Photo by Jeffrey F. Barken

The Region

– Essay by Joseph S. Pete

After the unpleasant, embarrassing topic of Mike Pence reared its ugly head, I volunteered that Northwest Indiana is like the New Jersey of Chicago, hoping maybe I could clarify the lay of the land, automatically assuming they didn’t know enough to distinguish between the downstate sticks and theurbanized sprawl just across the state line where people still said frunchroom and pop, where they ordered their Italian beef wet and practiced the ancient art of dibs whenever snow fell.

“Oh yeah, how’s that working out for you?”
If you live in the Region, you’re inevitably going to get condescended to.
Blue collar workers in the Calumet Region, a heavily industrialized and highly ethnic no man’s land on the southern shore of Lake Michigan between Chicago and the Hoosier cornfields, make all the steel that frames your car and also refine the gasoline that fills your tank. Steelworkers here used to drive beaters and clunkers to work because over the course of an 8-hour shift their cars would get coated in a pink blanket of iron oxide. Not afraid to get dirty and hardened by the heat of the blast furnace, Northwest Indiana steelworkers forge the metal that surrounds you but that you take for granted when poking your head in the fridge, doing a quick load of laundry or snapping the cap off theFrappuccino bottle you just bought at a mini mart. People don’t appreciate the steel goes into theirbridges, their office buildings, and even their laptops, or where it comes from. They certainly don’tappreciate the steelworkers who make most of the nation’s steel in this rust-dappled corner of corner of the country that left its heyday behind more than a half century ago. Native son Jean Shepherd, who went on to become a cult figure in New York City radio and the author of “A Christmas Story,” described Northwest Indiana as clinging “furiously to the underbody of Chicago like a barnacle clings to the rotting hulk of a steam tramper.”

Chicago’s New Jersey routinely gets dismissed and derided by Chicagoans, usually by a subset so provincial they’re unfamiliar with the geographic borders of their own city, especially anything south of the Loop. They’re the type who would joke about getting mugged if they went to a White Sox game on the South Side, and still insist they’re not racist.

“So it’s a big deal for Indiana that Mike Pence is vice president,” the smarmy man asked or outright declared at the Printer’s Row Literary Festival in the Printer’s Row neighborhood in the SouthLoop where any last vestige of the publishing industry faded long ago. It was almost certainly as farsouth as he’d ever ventured into the city. This sweater vest-clad man never ate a Jim Shoe sandwich, never set foot into a corner tavern and never would know how or why neighborhood kids jonsed forpickles and candy canes. He likely didn’t even know how to pronounce gyros correctly. He certainly wouldn’t know Northwest Indiana’s once-bustling mills drew immigrants from the world over, making it a melting pot of more than 70 ethnic groups, not the uniformly redneck red state where unwashed savages pulled guns on each other at Walmart as he doubtless envisioned. He didn’t know we were deep blue, reelecting our longtime Democratic Congressman with nearly 70 percent in nearly every election.He didn’t know we were so heavily unionized that “Proud Union Home” signs were planted in nearlyevery yard, or that we were so blue collar we literally have a store called simply “Blue Collar Supply.”He didn’t know we literally bordered Chicago,that for many we were just another bedroom community, and we were piped in nothing but Chicago news to the point where local schoolchildren notoriously name the Illinois governor when asked who their governor is. He didn’t know how firmly Northwest Indiana is in Chicago’s orbit and cultural sway, while at the same time many Chicagoans look at the state line as the “here there be dragons” part of the map that they only visit for cheap smokes, fireworksor casino gaming. To some, everything past the state border is a backwoods wasteland even a post- apocalyptic warrior wouldn’t dare venture into.

At Printer’s Row in Chicago, we enjoyed a leisurely, joyous bibliophile’s paradise sustained byfree truffle almond Kind Bars and gelato samples. Between author talks, we hunted through voluminous hardcovers and doge-eared paperbacks for serendipitous finds that didn’t already line our bookshelves back home.

That was until editors of a poetry journal in the northern suburbs asked where we were from and my fiance let slip we hailed from Indiana, to them a soybean-blanketed state best known for mediocrity and a capital city without a ballet company, a botanical gardens, a navigable waterway, a culinary scene or more than two tall skyscrapers.

Immediately the questions turned to Vice President Mike Pence, who had recently served as Indiana governor and shepherded in the embarrassing Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, which had puzzle shops and other such businesses posting signs in their storefronts pleading they were tolerant and civilized years later.

