As I write this essay the Chicago Tribune reports that Union Tank Car in East Chicago, Indiana has abruptly closed, moving its operation to non-union shops in Louisiana and Texas, an all too common story in the Calumet Region. The Chicago Tribune article noted that since 1979 northwest Indiana has lost more than two-thirds of its 89,000 jobs. Today, the mostly Hispanic and African American population of East Chicago earns a median household income of $26,500. I grew up in a different time, when the Region was considered a manufacturing center and anything you could imagine was made in, or in some way connected, to the Calumet.
My family’s house was on Artesian Avenue and 120th street in Blue Island, Illinois. This neighborhood of mostly post-war homes was on Blue Island’s north side, a block from the city of Chicago. When my parents had this three bedroom brick home built, we moved from the Italian east side of town. Blue Island’s Italian community was close-knit and the move, although only a mile or so away, was a break from tradition. For my parents, who experienced the Great Depression, the move grew out of the desire to raise my sister and me in the mainstream of American life, to take our place in the growing middle class.
The neighborhood we left remained an important part of my childhood. My grandparents on both sides lived there, and we visited them on Sunday afternoons. The drive, although short, was exciting to a child. I eagerly anticipated crossing the Western Avenue wooden plank bridge over the Calumet Sag Channel. Riding in the back seat with my sister in our used 1953 Ford, with the sound of the car wheels over the loose planks and the murky water visible between the openings, was an adventure to a six year-old boy.
The Cal Sag Channel runs just south of Blue Island’s business district on Western Avenue. The house where my mother was raised is on Grove Street, two blocks east of Western Avenue. At the bottom of Grove Street hill, just before you reach my grandparents’ home, are the Rock Island and the Illinois Central (today Metra) rail lines. My grandfather, in his later years, would sit in the car he no longer drove, keeping tabs with his railroad watch of the trains that passed by his house. In his working days, my grandfather walked to his job at the Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad Blue Island Yard. Before we moved to Artesian Street we lived on Canal Street, on the opposite side of the Cal-Sag from my grandparents. To visit we crossed the canal on the pedestrian Penny Bridge, so named for the fare once paid to walk it.
A few blocks northeast of Grove Street is Division Street, the home of my father’s family. Just down the block from their house is St. Donatus Church, where my dad was an altar boy and where our family attended Mass. Like my maternal grandfather, Grandpa Cialdella also worked for the railroad. Blue Island is a tangle of railroads. Looking back it seemed we were always stopped in the car waiting for a train to pass. A couple of miles from the rail lines on Artesian Street are the modest houses, with small yards and garages off alleys, where I spent my childhood. Mostly of brick, somewhat varied in style, these well-crafted homes can be found throughout the Region. Years later, I would trace the origins of my photographs of vernacular architecture to these houses in Blue Island.
It was a sunny day in the summer of 1955 when I became more fully aware of the wider region I lived in. While I was playing outdoors with friends, we noticed a large mushroom shaped cloud in the blue sky directly to the east. Immediately my thoughts were of atom bombs, but the reality was an explosion and fire at the Standard Oil Refinery at 129th Street and Indianapolis Boulevard in Whiting, Indiana. The size of that cloud and its apparent closeness to my neighborhood simultaneously shrank and expanded my world. The day after the explosion I saw newspaper photographs of the disaster showing twisted and melted steel and the rubble where homes once stood. Years later I photographed the homes in Whiting that bordered the renamed Amoco Refinery.
Photographing the Calumet Region was an idea that evolved over time. Since graduating from college my wife and I made our home in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where I was teaching photography. At the time I was photographing rural landscapes of Michigan and the Mid-west. In 1979 a friend and I, for a change of pace, took a day trip to photograph industrial subjects in East Chicago, Indiana. The waltz tempo landscape of Michigan and Indiana turns operatic when you enter the Region. The steel mills of Gary and East Chicago and the oil refinery at Whiting grab your attention as you drive. The eye notices one set of forms coming into the field of vision that are quickly filled by others. Smoke from the mills, iron bridges, oil tanks, moving trains, and the roadway stream pass like a sequence from Vertov's Man With A Movie Camera. I find the panoramic view from the highway dreamlike, a bit intoxicating. That day I photographed the construction of Cline Avenue, the raised highway being built adjacent to Inland Steel, and I made a few photographs of the bridges at Calumet Harbor. It would be seven years before I returned to begin this series.
I have heard the Calumet Region described as a “bewilderingly complex” place. This is an apt description: the Region is intertwined with numerous communities, railroad lines, waterways, natural environments, interstate highways and increasingly brownfields. The Calumet Region encompasses the far south side of Chicago, adjacent south suburbs in Illinois, and the area eastward across the state line into Lake and Porter Counties in northwest Indiana. Defined by three geological moraines from the last ice age, these lowlands are now the site of aging industrial communities juxtaposed with delicate sand dunes and beaches. Little known outside the area, a large portion of the waterfront is designated a National Lake Shore, an important natural area saved from development years before the environmental movement we know today existed. Small lakeshore communities like Beverly Shores and Ogden Dunes are serene suburban places. Various photographers and painters have found their subjects in the sand dunes and marshland of this part of Indiana. My interest is elsewhere, in the industrial places, where the brash and confident American past meets the indecisive present.
