David Hoppe

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:: Pope Francis could be talking about Gary

by David Hoppe

It’s too late for me to convert to Catholicism. Life — even the life eternal — is simply too short for all the confessing I’d have to do.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t count myself among Pope Francis’s fans. If I had any doubts about Papa Francesco, he wiped them out with the release of his latest encyclical on the state of our messed up relationship with the planet, “Laudato Si: On the Care of Our Common Home.”

Media shorthand for this document tends to describe it as the Pope weighing in on climate change. This is true, but his critique is actually broader than that. As Pope Francis makes clear, climate change is the most dramatic manifestation of our grab-and-go attitude toward our surroundings, what amounts to a culture of consumption.

“Each year hundreds of millions of tons of waste are generated,” writes the Pope. “In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish.”

People living in Northwest Indiana know exactly what Pope Francis means. All you have to do is look at what happened in Gary.

In 1900, at the beginning of the 20th century, Gary, Indiana, did not exist. The southern shore of Lake Michigan was made up of sand dunes, wetlands and woods. Now we know that the Indiana dunes represent one of the most biodiverse landscapes on the continent; but in 1905, when Judge Elbert Gary was looking for a site for what would be known as the world’s “largest integrated steel mill,” U.S. Steel’s Gary Works, the place was considered an uninhabitable wasteland.

That changed in short order. Ground was broken in 1906; the first ore boat entered Gary Works Harbor in 1908; and the mill produced its first steel in 1909.

Meanwhile, U.S. Steel set about creating a company town, called Gary, for its growing number of workers. The 1910 census counted a population of 16,802. By 1956, when Gary was just 50- years-old, that number had climbed to 168,601.

As Mark Reutter writes in his Foreward to Steel Giants, a book about the mills, “Steelmaking was not only the country’s biggest business…it was also a peculiarly American one, embodying a sense of supersized sprawl, of intense and full-throttled power, that characterized our culture of abundance.”

Gary was great while it lasted. But it didn’t last. By 1992, employment at Gary Works had fallen to just 7,850. The so-called “City of the Century” prospered for less than 100 years.

People have been desperately trying to figure out how to reclaim what’s left of Gary since the 1980’s. The industrial waste, environmental degradation and social alienation festering there are truly epic — as is the valiant determination of the folks who insist that, somehow, what’s left can be redeemed.

It’s tempting to write Gary off. You can say it’s what happens when the capitalist cookie crumbles or, worse, blame the people who live there. If you’re driving by on the tollway, you can step on the gas.

Which, of course, is exactly what Pope Francis is talking about.