By Julie L. Moore
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi / Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand; / A shape with lion body and the head of a man . . .
~William B. Yeats
This past summer, my longtime friend and I decided to celebrate her retirement from the Ontario Fire Department by vacationing together for a week, reliving our college years as roommates and exploring new territory. So, she drove to my northeastern Indiana home, then we traveled across the state to vacation at the sand dunes along the shores of Lake Michigan, a place where, we discovered, sand and steel are oddly juxtaposed at the water’s edge.
On our way, butterweed, ironweed, chicory, and tall grasses populated Indiana fields. Usually, by then, we Midwesterners see the typical corn and soybean leaves emerging from their stalks and stems, yielding row after straight row of green. The motley plants that early-June day, however colorful they were, represented a spring overwhelmed by rain. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in fact, that May had been the second-wettest month on record. Ominous, the weeds likewise suggested farmers may not get their fields planted, weeks delayed as they were, forecasting, therefore, deep financial woes.
In short, the fields seemed empty of promise.
Arriving at our Airbnb at Miller Beach, in the northeast corner of Gary, Indiana, I realized something else was going to be empty—my driver’s side tire. I’d run over a dozen potholes on the deteriorating roads and, as it turned out, a nail. Soon enough, I got the necessary repairs, but the sense that Hoosier fields and streets alike threatened loss remained with me, even though we had landed at a popular vacation destination.
In fact, Indiana Dunes State and National Parks attract almost as many visitors per year as Yellowstone. Carl Sandburg noted that the “Dunes are to the Midwest what the Grand Canyon is to Arizona and the Yosemite to California. They constitute a signature of time and eternity; once lost, the loss would be irrevocable.”
And the national park is new: After years of lobbying, the Dunes National Lakeshore became the 61st National Park on February 15, 2019. Tourists add $350 million each year to the local economy, thereby supplying nearly 5,000 jobs in Porter County where the dunes exist. Formed between receding ice and the Valparaiso Moraine, pro-glacial lakes helped create the dunes 15,000 years ago. There, the soil in the Calumet Lacustrine Plain is composed of ancient Lake Chicago’s sentiment: a mix of clay, sand, and silt deposits we were eager to explore.
In 1901, amid these natural wonders, Elbert Henry Gary, a lawyer and judge, located his steel corporation. Working with the who’s who of American industrialists—J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and Charles M. Schwab—Gary helped found U.S. Steel. In 1906, Gary built his eponymous city, the perfect place because of its proximity to Chicago and access to the lake. It became not only the location for the largest integrated steel mill in the Northern Hemisphere, but also the subject of the song in Music Man—con man Harold Hill’s hometown, the “one place” that could “light [his] face,” the same song my friend and I often broke out in as we drove the Dunes Highway.
And no wonder. U.S. Steel was the first-ever billion-dollar corporation in the country. Early on, it survived both the 1919 steel strike and Roosevelt’s attacks, winning a Supreme Court decision confirming it was not a monopoly. The corporation later recognized the United Steel Workers Union and made Gary synonymous with American ingenuity and wealth.
Surrounded by rails that transport everything from raw materials to finished product, the plant was close to our rental house. It was so metallic—yet dingy and dark—I was momentarily disoriented several times, thinking I’d somehow been transported to the industrial sections of Philadelphia, which I’d seen many times during my South Jersey youth, or Pittsburgh, a place I now see often when I visit family.
Smoke surged from the stacks, a swell like a high tide that never stops. With its four blast furnaces, three Basic Oxygen Processing (BOP) vessels, and three Q-BOP vessels, the plant is enormous. (The difference between BOP and Q-BOP vessels depends on where oxygen is blown in—at three times the speed of sound, no less—either through the top or through the bottom. Between them, the BOP and the Q-BOP shops produce 23,500 tons of steel per day).
The grueling process followed here forces the obdurate iron ore to let go of its impurities and transform into malleable, serviceable steel. It’s nothing new. Though the machinery has changed, the process has been around since the Bronze Age.
All it takes is ore, high heat, and crucible.
