Indiana 1st District
At the southernmost shore of Lake Michigan is a part of America made by steel. Here, in the northwest corner of Indiana, where the water highway of the Great Lakes comes closest to the rail highway of the transcontinental railroads, America’s leading capitalists of a century ago identified an ideal site for manufacturing steel. On empty sand dunes, United States Steel, then the nation’s largest corporation, founded Gary in 1906 and named it for the company’s chairman, Chicago Judge Elbert Gary. For nearly 70 years, the steel mills attracted a diverse workforce, more like Chicago than the rest of Indiana: Irish, Poles, Czechs, Ukrainians, and blacks from the South. Politics here has always been turbulent, from the long and unsuccessful steel strike of 1919 to the racially polarized politics of the 1960s and 1970s. The city has been the setting for other historical events: It is the birthplace of the late pop star Michael Jackson and lent its name to a famous tune in the Broadway musical The Music Man. But the tone of public life—the clash between union stewards and management foremen, between African-Americans and Eastern European ethnics, between the stalwarts of different factions vying for control of Gary’s massive City Hall—was always abrasive, like the clash of steel on steel.
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Steel brought sudden growth and sudden depression to northwest Indiana. The massive storefronts built on Gary’s aptly named Broadway bear witness to the confidence and exuberance of the 1920s. Today they stand vacant—vandalized, whole blocks burned down—witness to steel layoffs, crime waves, and an acute sense of loss. The steel mills went cold during the Depression of the 1930s, but were again thronged with workers during World War II, and in the years afterward, their massiveness helped create the illusion that a robust economic life in the steel towns of Gary, Hammond, and East Chicago would last forever. But technological advances replaced increasingly expensive workers with increasingly efficient machines. And the efforts to seal off the U.S. steel market from the world inevitably failed. The oil crunch of 1979 was the catalyst for change, reducing the demand for large-sized autos, the biggest customer for steel. Steel employed 70,000 workers in northwest Indiana in 1979, 35,000 a few years later, and 18,500 in 2007. But with the average pay-and-benefits package exceeding $81,000 a year, the industry remains vital to the local economy. Obsolete mills were closed, old mills modernized, and new ones built that cut the number of man-hours needed by two-thirds. Just-in-time methods were introduced, and management and highly skilled workers cooperated to engineer higher-quality, less-expensive steel to meet market demands. In recent years, Indiana has been the No. 1 or No. 2 steel-producing state. In 2005, U.S. Steel announced a $260 million project to modernize its largest blast furnace in Gary. But the Environmental Protection Agency in 2007 blocked a permit for the facility, based on the amount of pollution that the mill would likely dump into the Grand Calumet River.
As the steel industry was shifting and changing, Gary was falling almost into ruins. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz in 2006 said the city was saddled with “the same problems facing less developed countries.” In 1967, Gary elected a black mayor, Richard Hatcher, who was determined to use city government to cure poverty. But high crime rates gave Gary the distinction for many years as the “murder capital” of the country, with the most homicides per capita. White flight to the suburbs ensued, and the city’s population steadily fell, from a peak of 178,000 in 1960 to 97,000 in 2007. In nearby majority-white Hammond, with many Hispanic immigrants, the population loss was not as dramatic. Local officials tried to promote the city’s airport as a third Chicago-area airport, with only limited success. Since Hooters Air suspended operations in January 2006, the airport has had no regularly scheduled passenger service, although Chicago-based Boeing has parked its private-jet fleet at the airport. (In his presidential campaign, Barack Obama used the airport several times for his charter flights.) Like other economically desperate cities in the Midwest, such as East St. Louis, Gary has come to rely on gambling for tax income. It has two riverboat casinos.
Indiana’s 1st Congressional District stretches from Gary and Hammond along the Lake Michigan shoreline, east almost to Michigan City. It includes Lake County, which was 25% African-American and 12% Hispanic in 2000, and Porter County to the east. In Porter is the city of Valparaiso, known locally as Valpo, notable for its annual Popcorn Festivals honoring longtime resident and developer of 300 popcorn hybrids Orville Redenbacher. The district includes three small Republican-leaning counties south of Gary, but nearly three-quarters of the population is in Lake County. This remains the most Democratic district in politically balanced Indiana, as it has been since the United Steelworkers’ organizing drives of the late 1930s. In 2005, a nationwide research study ranked Gary as the second-most-liberal city in the nation, after Detroit.