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Mapping Gary's Stories

Updated: Dec 12, 2020

"In these kinds of maps, unlike traditional cartography, accuracy and measurement were less important than the meanings that the maps held for their producers and viewers."

Fifteen years ago a group of people, over two dozen in number, gathered in a radical community space in a far-north side Chicago neighborhood and began mapping, in their words, "Historical Sites of Struggle; Historical Sites of Autonomy; Current Sites of Struggle; Current Sites of Autonomy" and a fifth element: places to distribute a new, free periodical about art, research, education, and activism, called AREA Chicago.

And as AREA founder Daniel Tucker told it, more than just a magazine was born that day at Mess Hall in Rogers Park in 2005, but also a popular participatory mapping project that eventually would take root in nearly 20 urban places across the Americas and Europe, including here in Gary, Indiana. From the Notes For A People's Atlas of Chicago project came the Notes For A People's Atlas of Gary!

As noted in the book AREA Chicago published in 2011 the Gary version is a little different from the others. Unlike Chicago (or Boston or Detroit or Chisinau or the Chilean Valparaiso) the Gary project began not with a request to the public for people's maps and not even in the physical world. Instead it started online with a deep dive into local history.

Using published local histories, especially the Steel Shavings oral history series, I pulled passages with specific geography (intersections, addresses, boundaries natural or otherwise) and using Google maps compiled a series of neighborhood maps, accessible at So what did juxtaposing cartography and history reveal? While not a comprehensive survey of all the published literature about Gary, a few things came into sharper relief.

Much of Gary's history predates the actual history of the city. In fact, most of Gary's major neighborhoods can trace their origins a full half century before US Steel. Some of the "ancient" names are still familiar to Gary residents: Tolleston, Miller, Aetna, Glen Park, Black Oak. Other names might be unfamiliar but remain in use: Clark, Pine, Ivanhoe. Some names have disappeared from map and memory: Bradford, Jerusalem, East Tolleston.

Seeing that pre-1906 history on the same plane with events after 1906 complicates Gary's standard origin story - that a mighty corporation built a mill and city on the empty, unproductive wastes of Northwest Indiana and tens of thousands of people instantly arrived. Reading the old village lines is a reminder that Gary's origin story also includes the hundreds of people living in scattered, small villages, now suddenly adjusting to life in an industrial city.

Also clear is the special place that Midtown and the Central District holds for so many Gary residents, past and present. References to this community far outnumbered those of any other community in the literature, including downtown. It's with good reason we consider it the heart and soul of all Northwest Indiana.

Free from the constraints of linear narrative, the Gary People's Atlas allows a viewer to see connections between otherwise seemingly random events in time and space, and between the personal and the political. One striking case can be read on the border between Midtown and Glen Park.

Recalling her grandmother who lived at 25th and Broadway and worked as a house cleaner in Glen Park, Percy Harper notes that, "she walked to Glen Park rather than ride the street cars. They 'just never caught my fancy,' she recalled. So long as she had her health, she preferred to walk."

Referring to the same intersection, Dalia Hull stated that "[i]f a Black person stood on 25th and Broadway waiting for a bus going south, the driver would pass him by." Speaking of the Little Calumet River, Bill Hill reminds us that, "Negroes were barred from this section of Gary [Glen Park] unless they were employed as domestics. The Little Calumet River was the dividing line of separation before entering Glen Park." The map helps us see that personal choice is a decision made within larger political and institutional contexts.

Over the next few years the project took on characteristics of the parent project. I distributed a blank template and asked students, art patrons, children and parents, and visitors to make their own maps of Gary. The results were just as colorful, personal, and meaningful as the Chicago ones. And that will be the subject of a future post.

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