Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Can a "chocolate city" catch a break?

I grew up in a sprawling, modern split-level two blocks from the beach. When the winds get vigorous and churn up the water, you can stand outside my childhood home and hear the waves crashing and smell that sandy, watery, fishy aroma that Kramer once tried to bottle on an episode of "Seinfeld." Our beach community was a hybrid of working, middle and upper-middle class. The block where I grew up contained mostly the young families of professionals--the veterinarian on the corner, my best friend's mom the CPA with Arthur Andersen, educators like my parents--and older folks like our grandmotherly next door neighbor, Mrs. Kaminsky, who always spoke tearfully and passionately about "the old country." In the racially turbulent 70s, we were proudly a multi-cultural group; and the block and neighborhood remain so. Mine was a close-knit neighborhood, where most everybody knows everybody. Stop in the Beach Cafe on a Friday night (decor hasn't changed since 1979, but they serve the best boned-and-buttered perch you have ever had) and you're sure to run into a few old teachers, your insurance guy, a former classmate's mum. The area has a vocal and active citizens group that fights tirelessly to protect the town and its residents, and boost the local economy. I spent my childhood, riding my bike around our hilly, woodsy neighborhood, trying not to get the wheels of my Schwinn stuck in the sand. My friends and I built forts in the woods, played "road trip" and Dodge-Baseball (a sport of our own design) and lived for the newest issue of Tiger Beat magazine. Nearly 20 years since I left my hometown, most of my contemporaries are living successful and fulfilling lives, as am I.

I grew up in Gary, Indiana.

I've been thinking about my town's reputation lately. Gary has had a featured role in the many re-tellings of the King of Pop's life story. And the perceptions of journalists who try to capture the ethos of the Midwestern steel town on the Great Lakes, one of the first northern industrial towns to elect a black mayor, a city that is now nearly 85 percent black, don't match my reality at all. I suspect that many writers are interested in myth-making--telling a good "boy breaks free of urban blight to make good" tale. But I also suspect that views of Gary, Indiana, like those of many places viewed as the domain of black people, suffer under the weight of racial bias.

I don't mean to imply that Gary does not have very real problems. It has, at various times, held the title "Murder Capital of America." But I find that people are all too willing to accept that the problems of a black city are all one needs to know--the full story. Black cities are judged by the worst of what they have to offer. I think this is because crime and poverty and poor education and other urban ills fit the prevailing belief of what blackness is and what black folks will accept.

Gary was founded in 1906 by the United States Steel Corporation as the home for its new plant. The new city was named after the chairman of U.S. Steel, Elbert H. Gary. For years, Gary thrived, bouyed by the fortunes of industry. Generations of city residents, of all races, raised families and prospered there. Then, two things happened. The steel industry began to decline in the 1960s. And, in 1967, the city elected its first African-American mayor, Richard G. Hatcher. The day after Hatcher's historic win, "for sale" signs went up all over the city, beginning a decades-long white flight. What the free market and racism began, the Reagan administration and the crack epidemic finished. Gary is profoundly struggling today and it has been for a long time.

I acknowledge the city's troubles, but the blanket assumptions and judgments about Gary and its people trouble me. They are the same assumptions that people make about New Orleans and Detroit and Washington, D.C. These cities are not good cities filled with good people struggling under the weight of poverty, racism and changing industry. Popular wisdom says that these cities are worthless dead ends populated by the hopeless and the criminal. No one has a good life in these cities. No one gets a good education. Ambitious people don't live here. There are no nice homes here. No one is safe here. There is nothing to be valued here.

Look at the comments about Gary, Indiana, that I found on City Data's Web site:

Part of that county (Lake) is very nice. Gary is horrendous, similar to the high crime parts of Indianapolis. Look up statistics on homicides, for example.

I live in Indiana and I would never go there.

A few years ago I used to survey for one of the largest firms in Indy. As such, we traveled a good bit. One thing that I would always do would be to buy a newspaper in the city that we were working in just to see what was going on and also to get a feel for the city.

I kid you not on this one....

In the newspaper from Gary, there was an article saying how one gang felt like it was being discriminated against. The quote that I remember the most went along these lines "When we kill a member from another gang, we get first degree murder, but when they kill one of us, they only get manslaughter"

In the same newspaper there was also an article about some 6th grade students at a private Catholic school beating one of the Nuns.

