I turn to my home county of Lake in the northwest corner of Indiana and a remarkable poem “Return to Boomtowns.” The poem evokes what it was like to grow up in Gary in the 1980s; its author Curtis L. Crisler, a Gary native, is now Assistant Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.
Gary, founded in 1906 by the U.S. Steel Corporation, early on was nicknamed “Magic City” and “City of the Century” for its dramatic esplanade and carefully platted, if segregated, neighborhoods. In the first quarter of the twentieth century, Gary garnered renown for its splendid downtown architecture and its public schools with their “work/play/study” philosophy of educating the whole child, developed by the city’s superintendent William A. Wirt, an idea adopted by education progressives in other cities. In the 1930s, the steel workers were unionized, and during and after World War II, the industry experienced a boom. Other industrialized nations had seen significant damage to their manufacturing sector during the war, and the postwar building boom increased the world demand for steel.
But Gary’s fortunes being tied to a single industry made the city vulnerable. As competition from foreign steelmakers increased and technological advances reduced the need for labor, Lake County lost 42.5% of its manufacturing jobs, largely in oil and steel, between 1979 and 1986, according to the Calumet Regional Archives of the Indiana University Northwest Library. White flight, predatory lending practices, job loss, and lower tax revenues meant a reduction in city services and a decline in public education. The crime rate soared.
Crisler’s poem performs crucial acts of translation for those who have never been to Gary, who perhaps have only seen it as a collage of stereotypes on the evening news. He literally describes Gary as a war zone—not to dismiss his home city but instead to build empathy for the place and its inhabitants. The poem opens with Crisler addressing his younger self:
You play in gray rubble like out some grisly German documentary where Hitler took land like peppermints; there’s no Audie Murphy kicking ass and taking names … no John Wayne as commander of fleet Flying Tigers, you don’t even know who or what is the Tuskegee Airmen…
The “grisly” German documentary, Hitler, Audie Murphy, John Wayne: Crisler is working by analogy here to evoke the texture of the city, comparing its losses to those suffered during World War II, though remote from the stylized Hollywood heroics of white icons like Murphy and Wayne. He’s setting up an alternative narrative of the city that incorporates the contributions of black Americans, such as the Tuskegee Airmen, who distinguished themselves in the Second World War for their low casualties and record of valor and success.
This boy-child playing in the ruins becomes an archaeologist, sifting through the rubble for “treasure” but also preserving an idiosyncratic archive of memory, overlooked by official accounts:
in the rubble you avoid touch of rich brick-rusty nails to sometimes find your treasure: a pen or a deflated basketball of some small girl’s half beige-faced Barbie…
He likens himself to a Polish survivor of “tanks squashing Warsaw,” a refugee from the Boer Wars and apartheid regime in South Africa. Most tellingly, he compares himself to Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the girl running naked in an infamous photo taken during the Vietnam War after being burned by napalm. Crisler captures both the horror of the experience and the way it was captured by “the exotic lens of a camera’s intrusiveness.” Implicitly, Crisler is calling attention to how often Gary has been airbrushed, edited, packaged and consumed by others.
This is why he chooses to end his poem from an insider’s perspective, showing his home, despite its bombed-out appearance, to be a place of joy and communal welcome:
This is your Gary, where hands grab at homecoming: brown soldiers, sizzling streets, airwaves thick from a Motor City.
Which brings me to the title. On one level, the title “Return to Boomtowns” is ironic—the current ghost town feel of Gary seems remote from the boom that gave rise to the city. On another, the title evokes the bombed-out landscape of war the poem movingly depicts. But Crisler also suggests the city’s ongoing liveliness and warmth in this near-empty landscape, particularly in the boom of Motown’s soul, R & B and hip-hop that ends the poem. Crisler has compared Gary to a father or mother: “We love our parents for all they are: their beautiful and their ugly, their ups and their downs. That is my Gary, from The Music Man to the Jacksons, from the mills to its poverty—always pushing to hope.”
“Return to Boomtowns” appears in Crisler’s book Pulling Scabs (Detroit: Willow Books, 2009).