I was born in Gary, Indiana, the city hosting the biggest steel manufacturer in the US. Now I live in Wollongong, the home of Australia’s largest steelworks. So I’ve moved from one steel town to another. There are several similarities between these two cities, and some striking differences.
Gary is located on the shores of Lake Michigan, a huge inland lake, while Wollongong is adjacent to the Pacific Ocean.
In the mid 1900s, they each had about the same population, 200,000. The steelworks attracted large numbers of immigrant workers, mainly from Europe. At their peak, each of these two steelworks employed more than 20,000 workers but, following downsizing in the 1980s and technological advances, this number in each city is now less than 5000. Gary is not far from Chicago, one of the largest cities in the US, and Wollongong is not far from Sydney, Australia’s largest city. On the down side, both Gary and Wollongong have suffered from political corruption, and each city has significant areas of social disadvantage.
So much for similarities. The differences are striking and revealing. I’ll first tell about Gary and then Wollongong.
I lived in Gary only for my first year of life and have no memories of the city, so I’ve relied on treatments by others, including the books Big Steel by Edward Greer and Lost Gary Indiana by Jerry Davich. My mother, who worked in the Gary steel mill during World War II, has told me various stories.
Gary was created as a steel town in 1906, and was for years a shining example of enlightened civic enterprise. This was reflected in the architecture, with impressive buildings, including schools, churches, railway station, apartment blocks and theatres. However, this illustrious beginning eventually came to dust.
Many blacks came to Gary for jobs in the steelworks. However, they faced serious discrimination, and most were restricted to living in less affluent parts of town. The racial polarisation was highlighted when a young black candidate, Richard Hatcher, ran for mayor in the 1967. The opposition of the white-dominated political establishment was extreme. Hatcher sought nomination by the Democratic Party, which controlled Gary’s politics: whoever was the Democrat’s candidate was assured of winning the general election.
The Democrat party machine used every possible means to oppose Hatcher. I can’t resist quoting a few details about this extraordinary campaign.
“Attempts by Hatcher’s white supporters to distribute their campaign literature in white neighborhoods were met by so many individual acts of violence that it was necessary to suspend the effort. It even became necessary to provide armed guards to protect the homes of his most publicly prominent white supporters.” (Big Steel, p. 43)
After Hatcher won the nomination, the Democrat party machine then refused to support him at the election, instead openly supporting the Republican candidate and using various methods of voter fraud. Hatcher was a threat to the machine’s control.
“Moreover, the machine was able to see to it – and did – that on election day numerous voting machines in the black precincts were ‘out of order.’ Hatcher’s organization prepared for this eventuality by hiring on its own over a dozen voting machine mechanics from nearby Chicago to be on hand on election day to fix broken machines. … And Gary police officers, who stood in front of polling booths in black neighborhoods to prevent their opening, were driven away by armed gangsters from outside the city hired by unknown persons prepared for this machine tactic.” (p. 49)
Despite the resistance, Hatcher won the election and became the first black mayor in a major US city.
Racial tensions in Gary helped trigger “white flight”: white residents moved out of the city limits to independent towns that are part of greater Gary. The city of Gary lost a lot of its tax base. There was not enough money to maintain major facilities, and declining population meant less income and patronage. One by one, major buildings were abandoned, some of them razed and others left derelict, because there was not enough money to demolish them.
As the city amenities disappeared, Gary became victim to ever more crime, causing further decline. Businesses closed and visitors stayed away. In all the United States, Gary was matched only by Detroit as an example of urban decay.
Wollongong started off as a small town on the east coast of Australia, south of Sydney. It has an excellent deep-water harbour at Port Kembla, chosen as the site of what became Australia’s largest steelworks. The city of Wollongong gradually grew, but with relatively little industrial diversification. Healthcare and education are now the largest employers. Being close to Sydney, there are ever more Wollongong residents who commute to work in Sydney.
Wollongong has had its share of social dysfunction and political corruption. Despite rising affluence, there are serious problems due to unemployment, poverty, crime, drug use and gambling. The local government was the scene of a major corruption scandal, publicised in 2008 in hearings by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (my analysis). One former lord mayor, after he died, was exposed in the media as having run a paedophile ring. Another stepped down from office after declaring bankruptcy, thereby avoiding paying millions of dollars in a court action. I have heard stories of bribes offered to allocate preferences in local elections. However, this pales into insignificance compared to the history of political corruption in Gary.
Many people say Wollongong is like an overgrown country town. It has few distinctive buildings. The most prominent is the Nan Tien Buddhist temple that opened in 1995.
Despite its shortcomings, Wollongong seems a model of harmony, honesty and civic pride compared to Gary. In Wollongong, there are numerous nationalities but in comparison relatively little discrimination. The most serious racism, as in Australia more generally, is directed against Aborigines. Aside from this, Australia’s version of multiculturalism seems relatively successful.
Although Wollongong has never had many impressive buildings like Gary, it has not suffered anything like Gary’s urban decay. To the contrary: downtown Wollongong is gradually adding a few sites of note, and customers continue to patronise local businesses.
Explaining the differences
Of the two steel towns, why has Wollongong managed to survive so much better than Gary? This is a big question and I will not try to provide a comprehensive answer but instead just point to a few relevant factors.
In Gary, urban decay was triggered by “white flight” so that now 90% of the city’s population is African American. In Australia, there is no equivalent to the US history of slavery and subsequent institutionalised racial discrimination.
Another factor is the way local government is organised. In the US, many cities are surrounded by independent towns, each with its own government and police force, and sometimes its own schools, libraries and other services. Right next to Gary are quite a few such independent towns. Their existence means that residents of the legal entity called Gary can leave and live in a nearby town, such as Merrillville.
The information about Gary says the population peaked at 180,000 and has since declined to 80,000. So I thought this meant Gary and Wollongong had had roughly the same population. But then I looked up the population of the Gary metropolitan area. It is over 700,000. Metropolitan Gary is over twice as populous as Wollongong.
In Australia, city names and populations refer to the metropolitan area, not a specific administrative entity. Administrative arrangements make something like white flight less plausible in Australia. In Wollongong, and indeed in the entire state of New South Wales, there is a single government school system and a single police force. It’s possible to move to a more affluent part of Wollongong, but this has a limited effect on tax revenues.
The implication is that US urban decay, and the phenomenon of ghettoes, is facilitated by the administrative arrangements that allow formation of separate towns with their own income and local schools.
Trade unions may be another factor. Wollongong has long had a strong progressive labour movement. One of the pioneering initiatives of Australian trade unions was “green bans.” These involve unions refusing to undertake work that would be environmentally or culturally damaging. The decision by workers to undertake a ban requires being approached by a community group.
The South Coast Labour Council, representing unions in the region, has occasionally put bans on development projects that would damage buildings considered to have heritage value. Although successes have been limited, the readiness of community and labour activists to protest may have helped prevent a more rampant destruction of Wollongong heritage in the name of development. Labour militancy may also have played a role in maintaining living standards for workers.
This comparison of Gary and Wollongong is at most suggestive. Not all US industrial towns have gone downhill. Comparisons of other US and Australian towns might give a different picture. Even so, there is potentially much to learn from making comparisons, and towns in other countries might be brought into the mix. If it turns out that administrative arrangements greatly affect the way regions evolve, this might give impetus to reform that actually makes a difference.
Thanks to Anu Bissoonauth-Bedford, Sharon Callaghan, Xiaoping Gao and Yasmin Rittau for valuable comments.