Up until recent years it held rank for awhile as "Murder Capital of the U.S.". It's pretty bad. There are pockets and areas that are not so bad, of course, but there are many areas you do not want to drive through, even in daytime. When DH and I were dating we had gone to the beach and heading back home to western Lake County, IN (Gary is in eastern Lake Co.) we had to detour off the interstate for an accident. Detour took us through "downtown" Gary, main streets. Smack in broad daylight on a sunny summer afternoon stood a guy on a street corner who pulled a handgun out of his pocket and motioned with it (as one would do when talking with their hands). The few people on the corner near him didn't even blink. Scared the bejeebers out of me. Very high crime, known for political corruption, sadly gang infested. Most of the north end of Gary is industrial (heavy industry, the giants of steel mills sprawl on the L Michigan shoreline that in decades past employed generations of local families). Thanks to Mital Steel purchases lately, many are coming to life again and are not the abandoned-looking metal cities they were in the 80's>90's. Pockets of very far west end of Gary has an almost rural feel to it, as does the very far south end (known as Calumet Twp.). Many residents have southern roots, having come here to work for the steel mills one to three generations back. Up through the 60's I've heard downtown Gary was the place to shop the large department stores. Not true today, they are long gone. DH has told me there are some stately old mansions in some parts of Gary (I have an interest in architecture and love to see old homes) but he will not take me to see them, the area is too dangerous. West central Gary is home to a large I.U. campus which recently announced plans to expand. Also along the L Michigan shoreline (to the east of the mills) are some beautiful old homes situated on L Michigan.

But Gary is only a portion of Lake County, which is quite varied, from blue collar to white collar to upper level executive to farmers with expansive land. To the NW along the lake is Whiting, a quiet, qaint little blue collar town on the lake. Hammond is south of that, some parts bad, some parts not. A city. Central part of the county is standard suburban life. Munster (central west, on the IL border) has one of the best school systems in the state. Go further south to Crown Point (county seat, John Dillinger made it famous for breaking out of the jail), nice little town (although new residential construction is booming). And further south yet you will find vast farms. Not as many as there used to be due to development, but they are still there.

If you're coming to the area, there are better/safer/just as affordable places to stay than Gary.

So, Gary is a "horrendous" place filled with nun-beating animals. Steer clear! I think it is not such a coincidence that the areas of Northwest Indiana that are praised in the posts (despite having some of the same problems that Gary does) are those that are overwhelmingly white, which translates to safe and good. There is no acknowledgment that good and bad things can happen in any city.

I used to loathe telling people, especially white people, that I was raised in Gary. The person would look at me with a mixture of sorrow and the respect you give someone who has survived combat. One woman once said to me, "Ooohhhh....your parents must be sooo proud of how far you've come. I bet it was too dangerous for you to even walk around when you were growing up." That person was flummoxed by the idea that my parents are post-graduate-degree-holding professionals, that my upbringing was solidly middle class and suburban, and that my education superb...in Gary...big, bad, black Gary, Indiana.

When I was growing up, in the summertime, people would flock from Chicago and neighboring cities to Gary's beaches, which were located in my neighborhood. The tourists coveted the clean sand and picturesque dunes. They marveled at the expensive homes lining the lakefront. They enjoyed our quiet, close-knit neighborhood. And usually, they failed to realize that they were soaking in the sun and sand in the one place in NW Indiana that everyone thinks they should avoid. I remember clearly that once my little brother, riding his bike around the neighborhood where we had lived for some 20 years, was told by some of those tourists to "go back where he came from." I remember, too, how my best friend, who worked at a lakeside concession stand, would laugh at the reactions of illegal parkers who were told they would have to pick up their impounded vehicles in Gary. "Wh-why do we have to go there?" You're already there, asshole.

Idyllic neighborhoods, professionals, beaches and quiet streets--those things don't fit in the "black, urban neighborhood = bad = beware" narrative.

I have noticed a tendency, particularly among my white friends, to view areas strictly as either "good" or "bad." In good areas, you are always safe. Bad areas are to be avoided at all costs. I suppose it makes people feel safer to think that crime and other bad stuff only happens to those people over there, who must have done something to bring it on themselves. This thinking makes it easier to deride and dismiss cities places like Gary. The truth is that even in the cities that house the worst neighborhoods, there are good ones. Even in places with the worst in criminality, most people are working every day and living their lives on the right side of the law. There are plenty of people who earn degrees and return to struggling cities to try and make them better. In the urban areas I know of, people are more hopeful than hopeless.

