Page last updated at 11:01 GMT, Saturday, 30 October 2010 12:01 UK

Decaying US city proves hard to turn around

As America's ailing economy comes under scrutiny ahead of Tuesday's mid-term elections, Paul Mason visits the largely African-American city of Gary, Indiana, and finds that President Obama's fiscal stimulus package is perceived as a failure.

I had been to Gary, Indiana before. To do the standard thing reporters do in this wrecked and poverty-stricken city - tell the story of its decline.

When I came here in March 2009, the mayor had told me: "With the air of the fiscal stimulus beneath our wings, Gary will soar like an eagle and make our country proud."

The short summary of why this has not been the case is that Gary's problems are too deep. Indiana state has pegged most of the money to one-off projects.

The American system, at all levels of government, finds it very hard actually to spend money effectively, or quickly.

In the process of finding this out, I had to clamber through all kinds of wreckage from the 20th Century.

Gary College lies abandoned
Gary College is one of many buildings in the city which lie derelict

Downtown Gary is a Mecca for urban explorers, not to mention salvage dealers. Much of it is ruined.

The church, the lecture theatre, the post office opened by Henry Morgenthau in 1936, the Palace Theatre with its Moroccan art deco interior - all ramshackle but still standing - and open to the elements and to inquisitive journalists with torches.

There is the school out of which white students walked in 1945 when asked to share a swimming pool with black students.

There is the auditorium where Frank Sinatra stood on the day he came to tell those students that their strike was shameful.

This is where he offered to fight anybody in the room and where he sang the anti-racist song that saw him targeted as a communist sympathiser during the McCarthyite purge of Hollywood.

The past is all around you in Gary - far more vividly than in the ordinary, played-out, post-industrial town.

Street survival

I wondered - what is it like to grow up here now?

We can sing like Pavarotti but if we do not have education, we have nothing
Performing arts school pupil

At the Emerson-Wirt Academy, a public high school specialising in performance arts, I met students from areas the principal described as "gang-infested".

They calmly listed the elite colleges they were about to apply for - the Julliard School, Berklee in Boston, the traditionally black Howard University in Washington DC.

They displayed a cold determination to go beyond the typical escape routes from a place like Gary, which are the sports field or the stage.

They wanted to be lawyers, doctors, presidents.

"We can sing like Pavarotti," one told me, "but if we do not have education, we have nothing."

As the bell rang for the end of lessons I saw them pulling at their pristine uniform - tugging shirts out of trousers, loosening belts to make their trousers droop.

The principal, who had spent the whole afternoon ordering them to smarten up, noticed my confusion and smiled.

"We tell them: do what you have to do to get home safely. On the streets, be how you have to be to survive."

Gary exists because the boss of US Steel in 1906 put his finger on a map where the railway lines converged and decided to build a town there. His name was Gary.

Archive picture of a parade float
Founded in 1906, Gary was once known as "City of the Century"

You can tell even now that life was good for the workers in Gary in its heyday, despite the segregation and hard work.

Most of the houses are detached bungalows with porches and gardens. Many stand derelict - but you can see they were good once.

What has gone wrong here has much more to do with the big, historic challenges facing America than a mere recession or banking crisis.

The question Gary poses is one we will all wrestle with in the West at some point: how do you manage historic decline?

American dystopia

Researching the history of these buildings I have climbed into, there is always a horrible moment sometime in the 60s or 70s.

Somebody gets stabbed in the back row of the art deco cinema and it closes down; somebody's scheme to renovate the art nouveau apartment block goes bust.

What is inspiring, despite all this, is how resilient the community remains.

When you meet Gary's people, they have recognisably the culture of a factory city. Everybody seems to know each other.

If I read one more scene of the last survivor crawling across a blackened landscape, I will be sick
American theatre director

Even the cops striding around in their Kevlar at night, in the middle of some routine mayhem on the streets, will turn to a juvenile at the edge of the crowd and say: "Hey - your grandma out of hospital yet?"

But the question remains what happens to places like this in the long term.

I am told the in-trays of American theatre directors are groaning with scripts set in an apocalyptic future, in which America has collapsed.

"If I read one more scene of the last survivor crawling across a blackened landscape, I will be sick," one told me.

But Armageddon, apocalypse and decline do haunt the American consciousness after a decade that began with 9/11 and ended with Lehman Brothers.

Maybe Gary's future will be as a film set for all these dystopias. I hope not.

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