grew up with.Would love to share old memories..

  26. rick moreland on said:

    Please contact me if you remember those years…

  27. rick moreland on said:

    My email is rickmoreland45@yahoo.com

  28. Victor Michael (Garcia) on said:

    I was born here, Feb 21, 1950. No one left in my family can tell where the house is I was born in other than it was on the South West end of town. My two older sisters helped my mother deliver me and my older brother brought the water to clean me and my mom up. The doctor showed up after I was born and cut my cord and charged my dad $50 for that privilege! I have a birth Certificate, but, no information of which house I was born in, no street address. I wish I could find out.

    I love this site, it helps me write my memoirs for my children so they have some idea about me and child hood. Thak you for doing what you did by creating this site. You are bringing much joy to allot of people.

  29. dbbubba01 on said:

    The word is spelled TRUNDLE (not trumble.)
    It is a TRUNDLE BED.

    All of the eloquent wording falls apart when you can’t spell or pronounce a word.

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