Saturday, November 23, 2013


That America is the richest country in the world is well known. It manifests itself in towering skyscrapers, the car culture, its gargantuan military, its army of labour-saving devices, the dominance of Wall Street and American corporations throughout the globe, and, of course, the American Dream. Convenience is king, and, if you have a decent job, life is comfortable and easy. This big, bold brashness is evident in Chicago, the Windy City, and acknowledged capital of the Midwest. Lazily sprawling westwards from the shores of lake Michigan, the skyscrapers of the Loop (the central business district). Indeed, although may think of New York and Manhattan when talking of skyscrapers, it actually Chicago that is the spiritual home and birthplace of the skyscraper. The first steel-framed skyscrapers were built there; the revolutionary tubular design that allowed even taller, more efficient towers was developed there; and of course it is also home to the Sears (aka Willis) Tower, which, up until recently, was the tallest building in the Americas.

The lakefront skyline of Chicago with its huddle of skyscrapers.

The rivalry with New York for prominence extends to sports, cuisine, nicknames (which is best, Big Apple or Windy City?), as well as museums and cultural amenities. Chicago is big, it's loud, it's confident, it has chutzpah, and it doesn't care what anyone else says. World-class museums, globally recognised sports teams, their very own nickname. As the hub of the country's rail network and gateway to the west it has always been a magnet for newcomers, and boasts an ethnic diversity that rivals that of New York (Chicagoans would like to believe that they rival New York in many other respects). Whatever your ethnicity or culture, there's a neighbourhood for you: Mexican, Polish, Chinese, Salvadorean, Greek, Ethiopian, Arabic, Italian, Russian and many more besides. If you want to you can buy maize torillas, pierogi, baozi, pupusas, kalamata olives, tef flour, ful, good prosciutto, and kvas, without having to leave the city, or even talk any English, in the myriad ethnic grocery stores that bring the world to the Midwest.

For Poles in Chicago missing their weekly issue of Moja Historia do not fear, there are plenty of Polski skleps for you to get your regular fix.

Chicago has been big enough, and diverse enough, to weather the storm that has charged through the northeast of America. The entire Great Lakes area used to be America's industrial heartland, churning out steel, meat products and cars in stupendous quantities. Used to be. For it is no more. First it was the packing plants that went, then the steel mills, and most recently the automobile factories. The region has become hollowed out, brittle, rusty; both metaphorically and actually. Detroit, Flint and Gary were once the heavy industrial cities that powered the American Century, but increasing costs and foreign competition have seen them become pale shadows of their once-glorious days. It was not for nothing that Detroit was called Motown, as all the Big 3 American car makers (Ford, General Motors and Chrysler) are headquartered there. At its peak in the 60's the city had a population in excess of two million. Several decades, superior Japanese cars and a few recessions later and the population has dropped to around 700,000 as the city's many factories and their blue-collar jobs fled to cheaper climes. For a country where cities already display a large degree of urban sprawl this has led to entire neighbourhoods that once had thriving communities to becoming desolate wastelands, where the few inhabited houses feel like post-apocalyptic fortresses fending off zombie hordes.

The scarily abandoned central train station in Detroit.

Now I've always been attracted stories and aspects of history that are brushed over or ignored because they do not fit in with the accepted narrative or are embarrassing. The bits They don't want you to know. Here in America that happens to be the flipside of the American Dream: the callous way society treats individuals who don't make it; the brutal bust to the burgeoning boom; and the ephemeral, transient quality to American life, as well as its urban fabric. From the vast, crumbling, factories that ring the city, such as Ford's old Packard plant; the grandiose office buildings downtown, built in solid, brutalist style, but now left empty; to the opulent theatre that is now nothing more than an indoor parking lot. Detroit is the poster child for urban decay in America, and the abandoned behemoth central train station is the iconic image. Unfortunately the building has recently been bought by a developer and access to the grand hall is denied. As is the case with most of Detroit's abandoned landmarks in the downtown area (although I did manage to persuade the guard on duty to let me have a quick look at the parking lot below).

Perhaps the world's grandest, but also saddest, parking lot. Once it was the Michigan Theater

And whilst Detroit is in dire straits and has filed for bankruptcy, it still has a good deal going for it, including some world class museums, a respectable university, a surprisingly thriving arts scene, and a privileged position as a gateway to Canada. Gary, Indiana, on the other hand, has absolutely nothing going for it. Most famous as the hometown of Michael Jackson (as well as the rest of the Jackson 5), Gary was a one-industry town. Steel drove everything in town. It was even the steel company that founded it only 100 years ago, to serve the giant steel mills on the southern shore of lake Michigan. Like many corporate towns Gary was well-appointed, with quality amenities for the company workers. However the entire cycle of boom through to terminal bust lasted less than 100 years; a single person's lifetime. Nowhere exemplifies the term Rust Belt more than Gary (and it's use is particularly apt given that it's a town built on steel).

One of the joys of urban exploration is winkling out quirky, funny, and sometimes beautiful graffiti. Here inside the main post office building someone has sprayed the message "did you get my letter"(to which somebody appended the word bitch).

During the course of this trip I've discovered that I'm not the only person to be attracted to newly abandoned ruins. Apparently it's called urban exploration and there are a plethora of websites with some absolutely stunning photos. And there are few places in the world where the pickings are so rich, or as easily accessible, for urban explorers as Gary. The centre of town is now home to numerous empty lots and abandoned buildings, but in Gary the city is too broke to even put fencing up around them. Buildings are just left where they are to slowly crumble to dust as the cost of dealing with them is prohibitive; so the place has become an urban explorer's dream. The main post office, central theatre and cathedral all became excessive for the dwindling population so have been left to the graffiti artists and amateur photographers to practise their arts. Although I haven't been there, I think a walk round Gary is what it must feel like walking round Pompeii.

A once-opulent apartment building, now a great place for exploring.

Not surprisingly Gary has a very shady reputation and all the people I met in Chicago who I told of my plans to visit either told me to be very careful or actively tried to discourage me from going. However the vibe I got from the town was not one of danger, but rather a forlorn melancholy. Few people were on the streets, nothing seemed open apart from the pawn shop, the post-autumnal trees were bare and the grass was turning brown. The soft upholstery of the torn up seats lined the floor of the theatre, whilst an old grand piano lay in the orchestra pit gathering dust; a pair of crutches lay abandoned in the lobby of what must have once been a swanky apartment block; saplings grew through the floor of the post office, aiming for the skylights above; and a girl's pair of ice skates looked incongruous in the nave of the cathedral. A cathedral that, despite not being open for services, was seeing a fair amount of traffic when I was there, with other urban photographers seeking out interesting angles and exchanging tips on the latest places to check out.

Another urban explorer taking photos in the nave of the derelict cathedral.

The whole urban exploration thing must seem rather macabre to some people as it has gained a pejorative nickname as well: ruin porn. I imagine locals perhaps feel as if the news of Gary's demise is greatly exaggerated (or at least more than a little premature). And to be fair there are serious attempts to save the city, albeit on a smaller scale, with some very neat and respectable neighbourhoods of newly-built houses amongst the urban decay.It will be interesting to see whether they will be able to turn their town around. Be that as it may, for me, Gary was the most fascinating place I visited in America. At one and the same time it shows the giddy heights and terrible lows of the American system. It remains for each observer interpret it for themselves: a positive or negative force?

They have their work cut out. Good luck to them.

1 comment:

Tripplanners said...

Oooh, Chicago looks fun! Touring US still on the ‘ole bucket list…