The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

Field Trip through a Steelscape


In Fall 2008, Matthew Coolidge of the CLUI led a field trip through the region around Gary, Indiana, one of the most unattenuated landscapes in the nation. The purpose was twofold: to work with students from a class called Land Arts of an Electronic Age, taught by Julia Christensen from Oberlin College, and to continue research into the region for future CLUI projects.

IT'S A BIT OF A drive to get from Oberlin, which is near Cleveland Ohio, on the southern shore of Lake Erie, to Gary, near Chicago, on the southern shore of Lake Michigan, so we leave early in the morning. We stop for a break at Elkhart, Indiana, for a visit to the RV/Motorhome Heritage Center, where RV industry historian Al Hasselbart speaks to the group about the history and status of the RV industry, which is centered around Elkhart (described in the Spring 2008 issue of the Lay of the Land). We use their nice clean restrooms and eat a picnic on their lawn, next to Interstate 80.

Getting into the steel zone, our first stop is the Gary Historical and Cultural Society Museum, which is celebrating a new exhibit and holding an open house event. The museum is located in a small clapboard building, outside the gates of the massive U.S. Steel plant to which the town is wedded. The museum’s Director, Dolly Millender, shows us around, and we watch several videos, and look through their archives of old newspapers and publications about Gary.

In general, the displays are mostly newspaper reprints and town life photos. Strangely, or perhaps not, there is little mention of the U.S. Steel plant which is the 10-zillion pound gorilla next door. The intention of the museum is to tell the domestic story of the people and the city, and to spread the good news about the normal, regular community of Gary—a story that is rarely, if ever, told. In order to do so, it seems, the plant has to be left out of the picture. “I have no trouble with them,” says the Director, referring to U.S. Steel, however she acknowledges that this is not a common position among residents of Gary. Born and raised here, she is just tired of the town getting slammed. Not too many people come to Gary because they hear it is a nice place.

When newscaster Peter Jennings visited in 2002, for example, and was very polite and impartial, people like her in the community opened up to him because he seemed to want to listen to their version of the place. When the report was edited and aired on national television, however, it presented the typical, dystopic version of Gary as crime infested, corrupt, and physically crumbling. The town responded with meetings and booster events, including a “roast” of Peter Jennings.

There may be another reason why the curators might be leaving such a big hole in their representation of the history of the city. Apparently there were displays about the plant in an earlier version of the museum, information panels provided by U.S. Steel, but they were damaged when the building caught fire in the late 1980s, a fire of suspicious origin, which some say was set by people in town who didn’t like that version of the museum.

We drive around town, walk through empty public buildings with their doors off. Downtown is blighted for sure, in superlative and shocking ways, but off the main drag, much of the city is simple homes, and regular people, living their lives in relative peace. Like most places.

Gary Historical Museum, Indiana
Portraits of the first and last mayors of Gary, Indiana, at the Gary Historical Museum. CLUI photo

We then head out to the interstitial space on the lakeshore, between Inland Steel and U.S. Steel. This is a zone of ruins, remnants, pieces, incidentals, bulk materials, and fragments. There are no fences, just unfinished transitions. We end up at a large concrete ruin, more than a thousand feet long and several stories high, a structure where limestone was once stored and handled for the steel plants. The cavernous hollow spaces are like the ruins of the Roman Baths of Caracalla.

But this empire is yet still alive. As the day wanes, across from us in the gloaming the sodium lights and furnaces at Indiana Harbor pierce the darkening industrial shore, where the plant covers five square miles of an artificial peninsula, jutting into Lake Michigan. Though it isn’t what it once was, the reports about the death of steel in America are greatly exaggerated.

Students explore this transitionscape of ruins, take photos, make field recordings, and have discussions. Then off to the Holiday Inn Express at Portage. Dinner at Quaker Steak & Lube, a car-service station themed restaurant chain. Fill ‘er up.

Southeast Chicago Historical Museum
Students on the CLUI field trip getting oriented by Rod Sellars in the jam-packed Southeast Chicago Museum, in Calumet Park. CLUI photo

The next day we head off to another local history museum to get more background and orientation. We meet Rod Sellars of the Southeast Chicago History Museum in Calumet Park, just over the Illinois State Line. The museum is a small space inside the park’s field house, packed so full of artifacts it is hard to move. It is a real treasure trove of maps, photographs, paintings, and other imagery and information about the region, and Rod knows his way through it, intimately. He takes us out for a tour through the once and present industries of southeast Chicago, pointing out places like the former Republic Steel Plant site on the Calumet River, and the location where Joliet Jake threw the broken cigarette lighter out the window of the “Blues Mobile.” We stop at the ACME coke plant, a spectacular battery of furnaces and towers, and the last remaining bit of major steel related industry on the Illinois side of the Calumet region. For years, Sellars and his group were trying to preserve it as a museum and historic site. They were unsuccessful. It is being torn down in front of us.

group outside Acme Coke Plant
The group outside the remains of the ACME coke plant. CLUI photo

After a lunch at a tamale/perogi stand on Indianapolis Boulevard, we hug the shore around the huge and stunning Indiana Harbor plant, and the huge and stunning BP refinery, then visit the unusual architecture of the old worker’s town of Marktown. Afterwards to Valparaiso, where we meet Bob Allen, a pilot who has arranged to have two Cessnas available, to take the group, on two separate trips, up above the steelscape—really the only way to get a sense of the scale of the industry in the region. None of the students had been in a small plane before.

On the following day we looked at the third of the big three along Lake Michigan, the Burns Harbor Plant, then to the new Indiana Dunes Visitor Center and a brief film introduction to the dunes. This stretch of the sandy shore along the lake has been preserved, and represents what part of the hyper-industrialized coast might once have looked like. On Beverly Drive, along the beach, the row of Century of Progress homes, moved here from Chicago’s Worlds Fair, continue their century of slow restoration.

We climb Mount Baldy, the tallest remaining dune in the park, the others having been removed long ago for construction material and landfill. From the top of the dune Lake Michigan looks like the ocean, wide and infinite, large waves breaking over a big sandy beach extending in either direction. To the west—the hazy distance of the largest remaining steel plants in the country. To the east—the looming cooling towers of the Michigan City power plant. We head east. 

Over the course of the semester, guided by their instructor, Julia Christensen, the students developed an exhibition about their brief but intense trip to the nation’s steelscape. The exhibit opened November 21, 2008 in the Fisher Gallery at Oberlin College, and was called Diversify or Decay: The Rust Belt Buckles.