By Ava Tomasula y Garcia
We have driven past them more often than I can remember and more often than I can forget: ten-foot-high flames burning off gas from BP’s oil refinery in Whiting, Indiana. My sister called them “volcanoes” when she was six and the name has stuck; now we drive through a ring of fire that has become as natural as it is pretty. My parents have memories of a sky that was perpetually orange; my tongue has a memory of the air that is thick enough to taste. A process of invisibilization: you look at something for so long that it disappears. This is how landscapes are made. People too.
The volcanoes cluster a dozen thick in what the newspapers call the Calumet region’s Rust Belt: an area that spans the Indiana towns of East Chicago, Hammond, Gary, and Whiting as well as the outskirts of industrial South Chicago. They look brightest at night against a black sky but you can always see them, no matter the density of fog or smog or familiarity or whatever it might be that day that veils the eyes. You read about them in the paper, even, with the increasingly common flare-ups.
Rosa Estrada can see the volcanoes from her front door. “It seems like an imminent threat,” she says. “One of their towers had a huge flame rising out of it with black smoke. It went 200 to 300 feet in the air. It was just enormous.” 1,100 refinery workers have been on strike since February 2016. The people brought in to “replace” them are not well-trained, and flare-ups have, consequently, become a regular occurrence.
I’ve lived along this 100-mile stretch of highway for all of my life. My family has spent years together in our car traversing it, if you add the hours up. This is where we are closest to one another: a metal tin hurtling down the road at eighty miles an hour, four of us inside. The drive generates new ways of measuring time and space. My knees are more and more smashed against the back of the driver’s seat the older I get. All distances are defined by miles per hour. An hour away. Two hours. An hour and a half in good traffic. Next to me, my sister rolls down the window to try to escape the perpetual carsick motion of a body going faster than it’s meant to, and gets a mouthful of heavy metals. This is the smog-filled panorama that people on their way in and out of Chicago from the Skyway know well—or rather, that they know from behind their windshields.
When I was younger, I looked at the long drive through the region to visit family on either side of it as wasted time spent going through a wasted place. This is a passenger’s view of the world: outside is nothing in itself; the eyes glide over it. Different companies that have their offices in Chicago but keep their dirty operations just past the city’s limits have eaten each other over the years through corporate mergers, assembly lines have been automated or shipped overseas for even cheaper labor and fewer protections. I ask my dad what the name of the factory he worked in was and we find out at the same time that it doesn’t exist anymore. Forget because of proximity, not in spite of it.
Today we are driving to Wolf Lake, an 804-acre body of water on the Indiana/Illinois border divided in half by a floating I-90 highway and half again by the Harbor Belt Railroad causeway. We count volcanoes as we go.
$1 Burgers. Work-Related Injuries. One Volcano. Gentleman’s Club. Next Exit. Next Right. Left. Cancer Lawsuits. ArcelorMittal Plant No. 1. Clark & Clark Attorneys. Exit 32. 1 1⁄2 Miles Right. Two Volcanoes. Three Volcanoes. Best BLT in Town. Domestic Abuse. How did your Congressman Vote? Diabetes Clinic. Four Volcanoes. Children’s Hospital. Industrial Strip Club. Number One Cancer Treatment in the Country. Showgirls. Family First. Join Today, Pay Tomorrow. Five. South Shore Slag Co. Lions’ Den Adult Superstore. Fridays at Ten. Unilever. Here. BP Oil. Standing with American Farmers. Cancer Lawsuits. Six, seven, eight. Horseshoe Casino, Next Exit. Cash for Gold.
Billboards and other testaments to desire give way to a narrow strip of grass, and a sudden cut to the left. If you turn to the west, you can see the volcanoes, blurring red heat into grey smoke on the horizon. If you turn east, you see geese, reeds, sand—water.
