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Indiana's Oil and Gas Boom Still Echoes Today

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Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  The untold part of Chicago's industrialization would set the pattern for industrialization for the entire country and the globe is Indiana. So, it's not that the state is marginal; to the side of this more famous story is that it's actually integral and laid, not just the foundation but was the natural resource, to put it that way, of industrialization for Chicago and spanning out from there, the globe.

Alex Chambers:  Scholar and writer, Ava Tomasula y Garcia says if we want to understand global industrialization, Indiana is a good place to start. This week on Inner States, how the oil and gas boom in north-west Indiana a century ago is still echoing today. That's coming up, right after this.

Alex Chambers:  There's something about gazing out on a body of water that goes to the horizon that reminds you of the vast inhumanness of so much of the planet. I was struck by that last summer at the Indiana Dunes, on the shore of lake Michigan. When the water rises up to the horizon like that, filling your vision. It's not hard to imagine the existential panic Captain Ahab's youngest sailor felt when he went overboard in a whale fight. The rest of the crew went off chasing the whale and there he was, bobbing up and down with nothing but ocean around. Don't worry, he got rescued but in the hour he was alone in the ocean, something changed in him. While he had floated there, surrounded on all sides by undulating water ready to engulf him, the sea had jeeringly kept his body up but drowned the infinite of his soul.

Alex Chambers:  I was less likely to be engulfed by the inhuman expanse of the sea because I was on the shore surrounded by giant umbrellas, beach balls and plenty of sunscreened humans. Plus, out at the farthest edge of the coast I could see the smoke stacks of the steel industry. They were strangely grounding, those giant structures at the end of my vision. The sight kept the infinite of my soul from drowning but probably because it felt like they were jeering at me. Sometimes, if you want to be acknowledged, jeering is what you settle for.

Alex Chambers:  The smoke stacks reminded me of another way I'm engulfed; we're all engulfed. In a world run by fossil fuels, which is not great. Not just because they're heating the planet up, also because fossil fuel production takes land and labor and leaves immense amount of pollution in the communities that surround it. So, "jeering" might be the right word too for how those smoke stacks relate to the region around them.

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  The Calumet today; if you've ever been to the Indiana Dunes or taken the south shore train, you'll know it as Gary, Hammond, Michigan City; kind of these cities that are dominated by smoke stacks, air that you can see and taste because it's so dirty; kind of a vague ominous cloud on the highway that you might see in the distance. These are areas that were absolutely dominated for over a hundred years by some of the dirtiest industrial industries, really in the world.

Alex Chambers:  That's Ava Tomasula y Garcia, she's a writer and scholar who's been doing research on the region and she published an article in Belt Magazine not too long ago, about the legacy of Indiana's oil and gas industry.

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  So, Gary is still home to the US steel, Gary works which was the largest steel mill in the entire world for many years. And, I believe is still the largest domestic steel mill. Whiting, Indiana; home of Standard Oil which was Rockefeller's oil monopoly has had an oil refinery there since, I believe, 1901. So, these are early industries; some pretty famous names when thinking of the industrial history of the country and the world that have really dominated the landscape for decades. And, it's also where you might point to if you're thinking about the "rust belt" or "De-industrialization" which I think we're going to talk about. I think it's a more complicated history than that word would suggest, but in the 1980s when capital shifted to the current neo-liberal financialized model that we're living under now and automation happened, many of these steel mills and other industries either collapsed or scaled back to the point where thousands and thousands of people lost jobs.

Alex Chambers:  Ava has a personal stake in all this. It's not just the economy that's affected her family.

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  We've been in the Calumet area for about four generations on either side of my family and like anyone that has intersected with the heavy industries that shaped the history of the area, family histories that are also replete with cancers, dementia. One grandfather worked in Inland Steel and the other one worked at Verson Steel Press and cancer has been a sideline of family history for many years. So my Mom's family is Mexican, my Dad's family is Slovak and Polish and so his family is more of this first generation of Eastern Europeans that worked in these incredibly toxic industries that really industrialized the "modern world". And then my Mom's family is from more of a slightly later generation of workers that found their way to the region.