Gary, Morgan, Carnegie, and Schwab just made more of it. A lot more. And in so doing, U.S. Steel’s Gary Works attracted plentiful, yet cheap, labor. Eastern European immigrants fleeing tyranny—including Russians, Poles, and Hungarians—needed the work. During The Great Migration, African Americans, refugees from southern terror, needed it, too, as they reached for the ever-elusive American dream.
But Gary had built his house on sand.
Just a few miles from the plant, beaches extend north, their sand often beautiful—not like the Jersey shore I frequented in my youth with its broken shells, washed-up seaweed, and occasional fleas—but smooth underfoot, and gleaming beneath the Midwestern sun, as if the freshwater had cleaned and softened it. The days we spent there were quiet. It was early in the season, beaches small.
That sand is composed of quartz and silica that remained after the glaciers, and the rangers say it sings when one walks on it. I didn’t hear any tune rising from beneath my feet as I crossed the beaches or climbed the dunes, but then again, the squawking of seagulls and my own heavy breathing may have drowned out whatever music I was supposed to hear.
The sand dunes here are known as the U.S.’s birthplace of ecology. Henry C. Cowles, a botanist at the University of Chicago, published an important paper on the area’s plant succession in 1899, the first of its kind in our country. Students and colleagues of Cowles followed in his footsteps, and the science on this shore enhanced the ecological studies begun in Sweden and Germany.
Endearing themselves to locals and tourists alike, each dune has its own name. In the state park, Mt. Tom, Mt. Holden, and Mt. Jackson, which are commonly referred to as “The Tremonts,” compose the park’s popular hike known as “The Three Dune Challenge.” Mt. Tom is the tallest at 192 feet. When we hiked that trail, we noted all the marram grass, with its intricate and extensive root systems holding the dunes together. I was glad to let my friend lead us, figuring her stamina far surpassed mine because of her years of firefighting and Hazmat work.
Yet, navigating sand in sneakers is a slow, clumsy, and difficult process, so we both experienced plenty of burning in our calves. When she exclaimed, “Whose stupid idea was this?” I felt better about my out-of-shape, fifty-something body. Once we summited, though, we caught magnificent views of the lake and Chicago. In the sunshine, it was hot at the top, but the lake shone a sapphire blue, its waves as busy as an ocean’s, yielding breezes that dried the sweat on our brows.
In the national park, Mt. Baldy drifts, migrating four to 10 feet per year. At 126 feet, it’s a “blow out”: no marram grass exists atop. It truly is bald, and it’s at the wind’s beck and call. It has already swallowed a parking lot.
And a little boy.
The park ranger who led us on the only safe (and much easier) path up Mt. Baldy told us the harrowing story. One summer day in 2013, two families vacationing together raced up the side of the dune, like the thousands of Hoosiers had done the past century. It’d been a childhood rite of passage: the grueling climb up, the gleeful sprint down.
Amid his awkward jog up, Nathan, one family’s six-year-old son, saw a hole in the dune. So, he did what a curious boy does: he looked inside. All the way inside with his body. He couldn’t get out.
Nathan’s friend Colin saw it happen. He called to the parents for help. It took workers over three hours to rescue Nathan. It took a scientist studying the dunes another year or two to figure out how a sand dune could have a hole in it.
That same summer, I had a house to repair. A polar vortex during the winter months produced temperatures that felt like 40 degrees below zero, thanks to 40 mile-per-hour winds. In the kitchen, my ceiling separated from the drywall and rose half an inch, as though a gigantic creature’s hand had tugged on my trusses. A window on the west side of my house had broken, its cracks stretching across the entire pane like a spider web. And every doorway in the house developed diagonal fissures that crawled up from the corner of each frame.
It was as though the house had heaved in the wind, lifting itself just enough to shake things up, but not enough to convince an insurance adjustor weather was the cause. I admit I thought about the House of Usher and a possible haunting, like Madeline wandering the passageways, tearing at the walls. Some such chaos was clearly afoot.
It didn’t help any when I climbed to the attic with a contractor to examine the architecture and discovered all the bulbs had burned out. Though the builder said he could use his phone’s flashlight, I descended the pull-down steps into the garage, grabbed new lightbulbs, and carried them back up.
My efforts proved illuminating. The contractor could see more, including more he thought to be wrong. But he was a little confused as to the layout of the house up there. It’s easy to lose all sense of direction when you can’t follow a blueprint or view the rooms below.
