Monday, August 6, 2012

The best and worst of America

It is only 65 miles from Gary Indiana to Lake Bluff Illinois, but these two communities represent two extremes in contemporary America that I experienced following a recent trip to Chicago to attend a Board meeting at the Adler School of Professional Psychology.

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 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 left the real estate office armed with brochures and a book and video describing the village’s history and features.  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

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.


Judy Rudin said...

I hope this is only "an ebb and flow" situation for Gary. But I think it represents a way of life that time has passed by. It looks like it would have to totally "re-invent" itself.

From 'The Music Man':

Gary, Indiana!
What a wonderful name,
Named for Elbert Gary of judiciary fame.
Gary, Indiana, as a Shakespeare would say,
Trips along softly on the tongue this way--
Gary, Indiana, Gary Indiana, Gary, Indiana,
Let me say it once again.
Gary, Indiana, Gary, Indiana, Gary, Indiana,
That's the town that "knew me when."
If you'd like to have a logical explanation
How I happened on this elegant syncopation,
I will say without a moment of hesitation
There is just one place
That can light my face.
Gary, Indiana,
Gary Indiana,
Not Louisiana, Paris, France, New York, or Rome, but--
Gary, Indiana,
Gary, Indiana,
Gary Indiana,
My home sweet home.

It's certainly quite frightening and to sad to see what can happen to a one industry town. As the song says, it was someone's beloved home...

Interestingly,the Wikipedia entry for Lake Bluff notes that gangster Al Capone used to smuggle hootch from Canada through town, and on to Chicago!

Those pretty, shady, tree-lined streets hosted some pretty shady characters, at one time!

Nancy Touhy Statza said...

Michael I enjoyed your article about our sweet town of Lake Bluff. As I mentioned to you when we met in our real estate office I grew up in downtown Chicago. My family also had a summer home in a beach town in Northwest Indiana called Long Beach. One summer when I was home from college and brought my Maryland roommate home with me she was so excited to get to see Gary because of the Music Man. This was easily 1975 and it look pretty much the same as the photos you posted, as we drove through on our way to Long Beach. Needless to say she was so disappointed. Since that time Gary has added a minor league baseball stadium that is impressive and the air quality isn't as rank as it was when I was a student. Come visit us again--Fondly Nancy Touhy Statza

Anne Goldman said...

Michael, My former husband, Bruce, was born in Gary, Indiana. Sometime I will tell you his family story. His mother was a high school English teacher and his father, who never drank, inherited a family owned liquor store. They managed to live there until they they retired to California in the mid 70s. However, there was much sadness for them as their hometown fell into ruin.
Your cousin, Anne

Michael Geller said...

Thanks for these comments.

And Judy, thanks for the lyrics. My first draft of this post included a reference to the Music Man since that is how I first heard about the town as a young boy. But I couldn't quite incorporate it into my post in a logical sequence, so I am grateful for your addition.

I'll be interested to see what, if anything, can be done to revitalize the place. I'd like to think that a concerted effort by local residents and outsiders could make a difference, but they will all need optimism and hope.

South Granville BIA said...

Michael, the city did not put hanging baskets along the Granville Mall area. Those are bought and maintained by local businesses through a program initiated by the DVBIA. 90% of the planters and baskets you see on city streets are being provided through none-tax dollars through the various BIAs.

Jack Griffin said...

I visited Oakville, Ontario this summer for the first time and it's downtown area looks a lot like Lake Bluff.

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