Alex Chambers:  Ava, by the way, is a grad student in Columbia University's Anthropology Department. Among the many insights I got from Ava's article was that our fair state of Indiana was an integral part of global industrialization. That's because Chicago set the pattern for industrializing the world and Indiana was where a lot of the natural resources came from for Chicago's industrialization. That means digging into Indiana's industrial past is a good way to understand how geology and history are totally intertwined and how developments in one place, northern Indiana, could play a part in engulfing the whole planet in industrial fossil fuels way down the road. So, let's start with the discovery of natural gas in Indiana.

 It was 1876 in Eden, a rural town in the eastern part of the state. Coal miners were prospecting. They had steam powered machinery; I'm picturing something like Mike Mulligans steam shovel. They were digging into the rock

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  That's flaking, flying everywhere around them.

Alex Chambers:  They were 600 feet down when they heard an incredibly loud... Bang.

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  Bang, and then just the foulest smell you could imagine.

Alex Chambers:  They clawed their way out of the hole and ran. They had concluded what any reasonable person would have concluded.

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  They thought that they had obviously dug so deep that they had found Hell.

Alex Chambers:  They were smelling sulfur and hellfire. So they plugged the hole, told the guy who'd put up the money for this venture.

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  Sorry, we're not coming back.

Alex Chambers:  And they abandoned the place. The hole sat there for 10 years. Then, in January of 1886, newspapers reported that an ocean of gas had been discovered one state over. The Karg Well in Ohio produced millions of cubic feet of gas per day. That land owner from Eden visited the well and he recognized the stench. He rushed home, pulled together investors and workers and by the summer, as they past the 900 ft mark, gas burst through.

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  What they had found was the Trenton gas field, which was at the time that they had tapped it, the largest natural gas reservoir in the entire world. There's over 5000 square miles.

Alex Chambers:  Within a few years, hundreds of companies would be drilling across the Trenton gas field. Cities grew up around gas wells. It was boom times for gas prospectors. And ten years isn't that long. So, it's hard to believe that's all it took to go from miners convinced they'd reached the mouth of Hell, to investors realizing they had a very lucrative product under their feet. But it was the late 19th Century; science was busy.

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  What people thought about the deep earth, how old the earth was; all these things were very much changing.

Alex Chambers:  And changing due to a combination of forces we tend to think of as separate. I'm not sure if science has ever been totally pure, but it's maybe not surprising that geology in the 19th century was as much about finding natural resources as it was about figuring out the age of the earth. Still true by the way. And in 19th Century Indiana, science and industry were working to give birth to what we now think of as the modern world. The fossil fuel economy was being born in Indiana. It's not as if people had never noticed oil and gas before they became industrial products.

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  The Seneca people in Pennsylvania, where the first oil strike happened in the country, had a very much a working knowledge of oil, you used it as a mosquito repellent and other purposes. There's French Jesuit missionary records talking about who they called the eerie people used these substances that bubbled up from oil seeps, from different streams.

Alex Chambers:  White colonists, keeping up their own traditions, saw magic in those indigenous practices.

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  You can see a lot of those Seneca applications of oil being really aped by Victorian settlers and colonists after the fact, through the 1830s, 1840s when the major genocide of native people in Indiana really got underway. Simultaneously you could buy what Victorian salespeople would call Seneca Oil or Rock Oil which they were advertising as a natural cure oil that you would drink. And today, we would know that as probably creek water mixed with oil, with some gas thrown in. I think it was advertised as something that you could also lubricate your machinery with. But beyond that, it was not thought about in the way that we would name and recognize oil and gas now as sources of fuel, stuff you buy; stuff that turns your lights on.

Alex Chambers:  Mostly. By the 19th Century, there were enough people who thought they could make a buck.

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  People had experimented with gas taps in the US as early as the 1600s. I think normally, when people talk about the history of natural gas extraction they'll mention William Hart who, in 1821, tied some logs together with rags. He had found a natural gas fissure and tried to transport it that way, which didn't work too well. 1859, we get the first oil strike in the country and all of a sudden it's a mad rush. There's a few scientists who demonstrate that natural oil can be used to burn lamps with. This is also the same time period that the whaling industry is declining in the US. They've just killed all the whales and there's a real fervor in the search for other sources of fuel. This is also when we think about this early industrialization in the country is happening. And so it was in this mixture of new ideas and "discoveries" that people start realizing that gas is a fuel source, or can be used as one.