After I installed the last bulb, he asked, “Where in the house are we now?”
Before I could answer, I slipped off a rafter and onto the ceiling board below, which immediately gave way. With one leg dangling below and the other caught in the rafter, my arms between beams and boards, I felt pain pulsing in my shoulder, back, arms, and legs. I could not move.
But I could see. “My dining room! I’m right above my table!”
There also was my Retriever, Katniss, nose deep in the cellulose insulation that’d blizzarded onto the floor in a curiously neat pile.
I’d put a hole in my ceiling. One I was rescued from, thanks in no small part to the contractor’s strength. But a huge, gaping hole nonetheless.
I hadn’t even hired him yet, and already he was acting like Androcles in the Aesop’s fable. Of course, physically, I was no lion. But the guy pulling me up was like the hero pulling the thorn out of the big cat’s paw. What a relief. I could breathe again.
I went inside the house to bag the insulation, so Katniss wouldn’t eat any. I looked up at the aperture—sheet rock split in two, each piece dangling from its tenuous hold, cellulose floating down like flurries then, and the clearly visible rafters above.
I was trying to make things better and I was only making things worse. The road to hell, my Catholic graduate professor, who loved the psychology in Henry James’s stories as much as my dog loves her bone, is paved with good intentions.
I think of Nathan, who was likely just curious about that hole in the dune, maybe leading to China, in an honest, though naïve, inquisitiveness. He never considered that the hole led into the abyss.
Gary, Indiana is also the place where Tatiana, one of my students that previous school year, hailed from—the place, she reminded me, where Michael Jackson was born. Jackson’s album Thriller is, of course, the best-selling album of all time, with over 47 million copies bought worldwide to date. Its eponymous song is also the one I learned by heart my senior year of high school, the video my friends and I watched ad infinitum on cable’s fledgling MTV.
Reporters and biographers alike have paid much attention to the abuse Jackson endured at the hands of his father, Joe Jackson, but once I was walking around Gary, I wondered why they don’t say much about the city’s influence on his oeuvre. After all, Michael Jackson spent the first decade of his life there before his family moved to California.
A native of Arkansas with both African American and Native American heritage, Joe Jackson was training to become a boxer when he moved to East Chicago at 18. After he met and married Katherine Scruse, however, they moved to Gary, and he gave up his dream to support his burgeoning family.
During that time, yes, Joe Jackson did music gigs on the side, but his career was forged in steel. He reported for duty daily at East Chicago’s Inland Steel, a part of U.S. Steel, as a crane operator. And that means, rather than donning boxing gloves in a ring or commanding a stage before sell-out crowds, he spent his days carrying a cauldron of molten iron, then pouring it into a BOP vessel as sparks, like fireflies, flew into the air.
What might have happened if Joe Jackson could have released whatever anger and fear he felt, or seized whatever power and control he desired, through his athletic abilities? What hardened within him as he drove the crane, steering it forward and back, raising and lowering heavy loads, condemned to repeat the same motions every day? Did his heart fester like a sore, as Langston Hughes might ask? Did it explode, one child at a time, through the hand that held the whip, through the tongue that ridiculed the son? Did Gary, Indiana swallow his soul whole?
Tatiana had spent the first 18 years of her life there, until the scholarship she’d landed transported her to the conservative, predominately white, evangelical university a couple of hours east where I taught. She told me she experienced culture shock when she arrived on campus: having lived in an all-black neighborhood and attended a predominately black school, she didn’t feel safe in the halls she found herself walking down. She didn’t know what ghouls of bigotry might be roaming those white-hallowed halls. After all, she was neither naïve nor ignorant; she knew how whiteness seeks its own profit, how dreams get deferred, how a city, or a soul, can be abandoned.
The city of Gary, her city, like stubborn sand, had gotten under her fingernails to stay.
How fitting then is The Jackson 5’s first single, “Big Boy,” produced by Steeltown Records in Gary. Although most of the song focuses on cotton candy pop’s typical theme of young love, the first verse is all Gary:
Fairy tales, fairy tales
I don't enjoy
Fairy tales, and wishful dreams
Are broken toys
The park ranger told us that to the north of Mt. Baldy another migrating dune used to exist: Hoosier Slide. It once was the tallest dune in the state and a popular destination for climbing, picnicking, and yes, sliding down (no sled necessary!). Yet, it became an annoyance as it ate up territory and encroached on Michigan City.