Lake Michigan is the setting for the Region’s industry– the lake’s expanse a kind of balm to industrial sprawl. The belt of industry and neighborhoods hugging the shore defines this place and holds the most interest for me. Beginning in the Chicago neighborhood of South Chicago, 87th Street and Lake Michigan, the home of U. S. Steel’s South Works from 1880 to 1992, industrial development follows the contour of the Lake’s south shore eastward to the surviving U. S. Steel Works at Gary, Indiana. In between these two points, and three or four miles inland, is where most of the photographs in this book were made. The interplay of industry and domesticity I found here fascinates me.
Memory and place are inherently linked. When I began working on this series in 1986, I started in Whiting, Indiana. At the time I was producing a series ofphotographs of vernacular architecture. The homes bordering the Amoco (now BP) Refinery seemed like a logical extension of that work. The Standard Oil explosion of 1955 was certainly in my mind the first days I photographed on the streets next to the refinery. More significant was the uncanny sense of familiarity I felt. I knew those homes, not specifically the ones I was facing, but their type, and this experience simultaneously placed me back in my childhood and the present. In “The Poetics of Space” Gaston Bachelard writes that a “house is imagined as a concentrated being. It appeals to our consciousness of centrality.” That summer I made numerous excursions to Whiting, and the nearby neighborhoods of Hammond, Indiana walking the streets with my 4x5 field camera photographing houses. The sense of place I experienced spoke to me and without quite being aware of it I began this project.
The first impression you have in these neighborhoods is one of sameness. It appears that there is little to distinguish one house from another. One could say the same about a crowd of people. It is the specific case that exemplifies. I photograph homes straight on, facing them as I might a person whose eyes are looking directly back at me. Objects seen in this way emphasizes their particularity.
Whiting calls itself “the little city on the lake”. At the north end of town is Lake Michigan. Located at the water’s edge is Whiting Park and immediately to its west is Wilhala County Park. Looking west across this narrow portion of the Lake you can see the skyline of the Chicago Loop. To the east jutting out into the Lake on a peninsula of landfill are the mills of East Chicago, Indiana, and due north is the seemingly infinite sweep of the Lake. When you are standing on the beach at Whiting Park the appeal of this little city is more apparent.
The beauty of the Lake is in stark contrast to other realities of life in the Region. In 1991 the stench of oil brought the residents living near Amoco’s refinery to a forum to question company officials. Amoco had revealed earlier that a 16.8 million gallon pool of oil was located beneath the company’s property, and that some of it was leaching under the nearby homes. The company sank test wells in Whiting streets to determine the extent of the spill. Amoco estimated it would take twenty years to clean up their property. After reading about this incident, I drove to Whiting to see it for myself. The residential street bordering the west side of Whiting is Schrage Avenue. I found it barricaded, although rather subtly with drooping yellow tape. I could see crews on the street apparently drilling test holes. A few years later I photographed the empty lots where homes had once stood. At a corner where a pair of houses had been removed a play area had been built.
In the late 1970’s I was introduced to the writings of cultural geographers. Particularly influential were D. W. Meinig, Yi-Fu Tuan and J. B. Jackson, as well as the writer and critic John Berger, whose unique insights arise from a different tradition. Their ideas not only helped to shape my thinking about landscape and place, they confirmed what I had felt but not articulated, that ordinary places are important and worthy of our serious attention. When I started working in Calumet it felt as if I had found the perfect place to photograph.
An industrial landscape possesses a place in ways that, for example, farmland or town squares do not. Calumet is a hodgepodge of conflicting values. It is an aggressive way to construct a place; it is about commerce and production above all else, and on the surface, it is anything but inviting. Superimposed on this over crowded landscape are the effects of popular culture. There is a harsh and affective poetry to the advertising, murals, and personal ornamentation that decorate the streets and neighborhoods. A church mural and a billboard advertisement for a rock radio station may be poles apart in intention, but to me they read the same, as time capsules of our culture, saying as much about us as our national parks or our monuments do.
Photographing in the city of Gary, Indiana revealed to me the most poignant emotional extremes. Gary’s boom years peaked in the 1950’s. The turbulence of the 1960’s, white flight, and the riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. brought the city to its knees. When the financial resources fled Gary for the suburbs, the city was left with serious problems. These many years later, painfully slowly, the city is making its way back. A minor league baseball park and new housing projects are replacing parts of the largely abandoned center city, and on Lake Michigan a casino brings in the revenue to fund these new developments.
I photographed numerous buildings in Gary, mostly those dating from when the city was thriving and that today reveal loss and decay. Looking at them is to see history in the present moment, a perplexing duality of past stature and current demise. I see my work as both authenticating and elegizing this process. When I was photographing along Broadway Avenue, citizens of Gary often stopped to ask me why I was taking pictures. I told them about my project and of my interest in the old buildings. Invariably they would tell a little bit of history, or direct me to other “important” buildings in the community. This attitude is not limited to Gary and it speaks to the identification with place and the importance of historical memory imbued in the things we have built.
With every year that passes pieces of the region’s distinctiveness disappear. Familiarity with our surroundings is comforting. It is the source of our sense of place. However, we live in a society of constant change. Americans build and tear down and build again as no one else has before. We call this progress. Even though today we are more conscious of preserving places than we once were, the creed of progress seems firmly intact. Bachelard again, in The Poetics of Space, writes that consciousness rejuvenates everything; that things cherished are born of an “intimate light”. I must have driven past the Inland Steel blast furnace adjacent to the Indiana Harbor Canal a dozen times or more before I photographed it in 2002. That day, for some reason more than others, I felt the presence of the dormant furnace, its weight. One of the oldest furnaces in the Region it was in operation from the first decade of the 20th Century until the late 1980’s. A year or so after I made the photograph it was torn down, the land where it stood now a void.
