Roses, yes. But on this road trip across America, El Guapo and I are planning to smell some buttholes too.
In the world of dogs, the way to get quickly acquainted with one another is to go straight to the pooper and take whiff. In the “people” kingdom, we’re much more advanced at connecting with one another (or keeping our distances) by the outward facades we faithfully maintain, but we’re not that different from our canine friends. The people who really know and love us are the ones who know us beyond our facades, and visa versa. We even have a poop metaphor for it. To say that we know each other’s “****” means that we’ve embraced each other, stinky outflow and all.
I love nature and on any of my travels I try to take in the beautiful landscapes of the region. I also like to explore how the urban planning and architecture of different cities make them beautiful places to live. But on this road trip, lest I become a “beauty” snob who only sniffs out the designated scenic routes, I wanted to be intentional to visit the less manicured back sides of America. Like El Guapo, I wanted to get a whiff of our national butthole.
Like we do now to learn what popular places to visit, I consulted the opinions of the internet to learn what the most unpopular places were. I googled “Butthole of America.” As with any internet discussion open to public comment, there was more variety than consensus. Yet, the places getting the most attention as deserving the unfortunate title were frequently in the “rust belt” – industrial, auto and steel cities on the Great Lakes that globalization has left behind to decay. One article in particular claimed to be “official” and though I doubted its complete veracity, it made a convincing argument for… Gary, Indiana. (See article: http://www.smthop.com/article.aspx?newsnum=1074)
This caught me off guard. How could this be? I really didn’t know much about Gary beyond the lauding song from the “Music Man” with an all-american boy singing “There is just one place, that can light my face… Gary Indiana, not Louisiana, Paris France, New York or Rome, but Gary Indiana, Gary Indiana, Gary Indiana, My home sweet home!” As for the state of Indiana, I’ve always associated it with Midwestern wholesomeness and work ethic. I determined to go and see for myself on this road trip how Gary, Indiana could even be in contention as the “The Butthole of America.”
En route to Gary, I made a planned stop at Noblesville, IN, on the outskirts of Indianapolis. Academic Expeditions works with many schools and students around the country, but our largest number of travelers come from the two middle schools in Noblesville (East and West). Classes were just getting underway and the lead teachers were beginning to promote the trip which will take place in May 2016. I spoke to seven different classes between the two schools, showcasing the trip and our “be a hometown tour guide” video contest, but I most enjoyed just being an observer to see how all the teachers promote, lesson plan and fundraise to make sure as many students as possible are able to go and experience our nation’s history as represented in Washington DC. I look forward to seeing their faces again next May.
The visit to Noblesville schools, having lunch at Rosie’s Place overlooking their attractive town square and courthouse, driving past the corn fields and farms and through nearby quaint small towns, Indiana gave me the impression of down-home America that we like to idealize. At a number of vantage points, I could imagine Norman Rockwell setting up his easel and canvas to paint the people and scenery. I appreciated the views, but reminded myself that gritty Gary was my goal.
When you drop names of places in the course of casual conversation, people feel compelled to share their connection or experience with the place. For example, “Oh you’re from Asheville, we stopped there last summer.” Or “My niece moved there recently.” Telling people in rural Indiana that I was planning to visit Gary garnered interesting, and alarmingly similar responses: “My aunt’s cousin was murdered in Gary.” “My uncle got shot in Gary.” And “My sister got car-jacked in Gary, be sure not to get boxed in between cars at a stop.” I began to feel like Gary should be renamed “Scary” and that my vision of sight-seeing rust belt USA was not such a good idea. But I thought of El Guapo and decided that I must sniff the worst parts if I was to claim I was off to get to know true America. So I pressed on, and we pulled into downtown Gary around lunchtime on a weekday.
We drove around the streets of central Gary for a spell before deciding where and when to get out and walk around. The size of some of the remaining buildings downtown suggested that Gary once held a large population that supported the many store fronts and a handful of convention / performance venues. The flanking neighborhood streets were lined with houses in various states of sadness: most of them are abandoned to the plundering forces of nature and vagrants. I was both proud and ashamed for the people who still live there and try to keep things livable. When we did get out and walk up and down several blocks of the main street, the overwhelming sense was not so much one of danger, but of decay and emptiness. I had hoped to find a local diner where we might get lunch, but there was only a chinese restaurant and a check-cashing shop with a lady sitting out front trying to sell sodas and candy. There was virtually no business activity. Even the painted plywood panels on the abandoned store fronts failed at their jobs of hiding the broken glass, trash, and collapsing frames within. I was afraid when I got my camera out to take pictures – NOT that the handful of people out on the street would see me as a crime target, but that they would see ME for what I was – a gawker, a blogger, a passer-by tourist documenting their daily destitution as a human interest story.
One of the reasons I wanted to visit Gary was for optimism. In my beloved home of Asheville, NC, most of my favorite hangouts are the old warehouse and brick storefront districts that changing industry had left behind. Many creative individuals, artists, microbrewers, chefs, and entrepreneurs have come in and revitalized the old buildings into very popular venues to work, live, eat, drink and even visit as a tourist. I believe it is a trend that is happening around the country and I wanted to bear witness to the creative transformation – to see a city surviving industrial outsourcing and white flight. Unfortunately, there is scarce evidence of this in Gary, even after a city hall decision to offer up empty Gary homes for $1 to anyone who was willing to fix them up. Most of what I saw was beyond “fixer-upper” and had deteriorated into the status of “faller-downer” where the land would be more valuable if it were cleared to an empty field. In Gary, there doesn’t even seem to be enough money to tear things down.
Does Gary, Indiana deserve the moniker “Butthole of America”? In my opinion, I would have to see more places to compare before making it official, but it certainly is a valid contender. Signs on the outskirts of town still welcome you to the “City of the Century”. It would be fair to say that America consumed itself in the 20th Century – behemoth industry, immigration, race relations, globalization – and Gary is one of those vacuous places where the residual waste got left behind. I don’t blame Gary for that, nor the people who got out while they could, and certainly not its current residents who stick around. I don’t know who to blame, but as I left Gary toward the skyline of Chicago that can be seen across Lake Michigan and entered the manicured green space along Lakeshore Drive, I felt myself becoming a cheerleader for Gary, and yet unsure who or what to cheer for. I thought of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow and the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the World’s Columbian Exposition 20 years later. May something beautiful rise from the ashes and rubble of Gary, Indiana.
Interested in learning more about Gary? I found myself wanting to learn more when I left and discovered this video that is well done by a local trying to showcase Gary then and now: Stagnant Hope – Gary, Indiana