 It's not just the thing that you have to watch out for when you found oil or coal, or something else. But this is something that you can sell and this is something at least the narrative sold to a lot of farming communities that people were then scrabbling over trying to get rights to what might be underneath their soil; this is something that can industrialize your community and bring money in which we will see as a storyline that's been pitched many times to many people throughout many different periods of time.

Alex Chambers:  And the possibility of selling the stuff brings us back to the Karg Well in Ohio in 1886. These gas discoveries had become exciting. Suddenly, gas pouring out of the ground promised piles of money and as Ava said, development. The gas seemed endless and what with newspapers and photography, it was a new age of spectacle too. So, when the Karg Well was discovered in Ohio people figured, why not set a match to it.

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  So that means an enormous column of fire, which is lit gas, that was over 70 feet high just pouring out of the earth, visible from 30 miles away.

Alex Chambers:  It wasn't just in Ohio. Lighting gas wells was pretty standard practice at the time. Fire draws people in.

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  It becomes immediately an industrial tourism attraction, so this is something very popular in the 19th Century when, as we'll see later, factories are developing outside of Chicago and in North West Indiana, there would be trolley, train and other conveyances of tourists from Chicago to go look at these things; look at these factories, look at these signs of industry. And so in Ohio, this enormous, flaming column of fire-- of lit natural gas becomes one of these attractions. George Carter was the name of the person who owned the land where Hell had been breached in Indiana. He is one of the tourists that goes and sees the Karg Well.

Alex Chambers:  As you know, he rushes back to the mouth of hell that he's claimed. He sees it differently now; digs farther down and bang, gas in Indiana.

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  And then, the night of September 15th, 1886, they do the same thing; touch a match towards the upward gust of this gas, setting a flame now by most records was a 100 foot fiery column that, to them, meant money, wealth and the future.

Alex Chambers:  That future was premised on new abilities to discover and develop new resources. But Ava reminds us that we should think about what language we are using. Development and discovery are one way to describe what was going on.

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  If we think of this language of industry which is the same language as science; we're developing, we're discovering things. That's a nice way of talking about extraction, really. These are not discoveries, they're not developments. It's kind of theft more than anything.

Alex Chambers:  And when you say extraction, can you just tease out the different kinds of thing that you mean by that word?

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  It's similar to how the Calumet today; extractive industries predominate, I would say. And I would include in that both oil refinement, steel production, other kinds of chemical fabrication which are extractive industries; meaning you're taking something from the earth and fabricating it into a product. But, also payday loans, casinos; industries that are very much predicated on extracting wealth from the people who live in the area or, thinking even larger about extraction of health and how these industries are working off of, it's no exaggeration to say the sweat, blood and life of the people that are developing brain cancer, developing asthma; developing slower diseases like dementia from years of living and working in this area.

Alex Chambers:  A century ago, it probably didn't occur to anyone that that was the future they were heading to. At the time, the ability to extract gas and oil was promising a different future. Wealth coming from industry and development. We'll hear how that played out geographically in our future after a quick break.

Alex Chambers:  It's Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers. I'm talking with scholar, Ava Tomasula y Garcia about how North West Indiana industrialized in the early 20th Century. The heart of the industrial future was Chicago, but Chicago needed fuel and raw materials. Gary and smaller cities in Indiana had plenty of those, so they pulled the industry toward them like a magnet.

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  Once a company moves there, they start building industrial infrastructure which will attract another company which attracts another one. So these first primary industries are drawn by the natural gas. But then we see companies like Standard Oil doing the first geological survey of Indiana because they're interested in what else is there that they can use.

Alex Chambers:  Which is another good example of the way geology is mixed with industrial extraction.

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  Absolutely. So the US Steel Corporation was Rockefeller's famous, many tentacle monopoly of oil in the United States. He set up an Indiana subsidiary; Standard Oil of Indiana in 1889. And they had marketing territory of the entire midwest and they set up shop in Whiting, Indiana. So since 1901, there's been an oil refinery operating in this part of the country. It was absolutely enormous. They had a heard research component. If you look at the Amoco Oil logo that we know today, after the Standard Oil monopoly is broken up in 1911 and various subsequent changes becomes BP Amoco which maybe we'll talk about later. The torch in the Amoco logo is from the Indiana state flag.