I have organized this book in the manner I experienced the place, from the neighborhoods outward to the adjacent industry and to the expanse of the Great Lake. It is a place I know, and one that continues to surprise me. I have tried to put into pictures the complexity of my feelings for it. To this day I go out of my way to drive through the Region and take it in. Like so much of America, it is both sad and hopeful. I see the Region as a unique place, but I see it also as a metaphor for the contemporary American landscape. Calumet is a real place, and is home.
Words & Photographs
Imaginative Literature and the Making of
The Calumet Region: An American Place
This essay originally appeared in the fall 2011 issue of Miscellany, the journal of The Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature.
It’s a Sunday morning in the late summer of 2002. I’m sitting in the Kennedy Cafe, on Kennedy Avenue in Hammond, Indiana, looking out the window, sipping coffee and waiting for the waitress to bring my breakfast. Two days earlier, I drove in from my home in Kalamazoo, Michigan on one of many excursions to photograph in the Calumet Region. In 1986, I began photographing this part of the Midwest. Years of photographing culminated in 2009 with the publication of The Calumet Region: An American Place. When I was growing up in the Region, it was one of this country’s largest and most prosperous industrial centers, encompassing the southern portion of Chicago and Cook County, Illinois and neighboring Lake and Porter Counties in Indiana. By the time I began photographing the area it was already sinking into its long decline. When I left for college in the 1960’s, I could not imagine the changes to come, nor the hold this place would have on me.
On that Sunday morning, a light rain was falling as I stared out the window. My attention turned to the storefronts across and down the street. I am always looking at things I find visually interesting that might be source material for a photograph. I, of course, don’t photograph every-thing that holds my attention, but often an arrangement of things will linger in my mind’s eye for a time, perhaps to reappear in a different form in a photograph. On this day, I was paying attention more to words than visual forms. I found the homespun names on the storefronts across the street charming, like a familiar dialect: The Tattoo Lady, Deb’s Gun Range, Mr. Sweeper, Poppy Joe’s, Paradise Realty, Flick’s Tap, Ann’s Linens, Shear Delight. In my delight I jotted down the names, perhaps for some future use.
Flick’s Tap made it into Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust – All Others Pay Cash. As the reader meets Shepherd, the narrator, he is visiting his hometown, and is on his way to meet his childhood sidekick Flick. Shepherd is riding in a cab, something he routinely does in New York City, but never in the Region. When the cabby asks if he’s from out of town, he responds that he is. This pretense announces his reticence about being back in the Region. Looking out the cab window, Shepherd sees “the grimy streets lined with dirty, hard ice and crusted drifts covered with that old familiar layer of blast-furnace dust…” He sees other cars carrying loads of men going to their jobs, the steel and railroad workers, and “refinery slaves”(15). As the cab lumbers along, the scene unfolds “into painfully familiar country: ragged vacant lots, clumps of signboards advertising paint, American Legion halls, bowling alleys, all woven together with a compact web of high tension wires, telephone poles, and gas stations” (18).
Shepherd’s list of the “painfully familiar” happens to comprise the subject matter of my photographs. Shepherd nails the description of these things in the social landscape of the Region, even as he finds them unattractive and provincial. Years of photographing have taught me to look at everything and see its visual potential. Perhaps, only a photographer like myself, who grew up building with Erector Sets and model railroads, finds it persuasive to make visual poetry from such subjects. Novelist and critic John Berger observes that “[W]e are near to chaos. But through chaos come prophecies of an order” (200). As the writer shapes words to impress his will and create prosaic worlds, the photographer wrestles with space and form to produce visual poetry.
Shepherd’s cab chugs along and finally comes to a stop across the street from Flick’s tavern. Upon entering, Shepherd sees that the place hasn’t changed much. The bar is longer, the jukebox is bigger, and there’s a color TV hanging from the wall. His memory recoils as he breathes in “the air that was as gamy and rich as ever, if not more so, a thick oleo of dried beer suds, fermenting beer rags, sweaty overalls, and urinal deodorants” (18).
During the many photo trips to the Region over the years, I made a point of seeking out places like Flick’s. They are only indirectly my subjects, but sipping a beer and chatting with a customer, or listening to the chatter of others, deepens my appreciation for the people and theplace; and perhaps through a kind of osmosis, these encounters inform my photographs; if only to enrich experience they concentrate my attention on being there—in the moment.
In his writing, Shepherd reveals a particular quality, the gritty charm, of life in the industrial Midwest—used car lots, bowling alleys, factories, and railroad lines punctuating the landscape. For Shepherd, however, the people are what he connects with the most, relishing their idiosyncrasies. In one such sketch, Flick is tending bar, and he and his old friend are kibitzing over beers about the old days and people they knew. Flashbacks pop in and out of focus, but their conversation is disrupted by a ruckus.
An uproar broke out in one of the booths back in the Gloom near the wall. Two structural ironworkers were loudly Indian wrestling… Flick’s jaw squared as he darted from behind the bar. I watched in the mirror as he quelled the battle, fed the combatants two more boiler makers, and returned (102).
