This article is part of the The Great American Reach Around series.
Located in the North Western corner of Indiana, only 25 miles from downtown Chicago, is what may be the worst city in the first world. This blighted hellscape is comparable to Prypiat in the Ukriane, only the wilderness is not reclaiming this city the way it is reclaiming that one. Radiation may not kill off trees and deer, but if a river is literally on fire and bubbling with acid then there is not a whole lot of recovering the fish can do.
I am going to go ahead and get this out of the way at the very beginning: Gary has the highest percentage of black people of any city in the United States. Over 84% of the population of around 100,000 is African American. Someone who knows this statistic and hears people saying how terrible Gary is might be under the mistaken impression that hatred of Gary is racially motivated. It is emphatically not. It isn't the people in Gary that are horrible, it's the city itself. It's so decrepit and such a stinking industrial wasteland that you actually feel endangered by the buildings.
According to Wikipedia there were about 103,000 people living in Gary in the year 2000 and by 2005 that number had fallen to just 99,000. I'm sure Wikipedia gives all sorts of lame reasons why that happened, like white flight and unemployment rates, but the truth is simple: Gary killed those people. The motto of Gary is "City in Motion", but apparently about 4,000 of its residents just couldn't move fast enough.
Maybe they were walking at night to get a pack of cigarettes and a miasma of purple gas came out of a vent and then they were just gone. Maybe they stumbled and rolled down into a ditch and landed in a seep of bubbling liquid that stripped them down to skeletons in seconds. Maybe they were on their way to work one morning and there was a hiss and a burst of superheated gas and the asphalt just opened up and swallowed them.
The first thing you will notice about Gary is that it stinks. This is the rotten stench of dead steel mills, the sulfurous stink of paper mills and the ammonia tang of some sort of industrial piss works. A genocide investigator from Bosnia used to unearthing mass graves will cover his nose with his shirt when he gets near Gary. This is the decaying stink of an industrial city in its last throes. Residents of Flint, Michigan might know the aroma.
If you want an anecdote of how cosmically fucked up Gary is then you need look no further than any given week's newspaper. There is always a story of something strange and unnatural happening there. This week it's the latest in a string of alligator sightings in trailer parks in Gary. The latest gator was a four-footer caught live and scampering around the trailer park, the last gator was not so lucky. It was spotted in winter and by the time it was located by animal control it was frozen solid.
You could theorize about some crazed herpetologist releasing gators into trailer parks in Gary every few months, but it's so much more likely that there are simply alligators emerging from derelict factories there.
If you've ever been to suburban America you know that it's a glossy string of fast food chain restaurants and strip mall shopping. Gary has a few forlorn burger joints, but most of the city is more likely to have a cigarette store where you feed dollar bills through a slot in bulletproof glass and the guy behind the counter hands you a pack of Camels using an armored Lazy Susan. The last time I stopped at a convenience store in Gary there was an elderly guy with no shirt on laughing and picking scabs off his face in the parking lot. This was at night in January.
Gary's only claim to fame is that it's the only city in America with a casket store and nail salon combo. You want to get a nice casket in Gary, because if you've lived there for more than a few years it's going to be a closed casket. That's if you're lucky and the city left enough of your loved one to actually bury.
Get out while you still can!
Using Gary to represent Indiana is as unfair as using Chicago to represent Illinois. Northern Indiana, from Gary all the way across the state to Fort Wayne, is horrible. The radio stations play nothing but Rush Limbaugh and the towns are all interstate stopoffs focused on sucking dollars from passing tourists and travelers. The people are generally nice, but you won't find down home friendly for the most part until you head South.
Indianapolis, for all that it's just a giant version of a suburb, is a decent enough place to visit, especially if you like Indiana's second religion of auto racing. Illinois is much the same, with an increasing twang to the voice in either state as you head south. Beyond the cornfields and soybean mega-farms of Indiana and Illinois you will find river communities that are old, historic, and quaint. These are often beautiful small towns along the rivers that are bleeding Applebees and Fashion Bug Pluses where their back end runs into the interstate.
When you travel through areas like that one of the first things you learn is that a few W-stickers on cars and a cowboy hat don't mean you won't be welcome. For most of America the difference between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, has been blown totally out of proportion. You might find something to argue with folks about if you go looking for it, but they like the same sort of thing you do, want the same sort of thing you want, and they aren't stringing black people up from trees or playing banjos in the cornfield.
That of course excludes Northern Indiana, like I said, because as friendly as people may be that place is a nest of vipers waiting to bite you.
Finally, before we get to the foreign representatives, let's zip back to Chicago and then head north from there. Into a true oddball of a state that blends the sensibilities of Canada with those of Northern Indiana and offers up scenery that might feel more at home in rural New England.