Alex Chambers:  Oh really?

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  Yeah.

Alex Chambers:  Cool, I didn't know that. That's actually a good symbol for Indiana's significance more generally. And since the gas and oil underneath Indiana helped industrialize the globe, it also means the state's geological resources affected where corporations landed and where cities and towns ended up. And who moved to those cities and towns and who had what kinds of jobs and how different groups of people related to each other. It's all connected.

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  This is what someone might call a geo-social history, which means that when we're talking about infrastructure, we're not just talking about rocks and dirt. The social is always part of what might divide up and call the geological and vice versa. So we're talking about migration patterns, we're talking about race and how different kinds of racisms are formed out of this history too. So it's always that we need to be thinking about landscape as not just the trees and grass, but it's also inclusive of what kinds of people were allowed to live amongst these trees and grass.

Alex Chambers:  The question of who got to live where in the landscape of North West Indiana played out especially clearly in Gary.

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  Gary, Indiana was a city completely built by a corporation. The US Steel Corporation created Gary, Indiana, named after Judge Gary who was on their board and later became President of the mill. In the early 1900s, it was on the undeveloped shores of Lake Michigan, east of Chicago. And it was Indiana dune land; if you've ever been to the Indiana Dunes, you know what it looks like. This is marshes, lagoons and a lot of sand.

Alex Chambers:  As cities like Chicago were growing in the 19th Century, there was a lot of hand wringing about people living in crowded areas around industries. Americans were looking at England and seeing the poverty in places like Birmingham and London and thinking this is what's coming to the US.

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  This is, of course, also the same period as a lot of these "social concerns" get routed into eugenics programs. So Indiana is the first state to have legally codified eugenics laws, which is the supposed control and keeping of the genetic stock of a population; so very much a white supremacist ideology of keeping whiteness "pure" and any kind of impurity which would not just be kind of to them, racial impurity, but also what they would think of as socially unhygienic manifestations such as criminality, mental illness. All of this is lumped together and seen as products that could be controlled out of a population. And so social reformers operating in a very eugenicist frame of mind were interested in keeping these kinds of forces out of cities and worried about how industrialism, people living close together, what they would have thought of as racial mixing and other things would then result in an impure population.

 So in Indiana, you'd have things throughout the 20th Century like better baby contests at state fairs where you would not only show your pigs and chickens, but you could show off your white, blue-eyed baby and see if it could win a prize for being a genetically superior child. These kinds of ideologies are very much in the air and they're very much in the air when people are thinking about these new industrial cities and fears about them also.

Alex Chambers:  Along with the "Utopian potential of the human race", there was also the Utopian potential of cities focused on industry. As with eugenics, these geographical fantasies were also shaped by race and class.

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  So what you might call Industrial Utopianism; and this is the idea that through control, which often becomes this racist, eugenicist-minded social control; and through city planning and the development of idea like hygiene and the development of public health, as a discipline. People thought that if you arranged your city correctly, controlled it correctly and planned how far the houses are away from each other, how much park space there is, et cetera; that you could not only control your population, but you could model how people were. You could create new people. So we might see something like Pullman, Illinois; now part of Chicago which was founded by the Pullman Company; the makers of luxury railroad cars. It's a complete, planned city where there was the company town where all the workers would live in, planned to the Tee. There's many examples of planned cities that companies built and were interested in avoiding what they would think of as strikes which has to do with white, ethnic discontent, criminal element in there population.

 So they fought through city planning and through the industrial mindset of industrialization; applied not just to the fabrication of materials but the fabrication of people too, that you could have a Utopian city.

Alex Chambers:  Crucially, as Ava said, the Utopian cities would be places where the workers never went on strike. There's something a bit Truman Show about all of that. But just as the façade in the Truman Show inevitably falls apart, so do the Utopian planners' plans to engineer strikes out of the existence.

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  These companies were still bloodthirsty, still absolutely rapaciously using up their workers' lives. And so by the time that Gary is built on the shores of Lake Michigan, the company has abandoned this industrial Utopianism completely. They're more interested in creating a fortress company; a fortress steel plant that when strikes happen, can draw up its bridges and moats and be completely protected. So they don't care at all about what you could say are the slightly positive parts of city planning that these "corporate citizens" of the past were more interested in. So the US Steel Corporation is not interested in schools, they're not interested in sanitary water or housing for their workers. They've purposefully built the steel mill so that it will be surrounded by the Calumet River and Lake Michigan and they can have it protected; protect their investment and keep their rabble-rousing, potentially striking workers out when the time comes.