With a keen ear for regional dialect, Shepherd evokes a strong sense of place. A transplant to New York City, Shepherd drew on his experiences growing up in the Region for the homespun humor of his radio shows and writings, the most well known of which is the movie A Christmas Story. The tavern is a favorite setting for many of these sketches, and Shepherd understands their importance to the social fabric of these working class communities.
My maternal grandfather owned the Terminal Tavern on Grove Street in Blue Island, Illinois, although he didn’t take part in the day-to-day operations. The tavern’s name comes from its location, which was within a block of both the Rock Island and Illinois Central Railroad lines serving my hometown. Grandpa and Grandma lived above the tavern with one of my aunts in the apartment building he had built with the help of friends. Every Sunday my family made afternoon visits to my grandparents, and I would often find Grandpa in the tavern, sitting with friends and talking. Usually I would sit on a bar stool, twirling back and forth and drinking a soda.
Being just a kid then, I don’t remember any of the talk that took place, but the ambiance left an indelible impression. If it were summer, a White Sox or Cubs’ ball game would be on WGN radio, and the play-by-play could be heard in the background, the voices of Vince Lloyd and Jack Quinlan mingling with the banter of the patrons. In his best stories, Shepherd un-corks the fragrance of places like this. These “mom and pop” taverns can be found throughout the neighborhoods of the Region. They have names like Flick’s, Dusty’s in nearby Whiting, or Steve’s Lounge in Chicago’s Hegewisch neighborhood.
My fondness for the people who live in the Region lies just beneath the surface of my photographs of neighborhoods and industrial landscapes. When I stop in one of the local restaurants or bars, I am reminded of the people I knew growing up - my grandfathers, both of whom worked for the Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad, the uncle who worked a lathe at the machine shop, and the Chicago fireman who moonlighted at the candy wholesale business where I worked after school. Like the texture of the land and skies in my photographs, the people of the Region have their own distinctive patina.
Although we didn’t foresee it, my generation, coming to maturity in the 1960’s, experienced the last full decade of industrial growth in the Region. At that time, a nearly continuous belt of heavy industry spread across the southern Lake Michigan shoreline, from U.S. Steel’s Chicago South Works at 87th Street and the Lake, south into Chicago’s southeast side neighborhoods bordering Indiana, then east along the Lake Michigan shore through Whiting, East Chicago, and on to Gary, Indiana. On a clear day, standing on the Whiting beach, the Standard Oil Refinery at your back, you could see the Chicago skyline, and maybe pick out the Prudential building, which at forty-one floors, was the city’s tallest building. U.S. Steel, Wisconsin, Republic and Acme Steel were among the mills in Chicago proper. The last to survive, Acme Steel, closed in 2001. What is left of the Region’s functioning mills are now in East Chicago, Gary, and nearby Burns Harbor, Indiana. Except for U.S. Steel in Gary, they are foreign owned.
Life in the mills has always been grimy and dangerous, the men dwarfed by the enormous industrial structures. In his novel Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides illuminates the factory experience of his grandfather’s generation beginning their work life in America during the 1920’s at Ford’s River Rouge Plant in Detroit. Their experience could just as easily have been the experience of workers at U.S. Steel’s South Works, or of Inland Steel in East Chicago, Indiana, or any number of other mills and production facilities in the Region. He writes that, “[T]he Rouge appeared against the sky, rising out of the smoke it generated. At first all that was visible was the tops of the eight main smokestacks. Each gave birth to its own dark cloud. The clouds plumed upward and emerged into a general pall that hung over the landscape… ” (94). Inside at their stations these men did the monotonous and dangerous work:
My grandfather sees only the bearing in front of him, his hand removing it, grinding it, and putting it back as another appears. The conveyor over his head extends back to the men who stamp out the bearings and load ingots into the furnace; it goes back to the
Foundry where the Negroes work, goggled against the infernal light and heat. They feed iron ore into the Blast Oven and pour molten steel into the core molds from ladles. They pour at just the right rate—too quickly and molds will explode; too slowly and the steel will
harden. They can’t stop even to pick the burning steel from their arms. (94)
During all the years I lived in and photographed the Region, I was never inside a steel mill. The bowels of these places are out of reach, unless you work in one or have other official business there. Simply photographing the exterior can cause a near instantaneous response from mill security. On one occasion—and there have been several—I had stopped my car to make photograph near the Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad headquarters. I completed the photograph, stowed my gear in the car and went on my way. Seconds later, I noticed a security vehicle chasing after me. I pulled over and I was able to talk my way out of further difficulty, but these incidents have a way of lingering in my mind, inducing twinges of paranoia. I photograph with a large format camera, composing as I look through the back of the camera, a black cloth over my head, as I concentrate on the upside down and reversed image on the ground glass. It’s a wonderful way to make photographs, but the black cloth blinds you to what’s going on around you. Photographing in these settings, I have learned to work quickly. One might think that someone photographing today, with my choice of cumbersome equipment, is more a curiosity than a threat, but that is not generally the case. The photographer and writer, Robert Adams, observes that the reason he likes photographers is because “they don’t tempt (him) to envy. The profession is short on dignity: Nearly every one has fallen, been the target of condescension… been harassed by security guards, and dropped expensive equipment” (16).
