Gary, Indiana, community members, urban gardeners, historians and theater professionals recently joined Gary’s âResilient Midtown Tourâ to kick off âClimate Season,â opening a full series of theatrical productions and community events focused on climate change.
The program is a product of the Performing Arts Department at Indiana University Northwest and the Calumet Artist Residency. Connecting people from Northwest Indiana, the tour highlighted local stories of African American creativity, self-reliance and resilience, showcasing community gardens and the realities of food insecurity in a neighborhood with no grocery store.
As an artist who has worked on environmental issues for nearly 20 years, I find stark contrasts in my hometown of Gary on the southern shore of Lake Michigan: the toxic fallout from the largest steel plant in the Western Hemisphere. and the extraordinary biodiversity of Indiana Dunes National Park. Everywhere you look, there are glaring cases of loss and damage caused by environmental injustice and racism.
Vacant lots, abandoned houses and a brutal past
Blocks of vacant land and abandoned homes and businesses belied one of the most brutal examples of racist legislative policies in Indiana, which facilitated Gary’s economic collapse through the ‘white fly’ by amending buffer zone laws for the development of adjacent towns. With an area the size of San Francisco, Gary has seen its population drop over the years from 180,000 to around 75,000 and has lost much of its commercial tax base since the election of the first black mayor of a large city, Richard Gordon Hatcher, in 1968.
The resilience and leadership of African Americans on environmental issues remains a powerful legacy for Gary, especially in these times of climate crisis. As one of his earliest accomplishments, Hatcher worked with his city government to bridge racial divisions and pass the first bylaws to limit air pollution emissions from the burning of coke at the US Steel plant in 1970. A Generation Prior to that, in the face of Jim’s The Segregation of Crows in Steel City, the people of Gary’s Midtown developed strategies for self-sufficiency, including the Consumers Co-operative Trading Company, a black-owned cooperative founded in the 1930s by Jacob Reddix, a teacher at Roosevelt High, now closed. School in Gary. In no time, the cooperative had more than 400 members and operated the largest black-owned grocery store in the country, as well as a gas station and a credit union. Its motto was “cooperation, not charity”. The co-op has also run classes in the history of co-op and the co-operative economy, making Reddix one of the foremost national co-op experts and the founding president of Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi.
Essential role of the arts in building resilience
Along with learning about the cooperative economy, organizing civil rights, and gaining political power, the role of art was important in building resilience during this era. The Midtown area was also the birthplace of Vee-Jay Records, the biggest black label before the rise of Motown (and the first label to release the Beatles in America). The Jackson 5s also grew up in Midtown – not as an anomaly, but as a product of their environment: they grew up in the shadow of the Roosevelt School, nicknamed “The Music Factory” and as part of a long history. of pioneer musicians from Gary. in blues, gospel and jazz.
As Gary’s artist tackling environmental issues and increasingly focused on climate change, I regularly wonder if my work is making a measurable difference. In many disciplines, success is measurable, while in art, success is often subjective.
In 2012, along with my colleague Katherine Land, I co-founded the Calumet Artist Residency (CAR) and purchased a pair of adjacent abandoned houses to use to help artists with their work in the hopes of “enriching our local community. “. I admit I’m not sure we knew what that meant back then. Over the past decade, many artists and advocates have created art during their residencies in a variety of mediums including visual arts, music, creative writing, and theater.
In 2018, CAR worked with the local Beyond Coal campaign and other environmental groups to lobby our local utility, NIPSCO, to move away from burning coal. Working with artists and local residents, one of our Artist-in-Residence helped create a jazz-infused multimedia theater production called ‘Ecopolis Gary’, which envisioned Gary as a regenerating city in 2030.
Held at the local Progressive Community church, whose electricity is powered by solar panels and whose congregation operates a sizable urban farm, the performance set specific criteria for establishing an ecodistrict, an Emerson Center for Self-Reliance, Edible Trails and Urban Farms, and Green Business Zones. We called for the creation of a community solar farm to provide equal access to renewable energy. With local performers and activists, a community meal and dialogue resulted in more ideas and ways forward.