“Mayor Thomas M. McDermott, Jr. Welcomes You to Wolf Lake Memorial Park—Open Water, with a Real Lake Bottom!” The guidepost is your first introduction to the lake, The water is nestled between two ArcelorMittal and a U.S. Steel works, a BP oil refinery, AmeriStar and Horseshoe casinos, Exxon Mobil and Marathon Petroleum Bulk operations, and a Unilever chemical plant. On upwind days, my parents had picnics here growing up, accompanied by the roar of passing cars.
Most lakes in the area—including a large portion of Lake Michigan and the wetlands surrounding Wolf Lake—were man-made for mill usage, or were filled with excess slag during the region’s steel heyday. In fact, until we saw the welcome sign, my family had assumed for decades that Wolf Lake was another fake. A Real Lake Bottom: Wolf Lake is sold as the more natural nature; it’s presented as a glimmer of real in an expanse of postindustrial fiction. If you wanted, you could put on your rose-colored glasses and call this scenery an example of Rust Belt magical realism. But to do so would be to miss how very everyday this is.
Timothy Morton writes in Ecology Without Nature that the very idea of “nature” is far from natural itself. In fact, it seems to hover supernaturally above things, like a ghost. That is, the “natural” slides noiselessly over a list of stuff that it metonymically stands for but is not reducible to: “Fish, grass, mountain air, chimpanzees, love, soda water, freedom of choice, heterosexuality, free markets . . . Nature.” It is a concept that is at once full of meaning, and oddly empty. At Wolf Lake, “nature” can stand for steel, slag, and pollution as much as it can stand for cool breezes and sandy soil. It can stand for the market’s prerogative to destroy as many people and as much land as is “necessary” — to borrow one of capitalism’s favorite words. It can stand for the slow burn of unspoken consent that you slip yourself into, that this is the way things are.
Those who visit the lake regularly say that you only have to block out the towering power lines, the 400,000-gallon oil tanks, lines and lines of billowing smokestacks, and distant red flames, and you can find yourself truly in nature. Transported to another time. You stand on the marshy edge of the water and sink back millennia: glaciers pant across the ground, melting in stop-motion time into a shallow lake twice as large as it is now. You can walk across the entire span, the water reaching between two and four feet deep.
Now speed up time as human histories of genocide and segregation spill into the nine- teenth century. Illinois, Miami, and Potawatomi peoples are “removed.” Immigrant Slovak, Polish, and Serbian workers first arriving in Chicago’s settlement houses lay down tracks for nine different railroad corporations, making the area North America’s largest center for freight shipping. Standard Oil’s Rockefeller and other robber barons build debt-backed cartoon towns for their company men to live in—or better, to die in.
Fly backward into the 1950s, 40s, 30s, 20s, 10s. Black and Mexican workers fill jobs in the steel mills as they expand. Racial formations shift to make Slovaks and Serbs white, at the expense of the new arrivals. East Chicago becomes a perpetually growing landfill for its namesake city next door. Uranium clouds the sky as the city’s coal furnaces heat up; liquid waste and manure from the stockyards lick at sandy beach shores. The lake shrinks in expanse as its edges are filled with steel slag dumped by at least ten different industries. Redlining cuts through Chicago as whiteness is, yet again, reaffirmed as a synonym for ownership. Wolf Lake is divided again and again, by dikes in the water and high-tension lines in the air.
Partitioned into ever-smaller areas, suddenly the water grows deeper, its Real Lake Bottom sinking further down as Wolf Lake is dredged in 1956 to build I-90 directly overhead. Most features of this landscape are products of profitability: a few miles over, Lake Calumet, originally six feet deep, was made to be thirty feet so as to be within the minimum depth of navigable waters for international trade. 1970: the steel corporations eagerly eat and are eaten by ever-larger multinationals. Some transmute into aluminum and plastic behemoths, but most wither. In only five years from 1992- 97, employment in the United States grows by 13 percent—yet, according to the City of Chicago Department of Planning and the Calumet Area Industrial Commission’s Land Use Plan for the area, this region loses more than two thousand jobs. The multi-pronged, unspoken programs of disinvestment, deindustrialization, and labor informalization that spell globalization hit hard. Mills close and cause a rippling effect of poverty and slow rage which has not ceased.