How toxic was the RFRA, you ask? How shameful was it to our reputation in every corner of astate that’s large and diverse but that many only see as red? Years later, the Indiana Welcome Center just across the state line in Hammond, a glorified rest stop with free art exhibits that’s jam-packed with tourist brochures, still has a heart-adorned sign saying “Hoosier hospitality means everyone.” A veganrestaurant still has a sign on the door stressing it’s a “discrimination-free zone.” Many storefronts haveleft such signs of welcoming and inclusiveness up because the RFRA damage lingers on, long after the celebrity calls for boycotts faded. Years after the fact, a pawn shop in a seedy neighborhood still has ablinking electronic billboard that says “come get stacks of cash” and then “we don’t discriminate” withan unmistakable heart symbol, as even the last refuge of desperate souls risks losing business if it doesn’t prove its equality bona fides. Imagine occupying a hellscape where a pawn shop has to take a moral stance on social issues. Try living where a pawn shop is more ethical than nearly everyone holding elected office.

Indiana state lawmakers, most of whom are gerrymandered into power and who preside over districts where there are more corn stalks than people, routinely embarrass the state like that. They pass discriminatory bills, fail to approve the hate crimes legislation that every other state has had for years, don’t care a whit about the optics of modernity, and continued to maintain Indiana’s unwelcome distinction as the only state in the union with a blue law forbidding the sale of alcohol on Sundays until spring of 2018, prompting many jokes about Indiana finally entering the 20th century and patronizing, dismissive remarks about how only Indiana would make a big deal about taking a tentative step toward modernity. Every other state graciously allowed their residents to buy booze on Sundays, and in Indiana there long was no actual substantive religious objection anymore—it was just a pitched trench battle between the liquor store lobby and the grocery lobby. Liquor store lobbyists hoped to preserve market share so consumers have fewer opportunities to grab a case of beer while they’re already out at the supermarket. The state legislature has become so insular and lobbyist-driven that one of major issues in a recent session was that gas stations exploited a loophole in the state’s antiquated alcohol laws to sell cold beer, which the lickspittle lawmakers promptly fixed for their corporate masters. Theliquor store lobby had the audacity to try to mount of astroturf campaign by launching a series of “that’s not a restaurant” ads against the offending gas station chain, as though even a single Hoosier outside ofthe statehouse bubble even cared.

Indiana state lawmakers maintain a servant-like loyalty to corporate interests when not humiliating their constituents with culture wars legislation that makes outsiders assume every Hoosier is a bigot, a slack-jawed yokel, an ignorant and hateful troglodyte who probably still uses an outhouse.

Our corner of the state in the Calumet Region is filled with bedroom communities and people who commute into the city for work, and universities like Purdue Northwest, Indiana University Northwest and Valparaiso University. We’ve got plenty of pour-over coffee, barrel-aged coffee, nitro cold brews, and coffee stouts. We’ve in fact got dozens of craft breweries, and restaurant menus with poke and pork belly and every other conceivable culinary trend. Many artists call Northwest Indiana home, and it has cultural amenities like the Nelson Algren Museum, the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, theaters galore, a pioneering brewery that was rated best in the world for several years and other trappings of a civilized place. But reputation-wise, we’re at the mercy of a state capital where elected officials occasionally like to take a swipe at civil rights and basic human decency, either as a sop to their base or out of pure pettiness and spite. Our image is forever tarnished because we’re a minority in our own state; we pay for the sins of church-going straight-party ticket voters who have a firm hold on how the state is perceived to outsiders. A red state like Mississippi can produce high culture for the ages like Eudora Welty and William Faulkner, but many will just dismiss it as a conservative hellhole of high obesity rates and low educational attainment that’s not worth even passing through.

We in the Region, along with Hoosiers in college towns like Bloomington, South Bend or West Lafayette or in sizable cities like Indianapolis, cringe whenever some rural lawmaker proposes a regressive transgender bathroom bill, especially if it attracts attention from any out-of-state press. Such discriminatory and backwards bills paint the entire state of Indiana as an unenlightened backwater, an uncultured cesspool filled with uneducated bigots imprisoned in the past.

It’s no wonder the man asked about Pence right away.

In the brief moment, I couldn’t explain how our corner of the state was filled with hard-working union members who loathed Pence for repealing the common construction wage and other sundry offenses against the working class, how every other yard had a “Fire Pence” sign, and how he would have almost certainly lost his reelection bid had Trump not bailed him out Deus Ex Machina style after he humiliated the state nationally by advancing discrimination against gays, incurring wrath and shame in even the “rock-ribbed Republican suburbs of Indianapolis,” as the New York Times once memorably put it.

“We’re the New Jersey of Chicago,” I feebly ventured, trying to stress how much more in the shadow of Chicago we are than under the influence of the simpleton downstaters they reflexively denigrate. But to such people, such distinctions don’t matter. It’s all the same.

The tone was extremely patronizing when one of the women with the journal asked, “Oh yeah,how’s that working out for you?”