 And that's exactly what they do. So there's a lot of narratives of Gary, still being painted as the city of the century, the city of the future, the futuristic Utopian city that was built. People kept saying out of thin air, built out of the sand. I believe they moved 11 million cubic tons of sand to build Gary. But it just did not match with the reality of the city which was complete abandonment to private capital, to make money off of people and house them as cheaply as possible.

Alex Chambers:  Gary, the Calumet area surrounding it, the south side of Chicago was all fueled by cheap labor, provided mostly by Eastern Europeans, white ethnic immigrants.

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  This is my Dad's side of the family; Serbian, Polish, Slovak, Hungarian. Guys who came and were used up by these factories. With the First World War, European immigration to the US ended abruptly. And so these mill owners were anxious to find more expendable bodies to feed to their mills. And in Indiana they took a different approach than the east coast which still had mills there. Absolutely 100 per cent segregated. And they began to hire black workers, or tried to lure black workers as strike breakers in huge numbers. So US Steel also had a plant in Alabama that they were primarily were trying to draw people from. This was obviously a calculated move and they're thinking about their profit more than anything. So the war had created an industrial boom so workers' power was at an all time high. Simultaneously, in backlash to those workers' power's growth, we're talking about the first red scare in the United States. So not the 1950s Arthur Miller red scare, but the one before then; 1917 Russian Revolution happens. All these Eastern European workers get seen as anarchists, communists and painted as such to try to strike a blow to the labor movement.

 So this really sets the scene for 1919 when the AFL organized a countrywide steel strike. They were fighting for an eight hour work day, protection from literal death in the workplace, higher wages and union recognition. This is part of the larger Chicago area labor story which has had such an enormous impact on every workplace in the country. So the strike shut down half of the entire steel production in the country. Everywhere from Colorado, West Virginia, Ohio, New York to Indiana was shut down. And so in Gary, mill management started bringing in literal train loads or barge boat loads from their other mills in the south to fill the Gary plant. And so these are guys that are being brought in, most likely not willingly. They have enormous mass of angry white workers that are literally ready to kill them and being told by the steel worker management, "Go to work".

Alex Chambers:  Okay, let's remember about these workers. They were ethnic European, but they weren't wasps. They weren't upper class white people. They probably weren't even seen as white at all by the upper classes. But suddenly they were trying to strike and the factory owners were bringing in all these black workers as scabs and the racial opposition became pretty stark. It seemed to the strikers like the black workers were the enemy. And that, by the way, is one way of illustrating the phrase "racial capitalism". The way capitalism creates racial division to benefit the rich. Anyway, with the black workers as the enemy, that made the ethnic European workers suddenly feel, white.

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  We're seeing both the consolidation of a white ethnic identity and the consolidation of whiteness really, in these eastern European workers. And the use by these corporate overlords, they're doing everything they can to try to incite anti-black sentiments in these workers. And say "these are black scabs that are making more money than you, what are you gonna do about it?".

Alex Chambers:  And it's not just where they're going to work.

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  This is right in the middle of the great migration between 1915 and 1920; the number of black steel workers around Chicago increased by 9000 per cent. And they have nowhere else to go but into the even worse tenement houses surrounding the mills, the stockyards and other plants spreading out from South Chicago. And so right in this mix of the steel strike, the Chicago race riot of 1919 happens. Big death toll, enormous injury toll; 2000 homes are burned; mostly black owned homes. There's white mobs roaming the streets of Chicago, some are led by Democratic Party members that see their defeat in the Chicago mayoral election as due to black voters and they're literally pulling people off street cars and beating them. So through all of this, the Gary Mill continued to offer black workers five dollars to scab. They keep trying to spread rumors that black workers are breaking the strike, but in reality-- and I just want to shout out the work of scholars like Ruth Needleman, Paul O'Hara that have really worked on this and then black union leaders like Lewis Caldwell, who have shown that the reality was that the majority of black workers that were at the mill were on strike also.