Walking up to the lake, it is not hard to see this history. Or maybe it is the hardest thing about the area to see. It is like no place I’ve been before: nature put on display in the midst of one of the dirtiest places in the country. As we walk, we spot minnows in the water. We find the legs of blue crabs, dismembered by birds. Yet, the air is tinged with a metallic flavor. You can watch the white plumes from smokestacks like you watch the clouds, trying to pick out shapes. We are both amazed by the tenacity of nature to survive, and the tenacity of nature’s opposite in turning such a landscape into money. How did this happen?
Wolf Lake and environs have been the focus of myriad revitalization projects bent on bringing into existence, in the words of one pamphlet, “Music and fishing and kayaks, oh my!” Each plan shows little effort to incorporate the area’s heavy-metal past into the redevelopment project. But this is probably because there is too much present still around: the BP refinery whose volcanoes border Wolf Lake is the sixth-largest in the country and has been the site of a bitter, months-long strike, a poorly-covered-up oil spill into Lake Michigan, and massive lay-offs even as the company’s CEO was given a $3.3 million raise. More than nine million shipping containers pass through the region every year—twice the amount of anywhere else in the country; third globally to Hong Kong and Singapore as of a 2001 report. ArcelorMittal still runs steel and tries to crush its workers’ union at every turn. One abuse opens the gates for others. In the late 1980s, Donald Trump engaged in a decades-long scheme to open a casino in Gary that would, in his words, “empty the pockets of people in Chicago.” As Jeff Nichols wrote for the Chicago Reader, Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts mismanaged the Gary operation into the ground — and walked away with millions.
There are two other families at the lake today, and a small cluster of high schoolers flipping skateboards. Like us, they have all driven here. The families walk the concrete path circling the water. A runner we saw battling traffic and gulping smog from our car windows half an hour ago, finally catches up with us and continues his exercise. My dad tells me he had always hated coming here—“A puddle in the middle of a parking lot.” My mom remembers differently: catching tadpoles in ankle-deep water, “hiding in the reeds from the adults.” We marvel at the difference in their memories and leave it at that.
A group of Canadian geese nervously pad back and forth, trying to cross the constant stream of cars to a patch of grass opposite the lake. A dead bird lies on the side of the road, hit long ago. The geese walk around it.
If it weren’t so real, it could be an ugly metaphor: as Melissa Harris reports, during United Steelworkers’ nationwide strike in early 2015, two of the eleven refineries and chemical plants striking were the sites of fatal accidents. In other recent news, seven died at a Washington Tesoro refinery in 2010 when a heat exchanger failed. Fifteen died and 170 were injured in a 2005 BP explosion in Texas, after which a U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board found, as the New York Times wrote, “organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels of the BP Corporation. Warning signs of a possible disaster were present for several years, but company officials did not intervene effectively to prevent it.” In addition, workplace fatigue was listed as a possible cause for the explosion. As the New Republic found, all operators that day had worked twelve-hour shifts for at least twenty-nine days straight after a staffing downsize from twenty-eight to eight.
In Hammond, United Steelworkers Local 7-1’s ninety-three-day-long strike—the longest in the history of the 126-year-old refinery—demanded better safety conditions. In response, BP’s corporate board courteously walked around the dead. People on their way into Chicago honk in support of the strikers as they zoom past. Still a passenger’s luxury: drive by, drop in, leave. Even repetition does not make it permanent.
In 2000, a series of “Wolf Lake Bi-State Gatherings” were organized by the Association for the Wolf Lake Initiative and the National Park Service to “Imagine . . . a family-friendly outdoor destination of clean air, water and thriving wetlands . . . a natural paradise against the backdrop of the industrial and cultural heritage of the Calumet Region.”
