Steel City Strong

Posted on Jan 27, 2018

Steel City Strong

“If I ever did leave Gary, I would want to return one day to contribute to the youth”, Destiny Joyce, a 16-year old student at Steel City Academy in Gary, IN tells me. Destiny’s headteacher thinks she has bright things ahead of her.

Destiny Joyce

Destiny’s attachment may surprise some Americans. Whilst folks back home in the UK may be amused by its personable name, Gary brings to American minds images of crime and poverty as the nation’s murder capital in the 1990s.

Population graphs don’t go in that direction…

Gary’s rise and fall is intimately linked to steel. That ‘friendly name’ was slapped on it by Judge Elbert Gary, chairman of US Steel, who built the town in 1906 to house workers. They later expanded its capacity to 300k, although the decline of the steel industry from around the 1970s meant that these homes were never filled.

Gary is a half-hour drive south-east along Lake Michigan from Chicago, the city to which I‘m lucky enough to have been brought for two years by a Fulbright Scholarship. But it seems that besides some “urban explorers” few visit. One Chicagoan warns me: “don’t go there. It’s really dangerous. No joke.”

The beautifully decrepit ‘City Methodist’, an Instagram favourite according to Sam

So when a newfound friend Sam Salvesen, a Gary city planner, invites me to volunteer at his community event, I naturally jump in his car.

Rather than glorifying urban decay, Sam is here today to help kick off the artist-led Heat Light Water Project, which seeks to generate support to renew one of Gary’s 12,000 abandoned buildings.

A symbol of Gary’s history, the Heat Light Water Building was built by US Steel but abandoned by the cashstrapped City in 2012

Today was a modest first step on the arduous path to revitalisation, with around 30 community volunteers getting their hands dirty pulling weeds etc. and painting boards containing excerpts from Gary Poetry Project.

Sammy Love: “my father was from Gary, my Grandfather was from Gary, and my Great Grandfather moved to Gary from Slovakia”.

Sammy Love, who organised this effort to display thousands of residents’ words, believes that whilst Gary is exceptional — its unique African-American culture produced the nation’s secondblack mayor in 1968 — it is also a microcosm of 20th Century America — immigration, segregation and the rise and fall of industry have all played out in Gary. If this is the case, then future of Gary’s youth is indicative of 21st Century America’s ability to sustain its people left behind by technological change. Sammy has enlisted Destiny and some of her peers (as well as yours truly) to get stuck in with some painting.

Matteo, Hakim and Destiny. “Have you ever met the queen”. “Nah — I was busy that week”. “You should bring her to Gary. She would be like: (waving) ‘why the hell have you brought me here?’”

Matteo, who confides to me that he really wants to get inside the building to parkour, muses: “I heard there used to be white people in Gary. I did my homework when I moved here.” Hakim was born here, and when I ask if he has got out of Gary at all, he replies “yeah we went to Chicago once”.

Maya Etienne was a bright student like Destiny twenty years ago when a Japanese exchange student to Gary sparked a journey which took her to Japan and beyond, introducing her to Buddhism. Maya believed the city needed social resources to stay alive, so in 2014 she returned to Gary to raise her two wonderful children.

Maya is realistic about the situation — for example choosing to homeschool Roya and Yarom — but every morning she writes down her vision for Gary (“the sound of children playing…”) which she believes will come true.

Maya Etienne with her two children: Roya (who tells me great jokes) and Yarom (who steals his sister’s punchlines)

On another sunny day back in 2003, Gary residents flocked to the streets to greet a pop musician who was returning to his hometown to speak at the baseball stadium. Since leaving Gary, Michael Jackson had sold 350 million records, won hundreds of awards and caused global controversy.

What lies in store for Destiny Joyce and the rest of the youth of the Steel City?