White, suburban areas don't have a lock on good things; black, urban areas aren't the only place bad things happen. Gary, Indiana, is not perfect. But it was my home. And the city, and my friends and family who still live there, deserve better than derision and blanket assumptions. There is good there, just as there is good everywhere.


Sassy J said...

Tami, I know what you are feeling. I am from East Palo Alto, California and we too, have been dubbed "Murder Capital of the Nation"...I guess with a 2.1 mile radius, sure, why not? There has been quite a few of revitalization projects that in the past couple of years, but after EPA experienced white-flight in the 60/70s, they are now starting to move back. EPA is struggling to rebuild after being titled with "Murder Capital". It doesn't help when the police chief in neighboring Palo Alto (we are literally down the street from Stanford University--share the same road) says that any suspicious black person coming from EPA should be stopped...seriously???

There are so many good people in EPA that fight EVERY DAY to make sure that our voices are heard at the tables of decision makers and stakeholders. It's hard.

I alreay believe that certain media feeds off of negative attention. They definitely feed into the fears of others that keep cities like EPA and Gary from letting their true light shine...or, at best, have a chance to rebuild.

Dave Yaros said...


Kudos to you, Tami! A fine job! Like you, I am from Gary, proud of it, received a damn good public school education there, and love the "Steel City."

I invite you, and all, to check out my tribute to Gary, IN on the web -
Dave's Den

Monica Roberts said...

I have cousins who live, work and were educated in Gary Public schools. (West High grads)

I'm a little sick of the vanilla flavored attitude that Black neighborhoods equal rampant crime and everything bad.

In Louisville, peeps will whine and complain about the 'crime-ridden' West End, but I had my car broken into in te so called 'good' Crescent Hill neighborhood I live in.

I used to love a local newspaper we had called the Snitch that used to publish police reports by zip code.

I noticed that the reports covering the white neighborhood zip coders were longer that the so called crime ridden Black ones.

ThirstyDancer said...

"I have noticed a tendency, particularly among my white friends, to view areas strictly as either "good" or "bad." In good areas, you are always safe. Bad areas are to be avoided at all costs. I suppose it makes people feel safer to think that crime and other bad stuff only happens to those people over there, who must have done something to bring it on themselves."

YES! I grew up down the road from Gary, in Highland, and given the segregation of the region I learned to see Gary as "the bad place." Then when I was 17 or 18, I got lost one day trying to find an address and drove through an older neighborhood near the lake. I still don't know where I was. I saw a beautiful neighborhood. A beautiful place to live. To get to anywhere from where I lived, one has to drive, walk, or ride through "bad" areas and "good" areas. People give up so much, and can be so misinformed (e.g., develop a false sense of safety) by living in places where only a "good" standard of living is present. The irony is that such people, usually white people, count themselves wise and fortunate for having made the choice to live in such a limited way.

Sabertooth Screaming Lemur said...

I lived in Lake Worth, FL, for several years and when my coworkers looked shocked (it has a reputation as a largely black/hispanic area, so it must be 'crime-ridden'), I smiled and told them I liked living there. And I did- in that area, you have a lot of "old and classy' neighborhoods right up against areas defined as 'the hood'.
In the largely-white midwest town where I live now, I feel a lot less comfy than I did in good ol' "Lake Worthless".

Thank you for writing about how so many peoples' 'bad area' can be other peoples' home.

socgrad said...

I currently live in Albany, NY. The Capital Region of NY has a distinct chocolate city / vanilla suburbs demographic split. Overall Albany (the whole city!) is considered the "bad part of town" i.e. the "black and brown part of town". It's incredibly fustrating having to live in an area where people commonly assume that any neighborhood of mostly black and/or Latino people is automatically a dangerous and bad neighborhood. Especially the people who grew up here, these beliefs are so ingrained and reflexive for them that I tend to be suspect of most white people in this area. It's one of the main reasons why I'm seriously planning to move away from here.

lisa99 said...

I'm from Detroit. The city, not the burbs.

When people (mainly white) ask me where I'm from and I say, "Detroit," they immediately ask me, "What part?"

I say, "Northwest Detroit."

They looked puzzled. They ask, "What suburb?"

I say, "IN Detroit. Not a suburb."

Then they're really puzzled and make a frowny face. They say they've never met anyone actually from Detroit. If I'm feeling particularly punchy, I'll say, "You've never met someone from a city of almost 1 million residents that was right in your backyard? You must not associate with any black folks!"

Anyway, I can relate to your post. :)


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