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Sunday, 27 January, 2002, 14:02 GMT
Gary's steel town blues
Some former steelworkers must now rely on state assistance
Some former steelworkers must now rely on state assistance
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David Schepp
BBC News Online's North America Business Reporter

Gwen Williams was a lifelong employee at LTV Steel's north-west Indiana plant until the steel firm - the nation's third largest - sought to shut down its East Chicago plant in the waning days of 2001.

She says she hopes to find another clerical position like the one she had at LTV but realises it probably won't pay as well as her previous post.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," Ms Williams, 53, told BBC News Online.

Like many others in the communities of north-west Indiana, including Gary, Hammond as well as East Chicago, she now wants to take advantage of additional training offered through the state of Indiana's programme to assist workers in improving job skills.

Last week, for example, nearly 400 former LTV employees passed through the doors of the Hammond Civic Centre in one day, wanting to learn more about training opportunities and what to do next.

Massive layoffs

Of the 8,000 LTV employees who lost their jobs, many of the 3,600 laid off from the East Chicago plant live in the communities of north-west Indiana, located within Lake and Porter counties.

US Steel plant at Gary, Indiana
Gary refers to itself as 'Steel City'
As with many heavily industrialised areas, these counties have already endured hard times in the 1980s.

Then, Indiana's steel plants underwent massive change during the Reagan Era to cope with increased competition from imports, laying off half of the 70,000 employees who worked in the steel plants here.

A total 55,000 jobs were lost across all industries, devastating communities and families.

"In the '80s," says Dennis Terry of the city of Hammond, "this was a very depressing place."

'Steel City'

To the casual observer, it may still seem a depressing place: Plywood-boarded storefronts along main streets and dilapidated homes dominate Gary's landscape.

What are we going to do with that land?

Kimberly Julkes
city planner
Nevertheless, the area still remains the nation's number one steel-making region, according to Census Bureau figures, employing about 24,000 within the industry.

It is for this reason Gary, with its huge US Steel Gary Works plant - along with other, smaller steel firms - still refers to itself as "Steel City".

A century ago, planners in Chicago encouraged development in this corner of Indiana for several reasons, not the least of which was the desire not to have heavy industry - and its pollution - along Chicago's pristine shoreline with Lake Michigan.

Premier destination

Instead, they promoted the idea of having industry developed on the lake's banks 20 miles south and east of the city, where prevailing winds would carry smokestack waste eastward.

Close proximity to miles of railroads and easily accessible natural resources also aided in making north-west Indiana the premier choice for steel making and oil refining.

Following World War II, the south Chicago and north-west Indiana area was the single largest heavy-industrial complex in the world.

The sheer immensity of heavy industry located on this chunk of Midwestern soil is awe-inspiring.

Situated along marshy fields and landfill, from the Illinois border to a dozen miles east, northwest Indiana's pancake-flat landscape is littered with steel mills, oil refineries, petrochemical plants and tank farms.

The LTV conundrum

While north-west Indiana has seen a massive downsizing of that industrial base, LTV's decision to shut down represents the first major steel-plant closing in the region.

Previously, the region had known only the havoc that massive layoffs can cause as its largest steel employers, including US Steel, Inland Steel, National Steel, Bethlehem Steel and LTV, cut the number of employees as they sought to modernise mills and maximise profits.

Now, however, with LTV shutting up shop, the spectre of what to do about plant closings haunts the people of north-west Indiana.

"What are we going to do with that land," says exasperated East Chicago city planner Kimberly Julkes.

When viewing a zoning map of East Chicago, it would appear that much of the city's area remains undeveloped. Closer inspection, however, reveals East Chicago has many dormant industrial areas and other land parcels that cannot be developed.

Dupont, the large chemical manufacturer, for example, owns a large parcel of undeveloped land on East Chicago's south side. Frustrated city officials, however, are not able to do anything with it because Dupont refuses to sell or even lease any portion of it.

Also, in trying to lure new industry into the area, local officials here face a dilemma of not only what to do with old steel plants but finding ways to use heavily polluted sections of land surrounding such plants.

Riverboat gambling

As bad as things are in Gary, Hammond and East Chicago, folks here will tell you this latest downturn in the steel industry is not as bad as it was 20 years ago, and people are taking it in their stride.

Lamp post
Gaming revenues have resulted in street improvements
Officials of all three towns point to tax money derived from "riverboat gambling" as one reason things are not as bad as they could be.

As part of an agreement to let big-name casinos such as Harrah's and Trump operate in the Lake Michigan harbour, the three cities received a one-time payment that went toward replacing sidewalks and lamp posts, and other sorely needed civic improvements.

The recent job cuts at LTV threaten further use of that money in improving city infrastructure as the cities will have to devote more resources toward food banks and other assistance for unemployed workers.

Changing landscape

Gary, East Chicago and Hammond each suffered population declines during the 1990s, with Gary losing the most - nearly 14,000 residents.

Meanwhile, towns south of them, such as Merrillville and Schererville, have made massive gains in population as affluent Illinoisans sought out cheaper housing than what was available in pricey Chicago suburbs.

It is a story that is being played out all over America, where older, less desirable communities are losing residents and businesses to newer, affluent towns who focus more on retail than industry.

Nevertheless, no one expects Gary or East Chicago or Hammond to cease being the industrial dynamos that put them on the map.

The dilemma - just as it is for Gwen Williams - is what to do next.

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