I visited Lake Bluff on the suggestion of several Board members when I told them I was interested in seeing attractive residential communities in and around Chicago.
I visited Gary since there was absolutely no information whatsoever about it in any of the brochures we had picked up in the Indiana Tourist Office and I was curious. Surely this waterfront city had some attractions that would appeal to a tourist, I thought. I didn’t stay long enough to find out. Driving along Cline Avenue, I was immediately struck by a parade of abandoned and neglected fast food outletsand other businesses lining the street, as well as grand old buildings in disrepair. It reminded me of the disturbing images of Detroit that circulate on the internet; grand old buildings literally rotting, with weeds growing out of windows, roofs and chimneys.
We stopped at a gas station for directions to the city centre and the attendant did not seem to understand our request. “Here?” he asked. “You want to go downtown here!” So we drove on, past a few grand old apartment buildings that were occupied, but many others that were in total disrepair.
Eventually we arrived in what was once the downtown, but most of the large buildings were all abandoned…a museum, the convention centre, the library, a large multi-story apartment building. Even a grand old church was in ruins, not unlike the ancient structures we saw in Ireland a month ago. The only building that seemed looked after was a relatively new baseball stadium. It was all quite surreal.
Weeds filled vacant lots strewn with old cars. Weeds were growing through the pavement and sidewalks along both sides of the streets and collecting garbage. What had happened to this city? Why was this allowed to happen? Where was the sense of civic pride that surely once existed in the town?I subsequently did some research only to discover what I suspected. Gary Indiana, home of the Jackson Five, was once a vibrant town established by US Steel in the early 20th century. It had a population over 200,000 in the 1950’s with many grand buildings. However, with the decline of the steel industry the jobs ended and the population had declined to less than 80,000. The whites fled the city and at one point it had one of the highest concentrations of African-Americans and the highest crime rate per capita in America. Grand buildings were left to decay and then demolished. Today it is regarded as America’s Ghost Town and has been compared to post evacuation Chernobyl. (I found these haunting interior shots on one of a number of sites on the internet illustrating the desolation of the town.
Will Gary ever recover? The situation seems so hopeless. But even if it does recover, it will never be as attractive as the small village of Lake Bluff, one and an hour drive to the north.
If Gary Indiana is representative of the worst of America, Lake Bluff is the exact opposite. Also set along the shores of Lake Michigan, it started off as a vacation town for Chicagoans. Today it is a delightful residential community of about 5700 people that was recently voted by Coastal Living Magazine as the fourth happiest coastal community in America. Perhaps not surprisingly, the median income is about three times that of the state of Illinois, and the median house prices, at around $800,000 are three times the state average.
One of the first things that struck me was the number of young children playing in the streets. I was also struck by the variety of beautifully maintained properties with a mix of old and new houses of various styles. Many were adorned with American flags which did not look at all out of place!
As I stopped to take a photograph of a large new house designed to look like a large old house, I chatted to a local resident out walking her dog. When I commented on how beautiful the town looked, she proudly offered to take me to the local museum so that I might learn more about it history, but feared it might be closed. She mentioned how many of the homes had started as cottages that were subsequently winterized and converted to permanent residences. It had been home to the Swifts (of meatpacking fame) and other notable Chicago families.
The village centre was quite small, but I noticed a real estate office in a new building designed to look like an old building and decided to get out of the car and take a look in the window. Although it was after closing hour, I noticed some people inside so tried the door. I was warmly greeted by the staff who were enjoying a glass of wine and invited me to join them. I did.It turned out that a nearby restaurant was being featured that evening on a PBS television show called Check, Please http://www.pbs.org/food/shows/check-please-chicago/ and they were all invited to participate. But first they poured me some wine and started to tell me about what many consider to be a well-kept secret…Lake Bluff.
Lake Bluff is the type of community where most of us want to live. There is a high level of civic pride and it offers both a small town community feel with access to big city amenities. It also has a significant recreational component, as evidenced by the number of signs on houses telling visitors ‘gone to the beach’. While the homes are very attractive and as previously noted three times the state prices, at a median price of $800,000 they are well below the price of a comparable home in Vancouver. Not surprisingly, the upper-end realtors were astonished when I told them the prices of Westside Vancouver 33 foot lots, adding that the smallest lot in Lake Bluff is 50 feet.
I plan to go back and check out the restaurant in Check, Please. If you want to learn about Lake Bluff’s ranking in the Coastal Living survey, and the other top 14 seaside towns in America, you can find them here http://www.coastalliving.com/travel/americas-happiest-seaside-towns-00414000075266/page5.html
Leaving Lake Bluff I travelled through nearby Lake Forest, another affluent, well-kept community, with perhaps the most impressive high school buildings I had ever seen. I stopped off at the Deer Path Inn that had been suggested as a good place to stay. It was like being back in England. The Inn was completed in 1929, a significant year in American life, and was styled after The Manor House (c. 1453) located in Chiddingstone, Kent, England.
The nearby town centre of Lake Forest is an attractive pedestrian area, built around the train station that allows local residents easy access into the City of Chicago. As I wandered around, I couldn’t help but think this area represents what so many people work hard to achieve; a friendly safe clean community with a high level of civic pride. Many of the realtors I met in nearby Lake Bluff had grown up in the community and chosen to stay there. Their children had gone to the nearby schools and no doubt many of them will remain in the area.
I wonder how many of them have ever ventured one and a half hours south to Gary, Indiana. They would be horrified with the other side of America.