Thus, near the turn of the last century—before and after—men with shovels and machinery came to remove the sand. It took 25 years. The Ball Jar company used that sand to make their famous—and now-antique—blue jars. By 1920, Hoosier Slide, the state’s most famous landmark, was gone.
The cooling tower for the NIPSCO power plant now stands in place of Hoosier Slide. Though it looks like a nuclear cooling tower, the energy company fires gas and coal. So, with U.S. Steel to the south and NIPSO to the north, the dunes are bordered by rails and concrete, coal and smoke.
Just north of them all is an area called Long Beach. When my friend and I later took a cruise there, we learned that this coastal real estate is the most expensive in the entire Midwest. A three-story, modern house built by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, John Lloyd, quietly sits there, concealed, in large part, by a giant pine tree. Joe Biden’s son owns a home there. Another house—an immense ranch—was Al Capone’s residence, complete with two miles of tunnels that reportedly still exist, at least according to one of the cruise guides who said he was in the house recently for a construction project.
Owners are plagued by beach erosion, losing $29,000 for every square foot of sand dragged back into the lake. Since the lake has frozen over five years in a row and just keeps rising, they’re losing a lot of sand.
Each property is metamorphosing into a money pit, not unlike Gary’s transformation. The city that Harold Hill called his “home sweet home” was really just a toy bound to break, a ceiling destined to fall.
“Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” Martin Luther King, Jr. once proclaimed. “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”
And this, indeed, is Gary’s reality, which was never built on equal footing. It’s this country’s reality, too. Tatiana’s reality. My reality.
Much of Gary’s African American population, for instance, still finds the American dream out of reach, the great migration having led them straight into a cruel, Jim Crow joke. After all, in Indiana, KKK rolls swelled in the 1920s, outnumbering every state in the union. Lynchings happened, too, including the one in Marion, just ten minutes from where Tatiana and I met for class during the spring semester. A now-infamous photo of that atrocity depicts white Hoosiers, including a pregnant woman and children, standing in front of and pointing to the “strange fruit” swaying on the Maple limbs bearing “blood on the leaves, blood on the root,” as the haunting song by Billie Holiday goes. Local legend says Abel Meeropol wrote the lyrics to that song after viewing that very photograph, which made its way around the country and surely, to Gary.
African Americans had hoped for something better than such northern aggression. Likewise, they didn’t expect to face redlining in the cities to which they fled. Well established now is the fact that government-sanctioned bank policies were racist; the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), both birthed during FDR’s presidency, denied loans to African Americans and other non-white populations en masse. The process was intentional and insidious. They developed a rating system that evaluated neighborhoods by placing them in one of four categories. At the top were neighborhoods deemed “highly desirable” for loans; those neighborhoods were all-white. At the bottom were the neighborhoods “to be avoided” because, as HOLC policy stated, the “threat of infiltration of foreign-born, negro, or lower grade population” was highest there. They drew red lines around those. As a result, although 60% of houses bought between the 1930s and 1950s were FHA-financed, non-white homebuyers received less than 2% of such loans. This oppression joined forces with the freedom white workers enjoyed to flee the city and populate the suburbs, thanks to the incentivized loans they could get for Levittown-like developments.
While these phenomena continued, U.S. Steel experienced the woes of international competition and restructuring, shrinking from 30,000 to 6,000 employees in the 1960s and 1970s. It now employs only 5,100. As a result, the number of residents in Gary has plummeted by more than 100,000, leaving a third of houses vacant. Other companies have now moved from the city to the suburbs, depleting Gary of employers.
Consequently, Gary suffers from the concurrent plights of disinvestment and unemployment. Gary has a plethora of employees without employers, families who can’t make ends meet—on the unstable, low-wage jobs that are available. This condition exists, too, because the federal and state governments haven’t responded to the problem with sufficient investment.
