ABOARD THE AMTRAK BLUE WATER, Dec. 9, 2008 — Riding from Battle Creek, Mich., to Chicago, I was reminded that the Soviet Union had nothing on the U.S. when it came to urban decay and depressing, gritty, industrial wasteland. (And yes, I've seen both countries.) The south shore of Lake Michigan where Illinois and Indiana meet, around Gary, is possibly the grimmest corner of commerce in America. I first saw it as a child when traveling to Chicago by car from our home in Albion, Mich. It is arguably worse now for the fact many of the foundries and factories clearly are no longer in use. And the ones that are seem uninhabited.
Except for guys fixing railroad tracks, I saw no people, although I did see a smattering of cars in sparsely used parking lots, and the lights were on at many of the plants. US Steel still has a big presence here.
There also were hundreds, if not thousands, of open hopper rail cars full of coke, that ingredient of steel, with many of the cars labeled "CSX Coke Express." Coke, the lower-case version, is still crack for a country that consumes vast amounts of metal (while at the same time discarding metal junk willy-nilly along the rail lines of America).
This area of the country must be seen under the interminably gray skies of the Upper Midwest winter to be fully appreciated. It's a feast for the eyes, and desert is the South Side of Chicago, where wide-open spaces, where houses used to be aren't a good sign at all.