In Gary, Indiana, a group of photographers is taking an active role in efforts to restore the city’s historic abandoned buildings. A collective known as the Decay Devils is leading the charge in bringing stakeholders together around the city’s Union Station, a railroad stop built in 1910 in the beaux-arts style and abandoned in the ’70s.
The group formed a few years back out of necessity. Decay Devils member Tyrell Anderson says they shared an interest as local photographers in the dramatic aesthetic of crumbling buildings, but shooting alone was a little dicey in Gary.
“We would reach out to the community [of photographers] for people to get together because we were not super comfortable doing these things alone,” Anderson says.
After a while, they started taking road trips to other cities around the Rust Belt — Detroit, Manteno, Illinois — photographing old buildings along the way. Then their travels took them to the South, to Savannah, Georgia, and New Orleans, where many of the older buildings had been maintained.
“We started to see how preservation efforts there were different,” Anderson remembers. He was struck by even antebellum plantation houses and slave quarters in pristine condition.
“No matter what side of the fence you fall on,” he says, “we could walk the streets and learn their history.”
Their interest in capturing preservation efforts grew, and the photographers flew to Italy, where they visited Rome, Florence and Pompeii.
“That was like the icing on the cake,” says Anderson. “Once we were able to see how profitable the old relics were, it had me scratching my head.”
Back in Gary, Anderson and his group got to work. They knew that Union Station and other historic landmarks like the old U.S. Post Office wouldn’t be the next Colosseum. but they had seen enough to understand how to make this work: Draw tourists to the buildings with the most interesting stories and use the profits to fund restoration of other buildings.
The city of Gary has also been working to preserve architecture. Earlier this year, the Gary Redevelopment Commission raised funds to offer tours to the public of some historic sites. In February, Sam Salvesen, an associate city planner, told the Times of Northwest Indiana, “If we don’t pay attention, if money’s not invested, we’ll lose them forever. Gary doesn’t need another parking lot. We have a built environment that’s worth preserving.”
The Decay Devils are just getting started. They cleaned up the area around Union Station with community support, and covered the windows with colorful paintings made by local graffiti artists and muralists. Earlier this month, they held an event featuring food, artists, music and games to celebrate their beautification efforts. Anderson says art is an important tool for drawing people to these spaces. Many in the community are understandably wary of spending time around these abandoned buildings.
Colorful paintings made by local graffiti artists and muralists now cover the windows of Gary's abandoned Union Station. (Photo by Gregory Ott)
Over the years, as its economy has shrunk, the city has experimented with the usual arsenal of development strategies: urban renewal in the ’60s, casinos in the ’90s, and a $20 million minor league baseball stadium called the Steel Yard, which left unmet its promise to be a catalyst for downtown development.
Anderson says the Steel Yard is the last time he knows of that U.S. Steel had contributed a major investment to the city.
“When I went to elementary school, we had tours of the plant,” remembers Anderson. “There’s a big disconnect there.”
While its ranks may have decreased since its heyday in the 1970s, U.S. Steel is a significant contributor to the city’s tax base with 5,000 workers. Anderson is one of them.
When he first started with the Decay Devils, Anderson would take photos with his group on the weekends around town. He’d come back to work and show the guys at the plant — most of them a generation older than he was — the shots he’d taken.
“I was 26, 27, and I’m getting history lessons,” he says. “And then they would give me other places to look up. ‘There used to be church over here, an old ice company over there.’”
After Decay Devils got a little press and a few grants, Anderson got U.S. Steel on board. Company reps haven’t written a check, but they promised unlimited resources in terms of manpower. Anderson says U.S. Steel helped transform the area around Union Station into a park, laying asphalt and brick, and building benches. While the group still has to clear out the building before they determine what will go inside and raise money for it, one option that’s been floating around is a steel museum.
Historic preservation draws critics from both sides of the aisle. Republican lawmakers in the Midwest criticize historic districts for infringing on homeowners’ rights. Affordable housing advocates argue that historic designations further wealth inequality by preventing affordable housing from being developed in high-opportunity neighborhoods. Redevelopment of historical landmarks in areas where property values are creeping up can push neighborhoods over the tipping point — at once increasing the viability and economic activity in the area, while often also displacing low-income residents. Preservationists have responded with data that show how saving old buildings in neighborhoods has helped with diversity, affordability and opportunity.
While the Decay Devils and the city of Gary are looking to some cities that are struggling with this paradox, Anderson says Gary’s not there yet. He says before they can worry about affordable housing, they have to get people to come to Gary in the first place.
As for the Decay Devils continuing the work, the transition from photographers to preservationists, Anderson says, has been surprisingly natural.
“With photography, you’re capturing the moment, the current state,” he says. “But for our members, when you see the elements of your idea implemented, it gives you a different sensation. We’re able to create instead of just capture.”
Nina Feldman is an independent journalist focused on audio production. She worked as a regular contributor to NPR member station WWNO in New Orleans and as editor at American Routes. Her work has also appeared on Marketplace, Morning Edition and PRI's The World.