Sunday, May 27, 2007

Beach reading, part I

Racial Politics and Urban Planning: Gary, Indiana 1980-1989, by Robert A. Catlin (University of Kentucky Press, 1993)

I’ve spent much of my last 20 years, avoiding beaches, less by choice and more because of circumstances. You can read about it, if you care to.

What I’d like to do here, throughout the rest of the summer, is to review the books that I end up reading over the summer. Because I’m committed to getting to the beach more, inevitably, some of my reading is bound to be with sand between my toes and an ocean breeze in my face.

Recently, I spent time in northwest Indiana, including Gary, Indiana. I’ve written about that trip and you can read about it over at Words Matter. My time in Gary produced a fictional account of a presidential debate that should occur, but for many reasons, won’t. The account was good enough to get picked up by Counterpunch, which I was thrilled about.

My time in Indiana during my early 20s was a formative experience, although I didn’t realize it for about 15 years. Only recently have I fully grasped all that those five years meant in my development, politics and worldview. Obviously, going back to “the region” was powerful on many levels, particularly the brief time I spent in Gary.

Robert Catlin’s Racial Politics and Urban Planning: Gary, Indiana 1980-1989 is a comprehensive look at the many issues plaguing cities of 50,000 or more residents that are majority-black. Catlin looks at Gary, a city he came to in 1982, to interview for the faculty position of chairman of the Department of Minority Studies at the Indiana University Branch in Gary (which goes by the name of Indiana University Northwest).

Catlin would ultimately leave his teaching position at the University of South Florida, in sunny Tampa and move his family to Gary, with its billowing smoke from the U.S. Steel plant and its grimly, depressed downtown, with boarded up storefronts, products of the white flight of the 1970s.

Having lived in northwest Indiana, arriving a year after Catlin did, I can empathize with how he must have felt. I also drove Broadway (Indiana state road 53), Gary’s main artery, north/south and experienced the desolation of downtown Gary.

Unaware of it when I lived there, Catlin points out how the local daily, the Gary Post-Tribune, now called the Post-Tribune of Northwest Indiana, went out of its way to portray longtime Gary mayor, Richard Hatcher, in an unfavorable manner. The paper, run by conservative, business-oriented whites, was about maintaining the status quo. Hatcher, who was first elected in 1967, became the first African-American mayor of a major U.S. city. Hatcher would hold the office for 20 years. The Post-Tribune was obviously threatened by Hatcher’s outspoken positions on civil rights and his unwillingness to cede Gary’s assets to the Democratic political elites of Lake County, “the machine,” as Catlin refers to them. Basically, Hatcher was a man who commanded respect in the black community, used that respect to acquire power and his power and pride made him a threat to those whites in Lake County and nearby, who wanted to extract what few assets remained in Gary, for their own benefit and to the detriment of the majority of African-Americans living there. The case study of Metrolake is a powerful example of this and an indictment of crooked politicians everywhere, craven only to power.

The strength of Catlin’s book, in my opinion, is his detailed look at the many issues that the Hatcher administration had to contend with. The desertion of downtown by business, the aging housing stock and crumbling city infrastructure, as well as the loss of nearly 30,000 jobs at Gary’s U.S. Steel plant, jobs that provided the majority of blacks in Gary, with a comfortable middle-class standard of living.

While the book is scholarly, Catlin’s writing style is also very readable. The majority of the book looks at three case studies that Catlin was directly involved in, as he served as a direct advisor to the Hatcher administration, in addition to his duties with the university, in Gary.

Catlin was certified by the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) and it’s his urban planning orientation that serves his readers so well. He supervised the planning of Gary’s revised Comprehensive Plan, as well as taking an active role in a number of other planning capacities, including opposing the proposed Metrolake Plan and the expansion of Gary Regional Airport.

Catlin’s book isn’t for everyone. If you prefer Oprah’s book-of-the-month club, then please look elsewhere. If you are like me, however, seeking to increase your understanding of the competing complexities that should inform our politics, but too often don’t, then Catlin’s book will be an eye-opening read, particularly as it relates to entrenched racism and the disastrous effects of Reagan’s cuts on northern industrial cities like Gary. Also, you see what might have been done 20 years ago, to address the shift from an industrial economy, to a more service-driven model, if those in Washington actually cared for anyone other than their wealth benefactors.

Fast-forwarding nearly two decades after Catlin’s observations show me how important public-private partnerships continue to be, particularly in light of our current federal cuts and shifts away from sending any help to cities such as Gary. It’s tough to fight a war, spend $450 billion and have anything left for the citizens at home.

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