The algorithms that select videos for me on YouTube demonstrated their accuracy last week by placing a documentary on Gary, Indiana at the front of my cue. It wasn’t the most recent nor the highest quality footage I’ve ever seen, but it was produced by a filmmaker whose perspective I recognize in myself.
Gary, Indiana is one of the cities I see in the data sets I seek out in articles from CityLab or Planetizen; it is not a community I know anything about on a personal level, or even second hand. According to the documentary, Gary reached its peak of population of near 180,000 people in the mid 70’s just as Springfield did. Where Springfield saw a decline in population of some 12% and then stabilized, Gary’s population has collapsed by almost 60% and continues to fall. I was amazed to hear that still standing in Gary was the very first building ever built there. Wow! I was less impressed when I learned that the structure in question was built in 1907; Gary went from 0 to 180,000 people in less than a century based on one company, U.S. Steel, placing an enormous mill there.
The footage documenting the decline was familiar: beautiful churches left in ruins; grand old movie theaters rotting and festering; abandoned industrial buildings; vacant homes; and empty lots. The scale of the city was familiar as well, but the depth and breadth of the devastation was not. It was not just “a church” whose charred remains were still standing, but “the” church in the center of town. The Palace theater was not just empty and decaying, it was open to the elements and was unrecognizable. The all-encompassing squalor was beyond anything I had seen.
The rapidity of the collapse still has my head spinning. In some cases only a few decades separated elaboration from eradication. The contrast to the fractal rejuvenation that can be seen here was telling. No plans, big or small, seem to have been fully elaborated: A solitary convention center connects to nothing via a pedestrian bridge to nowhere; an enormous 70’s vintage hotel sits completely empty; signs with the names of architects and politicians sit in front of vacant lots with no sign of development taking place behind them.
The real lesson was yet to arrive. As well meaning native sons and daughters of Gary were interviewed I felt a knot develop in my stomach. If only this or that had been done differently, if only the focus had been put on this pipe dream instead of that one. The film was made after the death of Gary native Michael Jackson’s death, but before the most recent, if unsurprising, accusations of pedophilia, so it was not just cringe-inducing, but sad to see arguments forming around the makeup of a Michael Jackson centered tourist megaplex knowing it amounted to debating how many moon-walkers could dance on the head of a pin.
With a nod to Chuck Marohn, no one else gives a damn about Gary, Indiana.
And no one else gives a damn about Springfield, Massachusetts.
These well meaning interviewees couldn’t help but see Gary through their own hopelessly maternal perspective; “Of course your friends would love to buy Tupperware, and Amway products from you, or have a convention in your convention center, or relocate their headquarters to your industrial park, honey.”
Pity purchases are the kiss of death. It’s cruel. Every time, and there have been many, I have purchased something from a shop because I wanted to wish them well not because I really wanted what I was buying, that place has gone out of business almost immediately. The same holds for the broader community, if we aren’t well set up to succeed on our merits no amount of charity will save us.
I try to make things better here because, well, I want to be here, and what’s the other option? What will save Springfield or Gary, or seal their fate, will be forces beyond my control, and beyond the control of any professor at Indiana University Northwest. It’s been a while since I’ve said it, so it bears repeating: All of the trends, demographic, economic, social, and cultural, have been working against places like Springfield (and Gary) for decades now. If Springfield were in the Sun Belt, or had a major research University, or was 30 miles from New York or Boston, it would be more likely to be thriving today. It’s not, it doesn’t, and it isn’t.
Making good decisions where we have the power to make them is what we need to do and where we need to place our focus. I don’t share the phobia regarding mega projects that some people have; as I have explained before nearly all of our local mega projects have proved to be successful. That doesn’t mean that anyone should expect any one or even any handful of developments will transform the city; only the reversal of the aforementioned trends or Springfield being subsumed in the New York-Boston Mega Region would force such a change.
What is interesting is how Springfield has slowly crept up to the middle tier of mid sized cities in the United States in terms of population growth, economic growth, and other relevant data points. We aren’t on anyone’s top 20 list, we’re not the up and coming-est, but it feels like things are headed in a positive direction. The middle is nice. The “rocking chair”. I’ll settle for staying off the radar.