Steel mills and production lines are dangerous places, and wandering around in them is not to be taken lightly. Just looking at the scale of these places from the outside induces one’s jaw to drop. Early in the making of the Calumet Region: An American Place, one of Inland Steel’s blast furnaces adjacent to the Indiana Harbor Canal was still in operation. There is a vantage point (where I was never hassled) on the street bridging the canal where I could watch and make photographs. Coke is unloaded from barges by giant shovels attached to overhead cranes carrying their loads into the plant. There’s a beauty to the process of seeing this scale of industrial operation. I made a few photographs I liked from that location, one in particular a few years later of the mothballed blast furnace. Within two years of making that photograph the structure was razed. The scale, complexity and human effort of steel production is found in the early chapters of Eugenides’s Middlesex: The Foundry is the deepest recess of the Rouge, its molten core, but the Line leads back further than that. It extends outside to the hills of coal and coke; it goes to the river where freighters dock to unload the ore, at which point the line
becomes the river itself, snaking up to the north woods until it reaches its source, which is the earth itself, the limestone and sandstone therein; and then the Line leads back again, out of the substrata to river to freighters and finally to the cranes, shovels, and furnaces where it is turned into molten steel where it is poured into molds, cooling and hardening into car parts… (95) The parts were being manufactured for Model T’s. One by one the coarse parts pass before the men on the assembly line where “Wierzbicki reams a bearing and Stepanides grinds a bearing and O’alley attaches a bearing to a camshaft” (96)
In the early 1960’s, I was a student at Dwight D. Eisenhower High School in Blue Island, Illinois and soon would have my driver’s license. Blue Island’s main street is Western Avenue, which at twenty-five and a half miles is the longest continuous street in Chicago. Western’s most northern point is Howard Avenue, where Chicago meets Evanston. It ends south of Blue Island where it merges into Dixie Highway on the west side of the small suburb of Dixmoor, Illinois, seventeen miles south of the Chicago Loop. Western Avenue and similar arteries connected us to all parts of Chicago and the Region. Cheap gas made driving an inexpensive adventure. When boredom struck, I would jump into the car with friends and take off on a late night drive.
Imagine, from my block at 120th Street, driving north on Western Avenue eleven miles to 18th Street. Turn right and travel a mile or so and you will be in the vicinity of Blue Island Avenue, the heart of Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, so named by its 19th century Czech inhabitants. In need of coffee, you wander into the Economy Restaurant, and there spot Katman and Stoch in a booth. They’re the protagonist and friend in Stuart Dybek’s, I Sailed With Magellan. They’re dipping fries in salsa, on Dexadrine and coffee, pulling an all-nighter. In their accelerated state, it occurs to them that they have never seen the dawn, and so they set out to see it, assisted by Stoch’s uncle, a security guard at a Gold Coast high rise, who escorts them to the rooftop. It’s three o’clock in the morning. Stoch is standing in the blustery wind at the edge of the building and he calls out to Katman: “Check this out.”
Far out over the dark lake, where the horizon might be, there’s a reddish aura as if an enormous coal we can’t see is glowing. We stand watching, waiting for the coal to peep over the rim of black water and crack into crimson and gold. But dawn seems stuck, glimmering just out of sight beyond the curve of the planet, whose rotation we can feel in the numbing wind that buffets the chain-link fence bordering the roof. The speed in our systems made us shiver faster. We’re staring out, not so much shivering as vibrating like the fence, when Uncle Hunky joins us and we point out the glow (167-168).
The glow is not the dawn, but the blast furnaces of the mills in Gary, and Uncle Hunky says laughing, “[Y]ou two dupas thought Gary, Indiana was the dawn!” (169).
Before their curiosity to see a sunrise, the two young men were dreaming of a road trip, aka Sal and Dean (the main characters in Jack Kerouac’s On The Road) to escape the city for the excitement of Mexico. The open road was the catalyst for many young men, including myself, to break the spell of the hometown. My own road trip was to the mountains of Colorado—a considerable contrast to the Calumet Region.
After graduating from high school and uncertain of my plans, I enrolled at Thornton Junior College, in nearby Harvey, Illinois. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study, but I knew I didn’t want to work in a mill or refinery. The Clark Oil Refinery was across the street from my high school, and although the industrial forms caught my eye, the stench it released into the air was unpleasant, not to mention harmful to our health. From the high school ball fields, we could see the small figures of men moving about working at the surface and on the towers. Later, I learned that one of my cousins was employed there, his first full-time job after graduating from high school.
Steve Tesich has written two coming of age stories placed in the Region, the novel, Summer Crossing, and the screenplay for Four Friends. Both works are partly autobiographical, and in full, or in part, are set in East Chicago, Indiana, to where Tesich, his mother and sister emigrated from Yugoslavia. Tesich is better known for his screenplay of the 1979 movie Breaking Away, set in Bloomington, Indiana where Tesich went to college at Indiana University. But it’s his lesser-known, Four Friends, directed by Arthur Penn, to which I feel a closer harmony.
The first third of the movie and the conclusion take place in the Region, where those scenes were filmed. The story begins with Danilo, the young adolescent from Yugoslavia, and his mother arriving in the United States to join their hard-nosed steel worker father and husband to begin their new life in East Chicago. The brusque steelworker picks up his family at the train station, and as they drive away we see through Danilo’s eyes a panorama of the Region unfold over bridges, past the steel mills, to the tiny apartment where they will live. At their destination, Danilo looks about, and in the near distance sees the mill his father will walk to for his next shift. This first scene rolls past bridges crossing the Calumet River channel near its entry to Lake Michigan in South Chicago, and on to the mills in East Chicago, places where I made several of the photographs appearing in The Calumet Region: An American Place.