And so, African Americans find themselves in a hole they didn’t dig, as poverty weighs them down like gravity. African Americans now compose 81% of Gary’s total population. Whereas the per capita income in the U.S. amounts to $31,177 per year, that income for a Gary resident is only $17,292 (based upon 2010 Census data). Furthermore, the US median income is $57,652 per year, while the median income in Gary is only $29,293.
It’s a familiar Rust Belt tune, to be sure, but one with a heavy blues rhythm.
Tatiana knew the tune all too well and chose to write her research paper in my class on the empty promises of gentrification in Chicago, a phenomenon most of my white students had never heard of. Tatiana, of course, knows them intimately, as their shadows fall upon the very neighborhoods her friends and relatives once lived in, the ones they can no longer afford.
I, too, sense those shadows. And I can hear the city’s voices rise above the pollution there, singing along with Albert King, “Born under a bad sign, been down since I began to crawl. / If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.”
I hum that song, contemplate its sentiment, as I sit at my dining room table looking at my saltshaker. Legend has it, if I knock it over like da Vinci depicted Judas doing, I betray the salt: I am the traitor, bad luck will ensue.
But if I grab a pinch of salt and throw it over my shoulder, why, I hit the devil square in the eyes, stop him in his tracks as he rubs them and cries, salt being like sand, and as incorrigible. Then I bring myself good luck.
If only it were so easy.
Tatiana once asked me if my white students “pushed back” on the anti-racist readings I assigned in class—the ones she told me made her feel “seen.” Before I could respond, she read my facial expression, my eyes: “Oh, they do. I knew they must. Some of them can’t handle the truth, can they?”
Because of course, it’s not about dumb luck.
The park ranger let my friend and me know that Erin Argyilan, the scientist on Mt. Baldy the day Nathan lowered himself into that opening, was so incredulous he’d even found a hole that she left the area as the excavation continued. She believed Nathan had played a trick and was hiding somewhere. She was sure he’d reveal himself soon enough.
Because piles of sand don’t have cavities or air pockets or tunnels. Sand doesn’t work like that. She was certain.
Argylian was also wrong. Although the hole Nathan dropped into was a mere foot wide, rescuers had to go twelve feet deep and fifty feet across to get him. The great diameter was necessary to prevent more sand from falling into the orifice.
Like a farmer who falls into a silo filled with corn, Nathan should’ve suffocated quickly. Instead, workers raised him, alive, after several hours and hundreds of prayers. Once his vital signs returned to normal and the sand was pumped out of his lungs, he was no worse for the wear. It was dubbed a miracle.
Turns out, Mt. Baldy’s wandering ways were to blame. As the sand blows, it covers up trees. Some are Cottonwoods that somehow stay alive, though buried—a Poesque nightmare, if ever there was one. But others are the Black Oaks common to the region. Those trees die, as they cannot get either the sunlight or the water they require. And their deaths, of course, mean decomposition. That process causes fungi to grow that cements the sand around the trees’ shapes, impressions that remain. Each trunk is tall, and a void is left behind, big enough for a body. The tree branches leave behind solid impressions too—tributaries without water, furrows without flesh.
An empty tomb.
The ranger then held up a map showing us the EPA’s results of radar scans they conducted after Nathan’s near-tragic mistake: sixty-six anomalies, red dots, bedeck the lakeshore edge of Mt. Baldy’s head. The anomalies could be other holes. As she pointed to each one, we spied a family—a mom, a dad, two kids, and their dog—walking along the same area of the dune.
The ranger’s face grew tight, her jaw tense. I asked, “Aren’t those people on those dots?”
When the family approached, she greeted them with a warning: “You cannot walk there. It is dangerous. It’s why it’s roped off.”
The father replied, “Oh, I used to come here all the time as a kid. We always came up the dune that way and walked across.”
The ranger persisted. “Everyone says that. But you have to understand: a boy fell in the dune a few years ago. We’re trying to get the word out. We’re going to lose someone if people keep doing what you did. I fear it. That boy survived but barely.”
The parents seemed dubious of the story. In his eyes, I saw the dad’s memories running on their nostalgic reel: the thrill of the steep hike, the reward of the run.
Still today, I bet, as I sit beneath my gaping ceiling, reading about a four-year-old boy from Gary drowning yesterday in a lake near his home, that man is sure the surface is strong and will hold.