 So the mill was doing their damnedest to find and pay picket crossers to bring in more scabs, et cetera. They even went so far as to bring workers from Alabama in on oar boats to their fortress of a mill as a very small number of workers and then have them rotate through highly visible parts of the mill to try to make the white strikers even more angry. But union leaders like Lewis Caldwell were constantly trying to keep the steel strike from becoming a white supremacist mob, speaking at mass meetings, urging everyone to stay on the picket line; and then doing a lot of this coalition building work of being one of the first labor leaders to also start simultaneous Spanish language meetings for an increased number of Mexican workers who were also brought in as some of the first Latinas workers in the area. This is where my Mom's side of the family story comes in a little bit . It's a story of this absolute heroism but newspapers, obviously owned by corporate interests the same as the mills, continued to distort events; to continue to tell a story about valiant white picketers and black scabs and eventually end up pressuring Gary to declare marshall law and bring in federal troops and the Indiana state Militia to try to end the strike.

Alex Chambers:  Newspapers were distorting events. They reinforced the stories of valiant white picketers and black scabs. The way the story of 1919 got told, rippled out. It shaped segregation in Chicago and North West Indiana. Backlash among white real estate agents led them to pioneer new techniques for segregation, like restrictive covenants.

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  You might have seen maps of Chicago, outlining literally where home owners were binded to sell only to other whites; which governed about 75% of all of Chicago's residential property for a very long time.

Alex Chambers:  That line Ava draws back from red lining to the steel strikes and the white supremacist riots of 1919; you can draw it back even farther. Deeper, maybe?

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  Yeah, it all goes to natural gas.

Alex Chambers:  And the legacies of those natural gas discoveries continue today in what we now think of as the rust belt. We're gonna take a break and when we come back, we'll talk about those legacies. Stick around.

Alex Chambers:  Welcome back to Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers. Ava Tomasula y Garcia is a writer and scholar from the Calumet area. That's North West Indiana, for those of you not familiar. She's written about how natural gas discoveries made the region an important player for industries like steel. Gary was the center of that and in the early 20th Century, corporate owners tried to undercut a steel strike by bringing in black workers from the south. That had another effect though, too. That concentration of workers in Gary, black and white, made the city an important one for both Civil and Labor Rights. It was an incubator for the Black Power movement.

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  Hatcher was the first black mayor of an American city; came out of Gary. We can think of the American labor movement and today, the worker center movement of trying to win rights in the workplace for an increasing number of service sector workers who are not included in standard unionization efforts. A lot of that work is being done in Chicago and the surrounding south suburbs bleeding, out into Indiana.

Alex Chambers:  Because its economy was so dependent on steel, it also meant North West Indiana was hit especially hard when steel prices collapsed in the mid 1970s. Manufacturing shut down or left for cheaper labor in the south, south west or overseas. That gutted the economies of cities across Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and more. Over the past generation there have been huge changes in what work looks like around the Great Lakes.

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  Thousands and thousands of people lost jobs and made the Calumet into a place that today, is more synonymous with waste containment and management. Vulture industries that have settled into the footprint that these larger companies left. Pallet manufacturers, lots of metal recyclers. Actually it's still extremely industrialized; so smaller finishing plants. The Unilever soap factory, casinos; another kind of extractive industry; and the proliferation of service jobs.

Alex Chambers:  We think of that region, proudly speaking, as being the rust belt. What's the problem with thinking about it that way?

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  In a lot of ways, focusing on this almost pornographic focus on de-industrialization, on urban decay ends up reinforcing a lot of racist stereotypes. So if you think about how Gary's been imagined and painted since the eighties and since the steel mills left, it's not this vision of white ethnic minority immigrants that are working hard and it was hard work but they got the job done and something to be proud of. But Gary's imagined as this place of urban decay and crime; same as Detroit, Flint, Michigan. So it's this very racialized vision. So, I see these as narratives that are very much produced by the interests of industry and fed back to us. And that we need to not buy. This cookie-cutter definition of de-industrialization has actually been, in some ways, a product of these industries themselves painting this picture of victimization. And when we think of even Trump's election, left and right, there is this real narrative of shock and the blame being pinned on the "working class" of the American heartland which is imagined as white; which is not completely the case. And it's this vision of decline and possible comebacks, so if you think "Make America Great Again", it's this formulation of both nostalgia for this imagined white supremacy. And then also reaching forwards with this very apocalyptic vision of decay.