The 130 “stakeholders”—federal, state, and local agencies; community and environmental groups; local business and industry—decided on the principles by which Wolf Lake’s redevelopment should abide. And so members of the Indiana EPA, the Eastwisch Girl Scouts, and the Illinois Audubon Society sat at the same table as BP Amoco Oil and Unilever Corporation representatives to decide the future of the lake. The guidelines’ vague language of possibility verges on the depoliticized: Identify pollution sources. Identify cost-effective restoration and remediation processes. Establish a Wolf Lake program at environmental education centers.
One of the few designs to actually come to fruition is from 2002. In that year, the City of Chicago Department of Planning and Development implemented a Calumet Area Land Use Plan whose reach includes Wolf Lake. Embracing almost 200 years of heavy industry and a horizonless future of more, Chicago’s then-mayor Richard Daley writes in the plan’s introduction:
“Today the era of decline is ending and it’s possible to see what a new era will look like. New industries will spring up in the Lake Calumet area, bringing new jobs and tax revenue. With careful planning and management, we can bring back Calumet’s natural beauty and industrial strength.”
The plan elaborates: Calumet contains one thousand acres of land currently open for industrial development. Even with the last few decades’ forty percent reduction in the amount of steel produced, northwest Indiana remains the nation’s largest steel processing region.
“Natural beauty and industrial strength.” I wonder at the celebration of what could be called a contradiction. The plan imagines an abstract future of its own choosing. In language reminiscent of that used by the billionaire-funded Marcellus Shale Coalition to persuade their way into fracking, Daley conjures up a moment in time in which heavy industry and environment exist in harmony. Like all the redevelopment attempts and visions before it, the Calumet Plan proposes that the oil refineries and mills dotting the landscape play a central role in the area — now and forever.
And so: standing at the edge of Wolf Lake, you feel like you are choosing whether or not to take and put on the blindfold held out in front of you.
You can look at the water itself, the beautiful birds, the snail shells, the crabs. All of this is here. The lake has become a nesting site for endangered species like the crowned night heron, the little blue heron, and the yellow-headed blackbird. Three different species of swans have made their home here, and make an eerie sight when spotted from the highway. My parents are shocked by the changes of the past ten years: when they were my age, they say, you would have never seen a squirrel, even.
You can look for all these things, and you will find them. And yet: lift your eyes a little higher, and you’ll find a roaring highway. Turn around, and you’ll see four volcanoes burning bright. Dig a little deeper under the soft silt of the Real Lake Bottom, and you’ll release a small plume of toxins. Sift through the blood of any of the lake’s local visitors, and you’ll find PCBs. Heavy metals. Lupus. Alzheimer’s. Cancers. The choking feeling of never being able to prove the cause of any of it. The sinking realization that a trip to the lake might count as yet another “exposure.”
Ghosts come in many different forms: chemical traces that bend you like invisible hands, a sense of timelessness that nevertheless passes too quickly. At the doctor, I watch my own blood as it is slowly drawn into transparent tubes. Compartmentalized. They want the black-red liquid in these bottles. My breath in these. I label the tube “Sample 1” and write my name on the glass as if I am identifying a body, which, after all, I am. Ask my father if he thinks working in the mills killed his parents. Of course. It is so obvious that it is background. This is where we live and this is us.
After our trip to the lake, my parents and I make a short drive to sit at the kitchen table of my mother’s parents’ house. They have lived here in Hammond since the 1950s. My grandmother was born in the Indiana Harbor; my grandfather was one of the Mexican immigrants paid in single dollar bills to lay railroad tracks that made Chicago boom. Each of them worked in the mills in different capacities. Today, my grandmother has Alzheimer’s, which is “aggravated,” to put it in the words of a medical journal, by her industrial sur-roundings. Her parents all died of pollution-induced diseases, as did my father’s parents.
Visiting this morning are Ernestina and Juan, who live a short distance away. Ernestina is telling us about her three jobs: part-time cafeteria work at a grade school, part-time cleaning office buildings in Chicago, and then as a housekeeper in the area, to make ends meet. Juan drives two hours every day to his job at a sugar plant near Chicago. Neither have health insurance, and the adults are all discussing home remedies for Ernestina’s slipped disc.