I said nothing.

In a placating tone, another woman mentioned she once passed through Northwest Indiana on her way to Muncie, presumably to visit a child downstate at Ball State University.

Even in flyover country, Northwest Indiana is flyover country. Though even the most rural provinces of Long Island, Connecticut or Rhode Island dismiss Chicago as a cowtown in the middle of nowhere, Chicagoans are even more ruthless to the metro sprawl around the satellite cities of Gary, East Chicago and Hammond, which borders Chicago’s southeastern-most neighborhoods.

I said nothing in protest earlier either, after the booker of a radio show I was invited on thought I was in another time zone when I was in fact a half hour from the Loop, after an art gallery owner snidely asked if we were enjoying our “trip” into the city we grew up just outside of, or after Iattempted to explain basic geography to the tabloid columnist who wrote that inner suburb residents from bordering Hammond would be likely to pack their bags and board a train to visit the newly renovated Chicago Riverwalk if it had an outpost of a craft brewery popular that originally hailed from Hammond and was now based in a neighboring town. Nevermind that Hammond has had commuter rail to Chicago for more than a century and no one would ever “pack their bags” to visit the city theylive right outside of. This guy had written a book about Chicago and couldn’t even identify bordering suburbs.

More in a Good Samaritan spirit than one of indignation, I reached out to him about his mistake, but he just emailed back he had no idea where Hammond was and then later, after realizing thatconfession could be damning, that I shouldn’t share that with anyone. He never corrected his errors,which I had contacted him about merely so he could wipe the egg off his face. He may have been a decent journalist once, back in the Paleolithic Era, but had long since given up on basic ideas of accuracy and getting things right.

While such scornful treatment, it’s not exactly a stretch to understand why many would rebeland vote against their own economic interests. Whatever their personal politics or background, red staters endure a casual, reflexive condescension on a regular basis. A tribalism not of their makingforces them to take a side they probably wouldn’t otherwise take.

And in Northwest Indiana, a blue outlier in a red state, the scorn comes from every direction.

Everyone downstate lumps you in with Chicago, which they reflexively dismiss as a cesspool ofcrime, murder and high taxes because that’s what they’ve been told by the propagandists inIndianapolis. The state government pits Illinois as Eurasia to Indiana’s Oceania. Indiana is depicted asthe fiscally responsible holder of a Triple A bond rating, as though that means much to the average household, while Illinois is presented as suffering from high unemployment, rampant debt, regular tax hikes and political dysfunction. Hoosiers lap this stuff up. People who have little going for them always bite at any reason to feel superior to someone, anyone.

And there’s of course a stark degree of cognitive dissonance between downstate Indianaresidents who have been led to believe Illinois is over overtaxed wasteland and who also make regular pilgrimages to Chicago to see Broadway plays, laugh at Second City improv, shop the glistening Magnificent Mile and splurge on molecular gastronomy or whatever culinary trend that won’t reach them for a few years, or ever. They flock like migratory birds to Chicago to go see “Hamilton” because it won’t come to Indianapolis for at least another five years.

Indiana aggressively attempts to poach businesses away from Illinois, and the governor recently visited to tout the relocation of a trucking company. He talked about how he recently went to MidwayAirport, saw nothing but “departure, departure, departure,” and thought about how many companieswere departing Illinois. He stood amid semi-trailers at a time when towering orange cranes were erecting 53 high-rises in Chicago, when more skyscrapers were currently under construction in the city than had been built in the entire state of Indiana in 200 years. Chicago lands satellite offices for Google and Microsoft, while Indiana brags about pulling in the occasional trucking company. A trucker outside of the press conference told me he hoped the new company paid well, because he was working two trucking jobs and would prefer to make enough to get by at a single job.

Despite the occasional photo op at a ribbon-cutting, no one in the state government likesNorthwest Indiana, which is an island of blue in a sea that usually so red you’d expect Moses to showup to part it. A bridge on Cline Avenue—a vital highway that leads to the Region’s casinos, the Midwest’s biggest oil refinery and some of North America’s largest steel mills—crumpled under the weight of endless trucks hauling out steel coil and was condemned in 2009. Nearly a decade later it stillhasn’t been replaced in a huge middle finger to the steelworkers who pull the lever for the wrong party, according to the powers that be in the statehouse.

It was deemed too expensive to spend $90 million to replace a bridge because it only carried 30,000 vehicles a day, far fewer than originally projected because of all the steel mill jobs that since had been lost to automation and outsourcing. But Indiana since built a $104 million bridge over theOhio River that only carries 10,000 vehicles a day in a southern part of the state that’s reliablyRepublican. It’s not hard to see where the state government’s priorities lie.

