Book Reviews

Book Review – Gary: The Most American of All American Cities

GARY: The Most American of All American Cities.  By S. Paul O’Hara.  Bloomington:  Indiana University Press.  2011.

Gary book coverGary: The Most American of all American Cities is an analysis of Gary, Indiana as imagined mostly through the narratives of those who lived outside of the city.  Created in 1906 by U.S. Steel, its “physical spaces were built by and controlled by U.S. Steel but its narrative” was shaped by multiple others with varied visions of its meaning and purpose (9-10).  For U.S. Steel, it “was not simply capital relocation but an opportunity for vast expansion and efficient production…and an opportunity to create industrial order with no intention of designing a city of benevolence or social responsibility that catered to workers.”  Indeed, argues S. Paul O’Hara, U.S. Steel’s greatest accomplishment may have been its construction of a city that manifestly separated the flow of work and community.  For reformers in the early twentieth century, it presented a model city of “order and efficiency” and a “lost opportunity to implement new planning strategies” (70).  For populists, it was a violent frontier similar to America’s Wild West, where men sought prospects in a new terrain characterized by violence and economic opportunities.  For President Woodrow Wilson and like-minded others, it was an aberration – an example of monopoly capitalism that was indefensible in its ability to undermine the success of Americans.  By midcentury, for the workers, it was a place of home, employment, and families.  It was simultaneously a place of communities separated by race and ethnicities and the strife that accompanied these persistent American dilemmas.  Overall, according to O’Hara, the dynamic images and realities of Gary are contradictory and convoluted ranging from utopian, dystopian, adventurous and dangerous, as well as a site of worker strength and activism.

Regardless of how the city was imagined, by the end of the twentieth century, Gary, like many of America’s midwestern industrial suburbs had become the image of the heartland’s decay.  Like Benton Harbor, Michigan, and East St. Louis, Illinois, it was a place that once housed manufacturing, robust neighborhoods, quality education, and social and economic opportunities. Now it seems, they are places abandoned by the corporations for which they were designed to serve.  Their populations have declined and shifted from majority white to African American, infrastructures have been devastated, and residents suffer from high rates of poverty, unemployment, and failing educational systems.  How, then, do imaginings of a city help us to make sense of the facts of the city, its residents, and their everyday lives?

Overall, O’Hara provides a historiography that captures and emphasizes the multiple and varied imaginings of a place.  A city, after all, is more than just its physical space. It is also what it represents and means for the past, present, and future of a society.  O’Hara’s work highlights the need to appreciate the role places play in our conceptualization of social, economic, political, and cultural values, change, direction, and popular memory.  Gary, Indiana was a place of contention, and professional and public intellectuals fought to define its potential, purpose, and fundamental meaning for what America had become and where its future was headed.  It seems from O’Hara’s critical synthesis, those outside the city saw the promise and problems of Gary as a model American city.

What seems less clear is how the envisioned city was complicated by imaginings and realities of the Gary residents themselves.  How, for example, did the U.S. Steel workers, parents, teachers, and municipal leaders think about Gary, Indiana and how did they understand its purpose?  What meaning did they give to the city space and macrostructure with which they engaged?  What meaning did imaginings by outsiders actually have for local daily lives and socioeconomic policies?  How were the physical mappings of Gary contradictory or not to the promise and problems that those living within its boundaries understood?  Cities are not abstract.  They interplay not only with popular and political imaginings, but also real life and its shifting ecological systems. What is most significant about this study of Gary, Indiana is that it broadens how scholars can conceptualize and methodologically approach the sociohistorical study of place, distinguishes its multiple meanings, and concretize the meaning of the city imagined.

Jennifer Hamer, University of Kansas



2 thoughts on “Book Review – Gary: The Most American of All American Cities

  1. Good article! We will be linking to this great post on our
    site. Keep up the great writing.

    Posted by Jerilyn | March 16, 2013, 12:22 pm
  2. This is an interesting book, but the appeal is primarily to scholars interested in how Gary is perceived by those living outside the city. For a more appealing look at Gary’s formative years through mid-century from a popular perspective, see “Gary, Indiana: A Centennial Celebration,” a book that has been described as the defintive book on Gary. Go to:

    Posted by kenny9876 | June 13, 2013, 11:05 am

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