Ernestina and Juan’s employment situation is typical for the area. The median income in East Chicago is $26,538—still more than Trump’s Gary casino paid its employees (an average of $24,931, including tips and benefits). Few people living in Hammond, Whiting, or East Chicago know anyone who actually works at the ArcelorMittal mill, nor the BP refinery, although they are all familiar with the pollution from each. Instead, workers commute from more affluent towns and suburbs of Chicago, Michigan, and Indiana.
The kind of economic system that has created BP Oil, has created Wolf Lake, has created Ernestina’s three jobs, has created the special texture of the air hanging over Hammond. As Trish Kahle writes, “neither neoliberalism nor austerity is only a social or political project—they are ecological projects, remaking our relationships with our (built) environments.”
All the remediation plans that have taken place at Wolf Lake have been focused on what is visible at close range: making Wolf Lake a nicer park, a cleaner environment. This is, of course, extremely important. Yet this has also had the effect of creating Wolf Lake as a small island of relative ecological health in the middle of a toxic sacrifice zone—a “puddle in the middle of a parking lot.” Plans for Wolf Lake and the greater Calumet region envision a future brightened forever by the light of the volcanoes — just, somehow, “greener.” But those plans are brimming with contradiction, promising both “new industries . . . constructed in ways that don’t harm the environment” and “new power generating facilities,” imagined very much along the same lines as those that currently exist.
In This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein says that “we are left with a stark choice: allow climate disruption to change everything about our world, or change pretty much everything about our economy to avoid that fate.” That is: BP Oil is a different kind of stakeholder than the Eastwisch Girl Scouts. What would a redevelopment plan for Wolf Lake look like that chooses not to wear the blinders? The answer is so clear that it be- comes counterintuitive: to really redevelop Wolf Lake, you must look beyond Wolf Lake.
Any attempt to remake the area can’t solely be concerned with incremental changes to the status quo—an added AquaPark, a refurbished music pavilion. Deep change means imagining a future in which attempts to rebuild the world are not neatly bounded into the space of a park. It means imagining Wolf Lake as part of a larger world that includes the view from its shores and the lives of the people that come to it. Deeply redeveloping Wolf Lake would mean extinguishing the volcanoes. It would mean replacing fossil fuel and other ecologically destructive industries with sustainable ones, while building a democratic and equitable economy that is rooted not only in divestment from disaster capitalism, but also reinvestment in the communities most exploited by extractive industries, and excluded from the wealth that they generate. It’s a hefty task, and one that presents itself as totalizing in the same way that the extractive capitalism that dominates the Calumet is imagined as totalizing. It is hard to imagine the view from Wolf Lake without the constant flares.
Drawing up a list of what would need to happen to achieve a different view from Wolf Lake becomes an exercise in imagination, where you can more or less arbitrarily choose if what you’re writing down is feasible or completely off the wall. Workers’ co-ops. Wind farms. Community gardens. A strengthened EPA. An end to corporate lobbying.
And so you end up in the same position as those other redevelopment plans: proposing small changes that, you hope, will lead to larger ones down the line. There is a difference here, however: the end goal is not to merely “identify sources of pollution,” nor to replicate the present. It is not merely to build a concert venue on the water and keep the highway that cuts through it. The future you imagine is nothing less than the end of the present. It is a view from Wolf Lake. ■
This story was originally published in Rust Belt Chicago: An Anthology, available from Belt Publishing, where it appears under the title “Slow Burn: Water, Oil, and Volcanoes in Indiana’s Rust Belt.”
Ava Tomasula y Garcia was born in Chicago and grew up in Indiana. She is currently a student at Yale University, where she studies the “human” in human rights rhetoric as an ontological category under pressure from contemporary capitalism. She will continue working for environmental and economic justice—as well as for broader radical change—in the Midwest, where she lives, for as long as she lives.
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