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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.
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 Somehow, it seemed these books had become outdated in little more than a decade.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.
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.
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.
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.