Friday, July 29, 2011

Gary, Indiana.

My fondest memories of college are of tunnels and roofs. Armed with a rough game plan and an exit strategy (though most often not), we'd get dressed in black and set out in the dead of night. It was my introduction to the thrill of not knowing what you'd find or where you'd end up, of flirting with danger just enough that you hear your heart in your ears. It was the thrill of going where other people would not imagine going.

When I graduated, there was a part of me that wanted to close the book on these antics. We managed to elude discovery in college, but one fumble now and I'd have too much on the line. Still, the urge gnaws at me sometimes - on multiple occasions I've visited penthouses or basements on campus just to see if it had a hatch or a door that looked promising. Just to see.

But while exploring campus infrastructure is necessarily a thing of the past, there is a world of urban exploration that I'm just now starting to understand, and it beckons.

I'll never forget the first time I took the interstate that cut through Gary, Indiana. The sky was pink at dusk, and against it were these enormous blue structures, pipes reaching high up emitting fumes of black smoke. Bolts and panes of steel, industrial textures, monster machinery. Cars of an abandoned train lined up in front, yellow and dirtied, covered in graffiti. The image was striking. It was beautiful in the ugliest of ways, and was something I wanted to see again, to dwell on, to capture.

I began to plan a visit to Gary in person, initially with the goal of photographing these steel mills. Quickly, though, my fascination with this rust belt imagery evolved into a fascination with the rest of Gary. In the early 1900's, U.S. Steel chose Gary as a primary operating center, which tied the city's economy closely with steel production. In the 1960's, as steel became much more competitive overseas, so began Gary's avalanche decline.

Train station.

Nowadays, all the troubles that could afflict a city, Gary has them. Unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, low educational attainment, low median income, and most notoriously, some of the highest crime rates in the country. In the Midwest, people see Gary as some sort of black hole, a place where you dip your toe in and get shot. This caricature of the city doesn't factor in the 80,000 people that still live there. It is certainly a shell of what it used to be, but it's still a living, breathing city, one that has seen dark days and glory days alike, one whose residents keep trying to exist as they have since the steel mills were in full production.

Post office, interior.

There is a main strip called Broadway, running north-south all the way through town. Streets to the west are named by presidents, and to the east they're named by states. Every other house is abandoned. There was no imminent feeling of danger driving around during the day, but there are places I wouldn't want to find myself when the sun goes down.


What would you do if you were one of these people, if you lived here? my friend Ben asked me. The thought was inconceivable. The closest I can come to understanding the people who live here is by getting a glimpse of how things used to be, and how things have changed since then. The empty places that we explored - a house, a train station, a post office - are a window into these changes.

It was with a combination of romance, sadness, and awe that I saw Gary. The goal in this kind of urban exploration is to come to understand a place in a different way, by sifting through the underlayers.

1 comment:

Stu said...

beautiful pictures