Four Friends released in 1981 and Summer Crossing published in 1982, share some things in common, specifically high school graduates making their way into the world. Four Friends has epic aspirations, following the different routes that the main characters take through America’s 1960’s counter culture. The novel is centered in the Region, and is fundamentally about the place. In Summer Crossing, high school graduates Daniel Price, and his two friends Larry Misoria and Paul Freund, struggle to come to terms with what to do with their lives after graduating from high school.
The center of the story is Daniel’s love affair with the older and worldly-wiser Rachel. His preoccupation with her propels the story, but it is the Region itself that holds center stage. During one warm summer night, Rachel drives Daniel to Whiting Beach, the volume turned up on the car radio as they bounce across the railroad tracks that separate the neighborhood from the waterfront. Daniel’s heart is aimed at Rachel, but his senses can’t escape the surroundings. “ A breeze was blowing from across the lake, warm and humid. Her blouse fluttered. Her hair blew back. I could see the lights of Inland Steel in the distance. The water smelled of industry and jobs” (224). Throughout the novel, the Region’s presence hangs over the characters like an unseen hand pressing down on them. “The air was getting misty and smoggy …[Y]ou could smell the steel mills and the refineries… On certain days you could watch soot fall like black snow” (21).
Daniel’s friend, the hot-tempered, angry Larry Misoria, recognizes the contradiction between where they live and a possible fate that might await him. His family’s home is across the street from the Sunrise Oil Refinery, operating twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Misoria’s anger over his parent’s lives spills over in daily conversations with Daniel: You know what they’re like. You’ve seen them. Marshmallows. Everything is ‘lovely and nice.’ You look out of our house and you look right at that fucking refinery and you smell that shit they call air and they think it’s ‘lovely and nice’ because my dad can walk to work and not only that, he can walk home for lunch. How lucky can a man be? That’s his big deal (75).
The refinery (the Region) is the presence Misoria can’t ignore, the dragon he must slay. The face of this dragon is a smiling cartoon character painted on the side of oil storage tanks and trucks. Misoria’s malevolence goes beyond his hatred of his parents and the mere existence of the refinery, and extends to everyone who passes through its gates: “Smoke hissed out of the refinery, rising, disappearing into clouds. Men walked through the yard, surrounded by a fence, like termites through termite mounds made of steel” (76). Reading these words, I am reminded of the houses I photographed adjacent to refineries, and seeing only a short distance away refinery workers going about their work inside a fenced-in world. Photographing in East Chicago and Whiting, in the neighborhoods closest to industry, often it seemed to me that time had stopped, that it was still 1960.
The hometown is a well-served theme in story telling, especially Midwestern story telling. To escape from, to be stuck in, or to return to one’s hometown can provoke complex sets of responses. When I returned home for a visit from college in Michigan, I encountered my own confused feelings and ambivalence about my hometown. In Lee Zacharias’s short story “Disasters” the narrator is back home in Hammond, Indiana, accompanied by her fiancée Jesse. What was supposed to be a short stop over had turned into days of waiting for the parts needed to repair her broken down sports car. At the start of the story, the narrator and her fiancée are riding the South Shore train returning to Hammond from a day trip to Chicago’s Loop. It’s twilight as the narrator closes her eyes, reflecting back on when she had “come north from college on the Greyhound, a great cloud hung just ahead of the Kankakee River on Highway 41; inside that cloud I grew up” (314).
The sky itself is a presence in the literature of the Region, a pallor setting a tone for these stories. Photographing in the Calumet, I have become aware of the particular quality of light and how it intermixes with the tonal values on the landscape. This is due, I assume, to the combination of industrial and atmospheric affects of Lake Michigan. I am often asked about my decision to photograph in black and white. I point out that the tonal values best express my emotional connection to the place; the palette of middle gray tones in my silver prints similar to the appearance of steel and concrete, the moods of the lake and sky. There is too, the quality in black and white photographs that evokes memory more than color. John Berger postulates why black and white photographs are stronger triggers of memory. “The sharper and more isolated the stimulus memory receives, the more it remembers, the more comprehensive the stimulus, the less it remembers. This is perhaps why black and white photography is paradoxically more evocative than colour photography” (193). I do not know if his conclusion has been scientifically verified, but it does equate to my own experience.
In Zacharias’s, “Disasters”, the “great cloud” also reflects the emotional state of the narrator, reminding her that before her family moved to Hammond they had lived in Chicago, where they had friends in Lincoln Park, with its fine brick town houses and tree-lined streets. But in Hammond, it is only “freight trains, trucks, heavy winter skies. Yellow brick cocktail lounges dark through the doors, glass block windows so thick no light could get through” (314-315).
Twilight is fading as the train pulls into the Gostlin Street stop, and the narrator and her fiancée leave the station for the nearly empty streets of Hammond. On State Street, she points out to Jesse the lights of the downtown business district. Downtown Hammond was once the regional shopping district. When I started my series, the shift to suburban malls was already a fait accompli. Zacharias describes scenes like those I have photographed. The protagonist and her fiancé walk “past streetlights tatting the land cleared for renewal, [crossing a] bridge over some dark sludge” (317). In a tone of disappointment she points out to Jesse where the old public library had been replaced “by garden apartments strung over asphalt so like all the garden apartments I’d seen that pointing them out seemed hardly worthwhile” (318). Memories of past and the present moment weave through her mind. They walk across State Line to the former
notorious strip of Calumet City (Cal City), Illinois, once known for having more liquor licenses than any community in the country.