Artists tell stories. Cultural activities such as visual arts, music and storytelling are important because they connect scientific data to our personal lives.
The arts engage people in transmitting change
Cultural change precedes political change, which we can learn from past social movements for workers’ rights, civil rights, and LGBQ +, to inform environmental and climate justice strategies today. Thinking about the interdisciplinary functions of art and culture in this context can help understand how art can help engage people and contribute to real change.
We’ve started creating educational materials for all ages with local artists, including âThe Rethink Your Lawn Coloring Bookâ (featuring Melissa Washburn) and âFill Your Town with Fields of Sunflowersâ ââ(with Casey King), for youth events and programs. CAR took on the task of facilitating local gardening efforts, helping to start two community gardens and a one-acre food forest. We have planted a few hundred native fruit and nut trees to sequester carbon and ensure food security for residents, pollinators and wildlife, and every year we are planting more sunflowers. We have supported the Local Youth Climate Council.
It is important to use the energy created in these artistic and theatrical productions to take the next steps; to take what happened on stage to create energy and ideas for action.
Here in Gary, this effort became a unique community-campus collaboration in 2020, when Gary-based Indiana Northwest University partnered with Calumet Artist Residency to kick off a year of programming on the climate change – presented as âThe Climate Seasonâ, conceived and directed by Katherine Arfken and developed with my collaboration.
Hiring former CAR artist and resident writer Jeff Biggers as its first climate drama-in-residence, IU Northwest’s Performing Arts Department commissioned an original piece to address the legacy of environmental injustice , resilience and struggle in Gary and the region, all against the backdrop of an ongoing crisis brought on by climate change. Biggers worked with area residents to collect interviews, oral histories and field research. Bringing together community actors from Gary with student actors from IUN, the play “Kaminski’s Lot”, set in Gary in 2021, follows the journey of a van full of IUN students and their teacher, who must take refuge in a greenhouse on seemingly abandoned land when a catastrophic storm brings the area to a halt. In a celebration of storytelling, led by an urban farmer and her niece, “Kaminski’s Lot,” directed by Mark Baer in six recent performances, connects to the story shared in the Resilient Midtown Tour, asking questions about the legacy, culture and personal stories on stage, at a time of the impacts and challenges of climate change.
As part of Climate Season’s mission to incorporate sustainable materials and methods into IU Northwest Theater productions, set designer Katherine Arfken has created several important stage elements to build with recycled materials. For example, part of a 10 “x 14” greenhouse was built with salvaged windows and designed in the hope of installing a full version in a local community garden. Through the production process, the campus stage boutique has become a laboratory for climate resilience. Members of the production crew, cast and community members took part in tours of Midtown and Urban Farms as part of the rehearsal process, and each member of the Kaminski’s Lot audience received a certificate for a native fruit or nut tree. (We will distribute 800 trees in total). The Broadway Green Alliance included âKaminski’s Lotâ as a case study for climate theater.
The Climate Season initiative will continue through spring 2022 with other artistic, theatrical and community events, including lectures, tours, and restoration and restoration projects.
To implement meaningful climate action, we as a society need to make physical changes to our infrastructure, such as increasing the use of solar energy and improving energy efficiency. But we also have to learn to cooperate between different disciplines. The theater is inherently interdisciplinary, involving a flexible workshop space and with electricians, carpenters, clothing and lighting and sound designers collaborating with research assistants (playwrights) and writers with a background in the humanities. and in storytelling. An ideal place to acquire important skills in building local resilience to climate uncertainty, theater is also a model of cooperation between disciplines.
Theater is also an effective way to help guide conversations about how we present climate action to create a more just world built on deeper community bonds, while also connecting us to the deepest roots of who we are as human beings.
Obviously, we are now at a point with climate change where our disciplines should not be asking ‘if’ there is anything to be done to address the challenge of the climate crisis within our individual disciplines, but rather. “How” many too long “stoves” disciplines can work together to galvanize commitment and action.
Corey Hagelberg is an interdisciplinary artist and teacher committed to connecting people, art and nature. He lives and works in Gary, Indiana.