Indiana quickly privatized the Cline Avenue bridge replacement, forcing steelworkers to paytolls just to go to work and return home. And they didn’t care how long the company dragged it out—most recently the bridge was expected to be completed a full decade after it went down. Adding insult to injury, the state government took over a section of Interstate 69 downstate in a Republican district that was two years behind schedule to expedite the construction when Cline Avenue was already a whopping eight years behind schedule.

State government is a frequent source of griping in the Region since it only begrudgingly plows state highways in an area that suffers from heavy lake effect snow every winter. Many locals believe they straight-up don’t care about the Region, and say so loudly. It can be a self-reinforcing cycle. Downstate political flunkies who imagine Indianapolis to be a modern-day Athens have responded to news stories about the Cline Avenue bridge finally, allegedly being fixed (no one is holding their breath) by asking “what Lake County liberals will complain about now?”

As though an extra half hour getting to and from work if you get caught behind a train on an at-grade street weren’t enough, state officials further rubbed it in by finagling a magazine’s top ranking forinfrastructure for Indiana while Pence was trying to burnish his national credentials, as though the failure to replace a bridge on a major highway in the second most populous part of the state for adecade wasn’t a complete and utter debacle. Third world countries have it better. The Cline Avenue bridge catastrophe seems more like something that would happen in North Korea than in the Midwest. But it’s just one in an ongoing series of snubs for a Region that built the Sears Tower, the St. Louis Arch and Touchdown Jesus at Notre Dame before getting buried under an avalanche of pink slips.

Indiana’s official state quarter completely cut out Lake County, which didn’t escape local notice, and the isolation isn’t just symbolic. Northwest Indiana officials frequently complain about how the state government schedules meetings down in Indy for 8 a.m., disregarding how the second mostpopulous metro in the state is in a different time zone and how it’s a closer drive from Hammond toMilwaukee two states over than it is to the state capital.

Indianapolis hoovers up all of the revenue we generate from our toll road, our casinos, and some of the heaviest industry in the world. But we get little back—we’re lucky if our state highways even get plowed in a semi-timely fashion during some of the harshest winters in the Midwest. ManyRegion residents comment how it’s smooth sailing when they commute back from Chicago when it’ssnowing until they cross the state line, where they have to white-knuckle it the whole way home. Sure, you pay less in taxes, but all those savings can get wiped out the first time you have to replace a tire that blew out on a chuckhole on a state highway that wasn’t properly maintained. Oh yeah, and you could die.

Some would contend the Region doesn’t need downstate Indiana—joking talk of secession from the state is commonplace on social media and in neighborhood taverns. Northwest Indiana certainlyidentifies more with Chicago because it’s where we get our news and it’s home to the sports teams weroot for. When you live just outside a global city with an economy bigger than Poland, state bordersdon’t matter all that much.

As a so-called Region Rat, it’s too hard to explain where you’re from while traveling, so you justsay Chicago. And you still can’t escape the condescension. When you’re from the Region, there’s in facta Russian nesting doll of condescension you have to endure, since your broader metro area’s reputationhas been battered by violence in recent years. On a recent trip to Denver, while ordering avocado toast for breakfast at an organic grocer, we told an inquiring clerk we hailed from just outside Chicago, an easier explanation than to narrow it down to a specific corner of a sprawling metropolitan area that had little brand recognition even within the immediate vicinity.

“Chicago, there are so many murders there,” she said. “There are so many shootings.”

I opened my mouth, thought about it, and then I said nothing. 

People glean a little information here or there, often without much effort, and then become fixed in their thinking, stubborn in their beliefs, impossible to reach. I tried to fashion some retort or explanation, but recognized the futility of it. I said nothing, nothing at all.


Joseph S. Pete


Joseph S. Pete is an award-winning journalist, an Iraq War infantry veteran, an Indiana University graduate, a book reviewer, a photographer, and a frequent guest on Lakeshore Public Radio in Merrillville who was cursed with two first names. He is a 2017 Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee who was named the poet laureate of Chicago BaconFest, a feat that Geoffrey Chaucer chump never accomplished. His writing and photography have appeared or are forthcoming in more than 100 publications, including Zero Dark Thirty, Dogzplot, Stoneboat, The High Window, Synesthesia Literary Journal, Steep Street Journal, Beautiful Losers, New Pop Lit, Grief Diaries, Gravel, The Offbeat, Oddball Magazine, The Perch Magazine, Rising Phoenix Review, Chicago Literati, Bull Men’s Fiction, shufPoetry, The Roaring Muse, Prairie Winds, Blue Collar Review, Lumpen, The Rat’s Ass Review, The Tipton Poetry Journal, Euphemism, Jenny Magazine, Vending Machine Press and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Like Bartleby, he would prefer not to.