Where Work Disappears and Dreams Die
The following is an excerpt from The American Prospect.
Not all teenagers are as lucky as J’Len Glass. He trusts his parents. He knows they will always tell it to him straight. Yet the 15-year-old, who wants to be a doctor, can’t help being skeptical of his elders’ veracity—or at least of their memories—when they tell him that his shrinking, economically depressed hometown of Gary, Indiana—Steel City—was, once upon a time, a wonderful place to raise a family. That it had good public schools and well-maintained city parks and streets. That there were department stores, restaurants, movie theaters, nightclubs, and crowded office buildings up and down Broadway, its main thoroughfare.
That a young guy could go outside, play some ball, flirt with girls, and not worry about getting killed in a drive-by shooting. That he could graduate high school, and if he didn’t want to go to college or join the military, he could just stay put and make a decent living in one of the smoke-belching steel mills that ringed the city and provided paychecks to tens of thousands of workers. That Gary used to be part of the American working- and middle-class mainstream, a place folks moved to and put down roots in—not some decaying, can’t-wait-to-pull-up-stakes-and-get-the-hell-away-from-here outpost of the Other America, which these days is just about the only America J’Len sees when he walks out his front door.
“It’s hard to imagine the Gary older people talk about,” he says early on a Saturday morning as he and several other teenage volunteers, armed with bottles of Windex, prepare to wash windows in a senior citizens’ apartment building. The teens don yellow plastic gloves and T-shirts that plead Bury Guns, Not People. “It’s nothing like that now. My dad told me how he used to love to play outside. Now there aren’t a lot of kids in our area. Everybody has moved away. When you do go outside, you have to watch to see if someone is following you home. There’s nothing here for young people. No jobs. No future. I’m leaving as soon as I can.”
This is what happens when work disappears and dreams die. A once-bustling American city turns into Gary. A model of industrial might for much of the 20th century, sometimes called “the Magic City” by early boosters, Gary today is anything but. Over the past four decades, the jobs and the people have been chased away as Gary’s biggest employers had to grapple with low-cost foreign competition and responded by installing technology that enables two steelworkers to turn out as much steel as a dozen did a quarter-century ago. The five steel mills of Northwest Indiana—including the largest, the U.S. Steel mill in Gary—used to have a combined workforce of up to 100,000. They now employ roughly 20,000 people and are producing as much steel as ever.
Like Flint, Detroit, Cleveland, and Akron, like hundreds of cities and towns across the once-industrial Midwest, Gary is emblematic of the new American poverty, the poverty that descended when the factories closed down. The city is half the size it was in 1970, its population reduced from 170,000 then to 80,000 today. Its poverty rate is 28 percent. A fifth of its houses, churches, school buildings, and other structures are vacant and boarded-up. The hulking steel mills still line the Lake Michigan shore in northwest Indiana, but they’ve been hemorrhaging workers for decades.
Mary Boner worked in the mills for five years, from 1976 to 1981. She was assigned to the ore dock and was part of a large group of women hired in the late 1970s. Boner’s father worked the mills and tried to discourage his daughter from doing so as well. Too dirty, too hot, too dangerous, he told her. “I had two kids, and I was head of the household,” she says. “I had no choice.”
Before becoming a steelworker, she was barely making minimum wage stitching tarps for cars and boats. The mill paid her $8 an hour more. “I felt economically comfortable for the first time in my life,” she says. “I could have things. I could buy my kids clothes. That job just opened a whole other world to me.”
She bought a car and in 1977 purchased a house for $25,000. “I was on easy street,” she says. Then she got laid off in 1981 and was never called back to work. “Before I knew it, there goes the house,” she says. By 1984, she was living with relatives. Today, at 73, she works as a home health-care attendant. “Lots of people would kill for my job,” she says.
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