The narrator’s malaise mirrors the vacuity of Hammond’s post-industrial downtown. The story was published in 1992, and Zacharias’s descriptions of the area parallel what I saw when first photographing there. The character’s reflections about her hometown and her feelings of loss are similar to feelings I have had when photographing a rundown landmark. There are a handful of distinctive buildings remaining in downtown Hammond, but most of the gems are gone, or are in disrepair. The most dominant new building on State Street is a faux-colonial style mega Baptist Church, the husband and wife founders of which were for a time memorialized in a mural portrait painted on a wall of a church building facing a parking lot. I was fortunate to have made a photograph of it before it was unceremoniously painted over.
At the end of their evening, the narrator and her fiancée call a cab for home. Home is the house that she lived in for years, her parents’ before they retired to Florida, and now belonging to her steel worker brother. Sitting on the bed, “rubbing her fingers over the faded chenille [she’d] slept under for years and years …(looking) …at the icky blonde furniture that was so familiar … and the wall painted an imaginative pink instead of mint green as when I’d lived there…” she speaks to her fiancée “very casual like I’d never lived there at all. ‘I hate this house’” (323).
I have only a dim memory of the first house I lived in. It was a two-flat on Canal Street. Aptly named, the street paralleled the Cal-Sag Canal, the waterway linking Great Lakes shipping at the Port of Chicago and Lake Calumet to the Illinois River and eventually to the Mississippi River. I knew none of that as a young child, but I did know to stay away from the canal. My mother grew up on the opposite side of the canal, and she was determined to pass on to me the warnings she was told of the hobos and other dangers lurking along its banks. All that I saw were the barges moving in one direction or the other, and the Rock Island trains crossing the canal bridge. Later we moved to the house my parents had built on the north side of Blue Island, a mere block and a half from the city of Chicago. The small brick house on Artesian Avenue was the center of my world.
Five years after we moved to the Artesian Street house, my world suddenly expanded. It was a Saturday, August 27th, 1955. At 6:15 that morning, several miles to the east at the Standard Oil Refinery in Whiting, the overnight crew was performing their last duty before the end of their shift, to restart the 252 foot tall piece of equipment known as a hydroformer. It wasn’t a single error or breakdown, but a sequence of events that caused the massive explosion that ignited the fires engulfing acres of storage tanks which took eight days to extinguish. Tons of flaming debris pummeled the residential neighborhood adjoining the refinery. Nearby residents shaken out of their beds thought it was an atomic bomb explosion. Over fifteen hundred residents living near the refinery were evacuated. Firefighters were called in from Whiting, Hammond and East Chicago. They arrived to see burning oil on Indianapolis Boulevard.
Whiting is far enough east of Blue Island that I didn’t hear the explosion earlier that morning. But my friends and I did see the giant mushroom shaped cloud hovering in the eastern sky. I remember thinking it looked just like the mushroom shaped clouds of A-bomb blasts we’d seen in school movies and on television. These were the days of “duck and cover,” and it didn’t take much of an imagination for the thought of the atomic bomb to occur to us. That day was the first I heard of the town named Whiting, Indiana.
The memory of the Whiting refinery explosion stayed with me, and was the catalyst for the Calumet Region project. The first place I photographed was Whiting and the homes in the neighborhood adjacent to the refinery. Memory and place are a pervasive presence in my photographs, past and present informing my choice of subject matter. Photographers, working as I do, bear witness to what is before us; we are given to point out singular moments. Henry James expressed something similar when he wrote that it is “the prime business and the high honor of the painter of life always to make a sense—and to make it most in proportion as the immediate aspects are loose or confused.” Though the means and results differ, this is true of all artists working from life. James continues, “(T)he last thing decently permitted him is to recognize incoherence—to recognize it, that is, as baffling; though of course he may present and portray
it, in all richness, for incoherence” (172-173).
Steve Tesich was fifteen years old when he immigrated to East Chicago in 1957. Therefore, he couldn’t have witnessed the Whiting refinery explosion, but it’s fair to conclude it was a momentous enough event for him to have known about it and to use in Summer Crossing. Near the conclusion of the novel, Daniel and Rachel meet for the last time. Daniel is certain if he says just the right words to Rachel he can prevent her from leaving him. But the moment is cut short, as they are pulled away from each other by a tremor sweeping past them, and in the same instant they notice “the brilliant glow of light like a gigantic flash bulb exploding behind them.”
In the distance, over the flat roof of Kroger’s Supermarket, due east in the direction of the Sunrise Oil Company and Misiora’s home, I saw in place of that one flickering flag like flame the jagged outline of an enormous blaze. It was if a small mountain had suddenly been dropped down on the eastern horizon and set on fire (358).
In the haze of disorientation Daniel imagines, as did my friends and I, that maybe the Russians had finally started World War III—a circumstance he concludes, that if true, would certainly stop Rachel from leaving him. They walk toward the direction of the explosion and arrive at Railroad Avenue and 142nd Street, where they see the site where “two huge oil tanks had exploded and in their place were flames two or three times taller than the tanks had been” (358).