 Which is just not politically useful for the kind of world we want to live in.

Alex Chambers:  If the narrative of the rust belt is a problem and is not really useful for us, what do you feel like we should be focusing on instead?

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  No, it's an interesting question because something happened here. And I think you always have to be careful that the story-lines you make up in order to name and resist power; so something like the industrialization or the immense pollution of the area, the way that corporations for 100 years plus have just completely polluted this place and had zero accountability about it. And so, thinking of yourself as maybe a victim of that, and that's the story that you have to tell to try to fight for justice. You always have to be careful that that same story doesn't flip into something ugly or that's opposite. That same sense of victimization can be mobilized by something like Make America Great Again. Any kind of movement for justice always has to be aware of the potential pitfalls in its own strategizing. But thinking about the midwest today and the rust belt, you have to treat it as it is; it's not this kind of failed Utopia, not this space of apocalyptic decline and decay, but it is very much an integral part of the history of this country and of the world is as lively and diverse and contradictory as the rest of the country.

Alex Chambers:  I said at the beginning that we were all engulfed in a world of fossil fuels. There's some truth to that. But when you stand on the south shore of Lake Michigan, you can look north at the vast expanse, sure. You can look west and see the smoke stacks; those engines of industry and,turns out, climate change. You can also look around you at the dunes with their grasses and trees and all the people playing soccer, sunbathing, reading, living different lives there on the beach and beyond. I think the way to avoid getting engulfed is to get specific. To learn about a particular place. And then to learn about other places too. Growing up, what Ava saw in the Calumet region seemed normal and then one day, she looked out the window and thought--

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  Oh this doesn't look like a lot of other places, how is that? And I remember having a moment of the background becoming the foreground and the smoke stacks and Horseshoe Casino logo and so on that just formed a normal landscape to me; stood out as what they are. You could call it a disaster capitalist sacrifice zone or any other number of things. And so I was interested in figuring out the history of how this area of the world developed.

Alex Chambers:  I hope this conversation makes you interested in how your part of the world developed. In one way or another, it's probably connected to Ava's part of the world too. Okay, one last thing this week; we're close to the end of the show, so it seems like it's time to turn to our Classifieds.

Avi Forrest:  For sale. One book shop. Doubles as a shining pillar of local culture and purveyor of a vast collection of relics and curios.

Katie Brown:  We're the only place like this, probably within 100 miles, at least.

Avi Forrest:  Includes stacks of story books, shelves of sci-fi, heaps of historical novels and row after row of facts, fiction, prose, poetry and things you never knew you couldn't live without.

Katie Brown:  There are so few places like this left.

Avi Forrest:  For those interested, inquire within the shop bearing the sign Caveat Emptor.

Katie Brown:  It means buyer beware and that just means well, we have the book but we can't be responsible for your reaction to what's inside of it.

Avi Forrest:  Specifically, with Katie Brown who has owned the shop since 2016.

Katie Brown:  We never thought it was a possibility. Like lots of people, we had come here for years and it was the sort of place that you walk into and think God, it would be so incredible to own something like this, but that doesn't really happen. That doesn't happen to real people. The smell of the old books and the sight of the ladders and all of that. It was one of those things where we would come here from time to time and think God, I can't imagine owning a place like this; it's just so incredible. But you never think of that as being a reality.

Avi Forrest:  Brown bought the shop in the final hour before its previous owners were forced to close. A situation which she hopes will happen again.

Katie Brown:  Yeah, we don't wanna just shut it down. So it's really rare; the store is a rare bird and it would be a shame for the community to lose it.

Avi Forrest:  So what exactly is for sale?

Katie Brown:  The feeling of possibilities. There's so much here. It's nice for us when people come in and stand there and take deep breaths like, "I love that smell". It's really a community book store and almost all of our books come from the community. I think a new owner with a manager could come in and breathe a lot of life into this place. We just can't continue it anymore.

Avi Forrest:  Sure, there's the price tag for the prospective buyer, but if Caveat Emptor disappears, there is also a hefty cost for the community.

