Gary Works. It was true for decades. U.S. Steel’s biggest manufacturing plant, Gary Works has rolled and galvanized the steel used in our homes, cars, and appliances since 1908. From I-90 it might look like hell on earth, but for generations of Americans, it made dreams possible.
Gary, Indiana, however, no longer works. The city has an unemployment of 10.5%, probably a generous estimate. Though Gary Works has continued on, it now employs only 5,000 people, down from a peak of around 25,000-30,000. The city is in a death spiral of decline. Homes are in ruins. Office buildings and churches are vacant, crumbling, exposed to the elements, and littered with trash.
It’s a scene all too familiar in the Midwest, once the industrial heart of America, our steady rhythm sounded out by the thud of the press, the beat of the drill.
That’s not a city on the horizon. (Edited. Original photo by m01229.)
The groans of the South Shore interurban as it leaves the Miller station for Chicago remind me of dark, metallic synthesizer drones. It’s a spooky, ephemeral melody, belonging to a strange alien world where public transportation is treated as a birthright. Cubs fans, easily identifiable in their blue and red caps, stare out of the grimy train windows at one of Gary’s few bright spots: Miller Beach.
You’d never suspect, tucked away in the very northwest corner of one of America’s most infamous cities – birthplace of Michael Jackson – is a bucolic world of dunes, cabins, and quiet streets, but it exists and is very real. The Lake Michigan beach community was annexed almost one hundred years ago by Gary and developed as a convenient getaway for the region’s soot-covered industrial workers. If you squint, you can even see the Chicago skyline from the beach.
Of course, if you don’t squint, you’ll probably just see a bunch of factories. But you get the point.
Not that Miller Beach has been completely spared from Gary’s problems. Marquette Park, a hot destination in the 1920s for Chicagoans (when it was known as Lake Front Park), has had its share of ups and downs. At one time, its famous classically-inspired concrete bathhouse was slated for demolition, only to be saved by determined locals and rechristened as an “aquatorium”. Miller’s all-American downtown has had its own struggles over the years, too, but is experiencing a veritable renaissance, with the already acclaimed 18th Street Brewery opening in 2013.
Unfortunately, I didn’t sample any brews when I was in town. We only had an hour or two to spare in Gary. Our final destination in Cedar Falls, Iowa was still hours west on I-80. Molly was hellbent on driving from Detroit to Cedar Falls in one day, which was fine by me, but for one caveat: she’d have to finish the trip. I’d been in the driver’s seat the whole way from Detroit to Gary, and was ready for a nice long nap. Unless we took a long break at a rest stop along the way, there was no way I was taking back the wheel. She’d have to drive the rest of the way.
She was fine with my fiery ultimatum, and our course was set.
Four hours on the road can make you unreasonably hungry. All I’d done was sit, hitting the brakes occasionally when we hit a traffic jam. Yet it felt like I’d jogged the whole way. My stomach was growling, my mouth dry.
We parked in a large lot just north of Indian Boundary Road, which follows an old border that was established in a treaty with the Potawatomi in 1826. But instead of Indians, we were surrounded by two restaurants, a market, and an acupuncturist. Emotionally fatigued from the road, we couldn’t decide whether to eat at the Beach Cafe or Flamingo, so we did what we always do in such situations and flipped a coin. Tails was Beach Cafe and heads was Flamingo.
Heads it was.
You know Flamingo is a working class bar the second you open the door. You can smell the cigarette smoke emanating from the patron’s clothes. Hollow, sunken faces give off grotesque shadows in the dim light, and almost everyone is wearing jean shorts and white gym socks, the official blue collar summer uniform.
You know how it is.
The snatches of conservations you can catch over the din are priceless.
“Get out and scrape that shit!”
“But I might dance for you.”
“And it keep on, I’m calling the cops. After I tried to run you over!”
“Another book club!”
“That’s why when he said that Allison read [said in present tense] it, I thought, ‘Allison don’t need to read this!’ It was very intense.”
“BILL, COME ON! MAN! WHAT YOU DOIN’? CONCENTRATE! He’s not funny very… well, he’s not funny.”
I had my doubts about the food. This was a “de facto watering hole” if I’d ever saw’r one. Don’t get me wrong, it looked nice enough. There were old school tin ceiling tiles in one room. Plenty of wood furnishings. But I was only expecting typical dive bar fare.
Was I wrong.
I ordered the perch sandwich. It was, in a word, delicious. Not that they did anything fancy with it. It was just fried perch on a bun with the standard toppings. What made it stand out was the quality. This was excellent, fresh fish. I don’t even know why they fried it, to be honest.
The fries rocked, too, like a gourmet take on fast food fries. What the food lacked in art, it made up for in character. Molly’s calzone didn’t disappoint, either.
Though Flamingo has changed locations a few times, it’s a Gary institution with over 70 years of history. After eating there, it’s easy to see why it’s stood the test of time. As we climbed a sand dune on our way to the beach, the waves of Lake Michigan lapping against the shore under a big, bright moon, I remember saying to myself, “This is awesome.”
Anyone that’s ever badmouthed Gary on their way through owes it to the city to visit Miller Beach. Just do it, man.