Daniel walks from the scene of the fire smelling of oil and smoke, and runs into Larry Misiora, who had left weeks ago without a word. Misiora is smiling, he’s in a bristling mood, and he tells Daniel that he started the fire. “I did it … I went and did it, Daniel.” At first, Daniel doubts his friend, but soon he realizes he is telling him the truth.
I kept trying to go away and stay away… This last time I went west. Got as far as Iowa and just couldn’t keep going. I kept seeing that Sunrise character, that smiling cartoon. And I knew, you see, I just knew that, when things go bad for me I’d go back. It would always be there, waiting for me to return. My place. My job. …Sooner of later I knew it would get me. And the thought of walking through those gates for the rest of my life, I tell you, it just made me crazy. So I did it. You might say I went and removed the temptation (363-64).
Summer Crossing concludes with the three high school friends going their separate ways. Misiora drives off in his car, to parts unknown. Paul Freund, after a summer working in the city parks, lands a union job, with assistance from his soon to be father-in-law, as a toll collector for the Indiana Toll Road. Daniel realizes the time has come for him to leave and he boards the train for New York City. He’s in a reflective mood as the train moves past his hometown, and he thinks to himself: “I lived all my life in East Chicago, and the New York Central rattled through it in less than five minutes” (373).
There’s an unspoken emotional divide in the literature of the Region, between those who leave and those who stay. These stories, as well as my photographs, were completed long after each of the authors left the region. Photographing in the Calumet, I was conscious of the present moment pressing upon the past, and vice versa. To use William Faulkner’s oft quoted line, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past” (92). The first photographs I made of houses in Whiting awakened in me strong feelings of familiarity. I flashed back to my childhood experience, the house on Artesian Street, of walking to school past houses like those I was now photographing.
The homes I photograph and admire the most are vernacular structures. They call to mind the homes of my childhood neighborhood. In appearance they speak less about style and the builder and more about the people who live in them. In the Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachleard expresses what is at the heart of my intention when photographing houses. “If we look at it intimately the humblest of dwelling has beauty” (4). The straight on, portrait like approach I employ, and the small 4x5 inch silver contact print extends emphasis to intimacy.
Bachelard is enamored with small woodcuts of houses, and expresses that “[T]he more simple the engraved house the more it fires my imagination as an inhabitant. Its lines have force and as a shelter, it is fortifying ...in skilled hands representational images of houses can become “insistent, inviting …no dreamer ever remains indifferent for a long time to a picture of a house” (50).
The houses I photograph are generally in working class neighborhoods, and often they are situated very near heavy industry. In these settings, intimacy becomes ennobling, and I see these dwellings in a different light, as Tom Joad figures standing firmly against a harsh
and prohibitive other. As Bachelard notes, “…everything comes alive when contradictions accumulate” (39).
One particular brick facade home on Schrage Avenue in Whiting was emblematic. More than any other single home, it spoke to me of domesticity in the midst of the industrial landscape. The house faced west, its backside to the refinery, a cared for lot and dead end street flanking its sides. The owners took fastidious care of the place, from the perfectly kept yard to the carefully patched driveway. A feature of the house was a Madonna statuette resting in a niche below the draped front windows. Later, it was moved to a garden spot
below the garage window. Over the years I have made a ritual of driving past the house. I was reassured seeing it, cared for, stout against the bleak refinery landscape. In early 2010, I met a journalist in Whiting for an interview about the Calumet book. Over coffee, our conversation came around to the importance of place in people’s lives. Like myself, this journalist was fascinated by the pride of place shown in the care in the residents’ homes, particularly noticeable in the Region’s industrial belt. He asked to see where I began the series and I led him to the house on Schrage Avenue. I made the turn to drive up to it, but there in front of me was an empty lot where the house should have been. Only after the journalist left did it sink in. I stood facing the vacant lot, my hands trembling, feeling that I had suddenly lost a dear friend. I walked closer to look for a fragment, but found no evidence the house had ever been there.
With every passing year, pieces of the Region’s distinctiveness disappear. The familiar is erased, covered over diminishing public memory. Yet even as the Region has changed, a visit there today puts me in two worlds: the place it is becoming, and the one of my childhood when three shifts comprised a routine day.
Memory of place is the connective tissue of these stories and photographs. Over the years of photographing in the Region, I was conscious that I too was telling a story, one connected to my own experiences, and simultaneously aimed at the arc of history reshaping the Region.
Adams, Robert. Why People Photograph. New York: Aperture Foundation, 1994.
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964.
Berger, John. Keeping a Rendezvous. New York: Vintage, 1992.
Cialdella, Gary. The Calumet Region: An American Place: Photographs by Gary Cialdella. Urbana: University of Illinois Press and Brauer Museum of Art at Valparaiso University, 2009.
Dybek, Stuart. I Sailed With Magellan, New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2003.
Eugenides, Jeffrey. Middlesex. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2002.
Faulkner, William. Requiem For A Nun. NY: Random House, 1950.
James, Henry. The American Scene. New York: Horizon Press, 1967.
Shepherd, Jean. In God We Trust – All Others Pay Cash. New York: Broadway Books, 1966.
Riecher, Anton. “Whiting, Indiana 1955”, Industrial Fire World, March, 2001.
Tesich, Steve. Summer Crossing. New York: Random House, 1982.
Zacharias, Lee. “Disaster,” The Rough Road Home: Stories by North Carolina Writers,
Ed. Robert Gingher, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992