Katie Brown:  It's a place of ideas and it always has been; and it's been here for such a long time. We'd like to think we have something for everybody. And what's been important to us is to be a conduit for the books that are in Bloomington. This has been in the community for such a long time and we wanted to give as many chances as possible for somebody to step in and take over. We could simply close but no, we just don't want to do that.

Avi Forrest:  So, once again, for sale. One book shop. Seeking new owner to preserve an heirloom full of lovely, old books as well as a crucial piece of Bloomington.

Katie Brown:  I think it's got a good spirit to it.

Avi Forrest:  Inquire within.

Alex Chambers:  That classified ad was produced by WFIU's Avi Forrest. Since then, Caveat Emptor did find a buyer: Dayna and Jared Thompson, who also own Bloomington's Comedy Attic.

Alex Chambers: You've been listening to Inner States from WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. If you have a story for us, or you've got some sound we should hear, let us know at Speaking of found sound, we've got your quick moment of slow radio coming up. But first, the credits. Inner States is produced and edited by me, Alex Chambers, with support from Violet Baron, Eoban Binder, Mark Chilla, Avi Forrest, LuAnne Johnson, Sam Schemenauer, Payton Whaley, and Kayte Young. Our Executive Producer is John Bailey. Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music. Special thanks this week to Ava Tomasula y Garcia. The article she wrote that inspired this interview is called The Long Tale of Indiana's Oil and Gas Industry. You can find it at And thanks to Avi Forrest for the classified. Alright, time for some found sound.

Alex Chambers:  You've been listening to the sounds of the beach at Indiana Dunes State Park, June 2022. Until next week, I'm Alex Chambers. Thanks for listening.

Indiana Dunes looking east to Michigan City

Indiana Dunes looking east to Michigan City (Ava Tomasula y Garcia)

There’s something about gazing out a body of water that goes to the horizon that reminds you of the vast inhumanness of so much of the planet. I was struck by that last summer at the Indiana Dunes, on the shore of Lake Michigan. When the water rises up to the horizon like that, filling your vision, it’s not hard to imagine the existential panic Captain Ahab’s youngest sailor felt when he went overboard in a whale fight. The rest of the crew went off chasing the whale, and there he was, bobbing up and down with nothing but ocean around. Don’t worry, he got rescued, but in the hour he was alone in the ocean, something changed in him. While he had floated there, surrounded on all sides by undulating water ready to engulf him, “The sea had jeeringly kept his body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul.”

I was less likely to be engulfed by the inhuman expanse of the sea because I was on the shore, surrounded by giant umbrellas, beach balls, and plenty of sunscreened humans. Plus, out at the farthest edge of the coast, I could see the smokestacks of the steel industry. They’re strangely grounding, those giant structures at the edge of my vision. The sight kept the infinite of my soul from drowning, but probably because it felt like they were jeering at me. Sometimes if you want to be acknowledged, jeering is what you settle for.

The smokestacks reminded me of another way I’m engulfed – we’re all engulfed: in a world run by fossil fuels. Which is not great. Not just because they’re heating the planet up. Also because fossil fuel production takes land, and labor, and leaves an immense amount of pollution in the communities that surround it.

Jeering might be the right word, too, for how those smokestacks relate to the region around them. The Dunes are in the Calumet Region, which also includes cities like Gary, Hammond, and Michigan city – cities dominated, according to scholar and writer Ava Tomasula y Garcia, by smokestacks and “air you can see and taste because it’s so dirty.” The region was dominated for over a century by some of the dirtiest industries in the world.

Not too long ago, Ava published an article about all this in Belt Magazine. She tells the story of the oil and gas industry in Indiana, and considers how its influence continues to shape the region. It was because of that article that I wanted to talk with her. Ava is a graduate student in Anthropology at Columbia University, where she’s focused on medical anthropology. Specifically, she’s interested in undiagnosable illness that people living in the Rust Belt and the Calumet Region link to industrial toxicity. These are not “monumental” illness like cancer and asthma but things that are much harder to diagnose, like brain fog and nausea. I hope to have her on again to talk about that research. Today’s episode, though, is about how the geology of the region ended up shaping its industrial development, which also shaped its social history – who moved to the region, how race and labor struggles played out, and how regions like the Calumet, often known these days as the “Rust Belt,” are more complex than that term implies.

And after that, we go back through the archives of our classified ads, to remember what used to be for sale.


Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music.

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