An Examination of the Great Lakes Region

Michigan Avenue at the Chicago River, Looking Southwest, Chicago, Illinois

I realized I needed to get out of St. Louis for a little while to clear my head and get some needed perspective, so I set out from the Gateway City, heading northeast for what ended up being an almost two-week odyssey around, for lack of a better term, the eastern Midwest, or might be better described as the cities around the Great Lakes. My graduate education, and its attendant focus on Renaissance and early modern Humanism, always taught me that to truly understand my primary subject, which of course remains St. Louis, I must also study its contemporaries and colleagues, so while perhaps some readers might find annoyance in this divergence from the primary scope of this website, please realize that from my perspective, examining cities that grew up, prospered and stumbled in the same epoch as St. Louis is vital to the understanding of our own city. If you’re really not interested, come around in November, and we’ll be back in St. Louis.

Ransom-Gillis House, Brush Park, Brush Park, Detroit, Michigan

To say that my trip was revelatory would be an understatement. Chicago is still the titan that reinvents itself in the post-industrial world, while still struggling with severe problems, while Detroit surprised me with its ability to emerge from its Devil’s Night reputation–though looking just under the surface problems still linger. I revisited Gary this trip, and meditated on photographs I took from New Year’s Day of 2009 that I am now publishing for the first time.

City Methodist Church, Gary, Indiana

Throughout this tour, I will be focusing on various themes: disinvestment, poverty, rebirth, industry–especially steel, malaise and the American Dream–what that even means anymore. I think more than anything I felt a feeling of sadness and loss, of the passing of something ineffable that is not coming back, much in the same way when I am in the presence of Roman ruins.

Our Lady, Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Cathedral, Toledo, Ohio

Perhaps more than anything, the theme of poverty was the one that constantly threw itself into my face. When I drove into Toledo on my way to its cathedral, it confronted me immediately, almost like it was searching for me. “Is it really that easy,” I wondered, “to find run-down, poverty-stricken neighborhoods in the wealthiest country in the world?”

Delano, Jack, photographer. Cleveland, Ohio. Unloading iron ore from a lake freighter by means of Hewlett i.e., Hulett unloaders at the Pennsylvania Railroad docks. United States Ohio Cuyahoga County Cleveland, 1943. May. Photograph. 

Cleveland is also one of those places in America that has to be seen to believed. Cutting a huge swath right through the middle of the city is the massive Cuyahoga Valley, still seething with industry, much of it incredibly, filthily polluting. But it is also so sublime. I imagine the gigantic freighters from the Iron Range of Minnesota docking along Lake Erie, the massive loaders scooping the ore from their hulls, sending it up the rail lines to the hellish blast furnaces awaiting to turn that rock into steel. And in that same valley that would later catch fire because it was so polluted, the Rockefellers had made their fortune refining the oil that would later ignite that same crevasse in the earth’s surface.

Stambaugh Auditorium, Wick Park, Youngstown, Ohio

That theme of poverty in America reared its head again as I reached Youngstown, which is often in the news for the wrong reasons. While I saw so much desolation, and acres and acres of vacant land where steel mills once stood, now long since demolished, what perhaps struck me so much was how quiet it all was. And I’ll never forget remarking to myself how many abandoned buildings there were in a historic district I visited–perhaps a note of optimism for the future. But I still found beauty, as well.

Mount Auburn, Cincinnati, Ohio

I made it back to Cincinnati again, continuing to be fascinated by the city that served as the first stop for so many famous St. Louisans. I made it out of the Over the Rhine neighborhood more for the first time, and I continue to find how the city is separated by steep hills and bluffs such an interesting setting for a city.

BioUrja Renewables, Peoria, Illinois

I wrapped up my adventure by returning to Peoria and my family’s farm. There’s been quite a bit of redevelopment around the city, but at the same time there is the requisite decline on the South Side, which I looked at back in June of 2022. It seems to be growing a lot, to the north, and unlike St. Louis, Peoria annexed large amounts of rural land outside of its urban core, so for better or for worse, its suburban sprawl continues to pay taxes to the central city. Once known as Whiskey City, some of the old warehouses have been converted into an ethanol plant–a stark contrast to much of the dirty industry that is still very much alive in Detroit and Cleveland, shockingly close to low-income, minority communities. If I coughed when I rolled down my windows for just thirty seconds, what are long term effects on people who breath that same air for decades?

Terminal Tower, Cleveland, Ohio

I saw lots of thriving downtowns. Detroit, which once had a downtown that a photographer proposed should become a park of abandoned skyscrapers akin to the Roman Forum, does not have a single major vacant building. Cleveland, its downtown revitalized with the redevelopment of the soaring Terminal Tower, was bustling on the weekday I visited. Chicago’s Loop and its vitality goes without saying–there are more buildings over forty stories in one block than in all of St. Louis. Cincinnati has a multitude of recently built skyscrapers, with corporate headquarters spurring their development, and its historic office buildings have been renovated. Heck, even Toledo’s and Youngstown’s downtowns are not that bad. Which brings me to the question: why has St. Louis’s downtown been such a lemon for so long? And I’m not talking about the troubles of the last couple of years. There is just no civic pride from corporations any more. No Gussie Busch, that’s for sure. Don’t utter the name Danforth around me…

Luxury in-fill apartments, Brush Park, Detroit, Michigan.

But don’t get me wrong; a bustling and revitalized downtown, while a critical aspect of a thriving city (I’ve never seen the latter without the former), does not result in trickle down economics. As I mentioned above, I saw shocking poverty, gross wealth, and disgusting pollution in all of those cities with thriving and beautiful downtowns and gentrifying central cores. And that central question I will ask as we journey through these cities is: for whom is this revitalization intended? Is it for everybody, or just the chosen few?

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Mark Preston says:

    To me, it once was and ever will be the St Louis City Fathers, who, fail to make progress. Despite all the committee meetings, speeches, public addresses, etc., they are the cause of the lack of revitalization. Individuals, even mega-corporations cannot carry the burden. And it’s not in their job description anyway.

    Chris, amazing tour. I’ll be looking forward to the next one.

  2. Keith Murray says:

    I’ve been backing my way through the Great Lakes series, and arrive here at the start enthralled, informed and reflective at the superb contents.

    Chris Naffziger is a St. Louis treasure, focused on critical intersections between then and now, and what is and what could be. Or, rather, what should be. When does he ever get the vital message wrong? I have not seen it.

    With his regional, national and international forays, he extends the pleasure and, often, pain about our present state of society and culture, as we endure so much and so many losses. But he’s always hopeful and prescriptive, aiming at what’s simplest: When our values are aligned and right, we rise and our precious historical context rises again with us.

    At least who and what have survived the onslaught.

    Many thanks.

    1. cnaffziger says:

      Thank you so much for your kinds word; I really appreciate it!

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