Photographer Gary Cialdella was born in Illinois, raised in Blue Island—an industrial town immediately south of Chicago—and is Indiana-and-Michigan educated. Blue Island was settled by Poles, Italians, and Slovaks and was home to one of several Midwest-area oil refineries. As a young man, all Cialdella could imagine was getting out, away from the dirty, industry-scarred spaces of his hometown, and by extension out of the Calumet region. These refinery communities of the Calumet stretch from the South Chicago neighborhoods to Gary, Indiana, south of Lake Michigan. The region was once renowned for hunting along the banks of the Calumet River, even hosting a sporting Teddy Roosevelt at one of many riverside gun clubs where visitors hunted the sky-thickening swarms of migrating birds. This changed in the late-nineteenth century as industry began to take root in the mostly undeveloped region of swamps and dunes. Industrial production took the form of steel foundries, mills, glue factories, and meat-packing plants while nearby communities developed to house the increasing concentration of workers (figure 1).
In 1955, an explosion at the Standard Oil Refinery in Whiting, Indiana first ignited Gary Cialdella’s attention in the industrial side of these communities. Playing outside at the time, he saw “a large mushroom-shape cloud in the sky to the east,” and he and his friends “conjured an atomic bomb.” Black, sulfurous smoke rose in the air above the town as a twenty-six story hydroformer exploded, destroying much of the refinery and dozens of homes. The Chicago Tribune reported the cloud as “8,000 feet high and visible for 30 miles, [having] obscured the sun, effectively turning day into night” (August 27, 1955). Local residents must have been shaken up by this portentous cloud and the blasting out of every window within a three-mile radius. A witness for The Indianapolis Star proclaimed, “I thought the sun had exploded and that this was the end of the world” (August 28, 1955). Here was proof that the refinery was not simply a source of employment—an economic presence in the community—but, with millions of barrels of flammable fuel, a massive threat to the community. How could residents ever be sure it wouldn’t explode again?
The explosions certainly left an indelible impression on Cialdella as an extreme representation of the tenuous relationship between community and refinery. Cialdella went to Western Michigan University for an MA in History in 1973 and obtained his MFA in photography from Notre Dame in 1989. While teaching classes at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts in the late 1970s, he found himself continuously drawn back to the town of Whiting and the image of the 1955 explosion filling the sky above it. He had previously thought of the town as a “known” place, one so dreary in its industrial scenery and likened it to the hometown he had left behind. Yet, the image haunted him, and Cialdella’s instincts as a social historian led him to begin to consider the city as a unique chance to explore not only a complex industrial community, but also the relationship between the refinery and the homes lined up just beyond its barbed-wire gates. Additionally, the Calumet is a region that can only be understood in the arching context of its many transitions and adaptations: to new technologies, to waves of immigrants, to the arrivals and departures of massive oil and steel corporations ranging from Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company to British Petroleum—the current proprietor of Whiting’s refinery. These transformations offered Cialdella a compelling narrative, and a way to reconnect to the community that many saw only as a skeleton of urban decay.
The Whiting refinery was established in 1889 by Standard Oil of Indiana and is now the sixth-largest refinery in the United States, with around 1,850 employees as of 2016. In the 1890s, the facility was the leading refinery in America, with 1,000 more employees than today. In the first part of the twentieth century, the Whiting facility was a central part of Rockefeller’s burgeoning oil monopoly, and it became the central reason for the city of Whiting’s existence, not only employing thousands of its residents but literally engulfing much of the community’s land with its towers, storage tanks, distillation units, exhaust pipes burning excess fumes, and labyrinthine piping. The facility has a distinct, even brutalist architectural appearance in contrast to the prairie domesticity of Whiting’s homes. During the Second World War, up to 15 percent of the refinery’s employees were women, taking up the now more pressing work the men had abandoned for war. Into the 1950s and 1960s, the oil industry shifted toward California, Louisiana, and Texas as its new centers of production and refining.
The region’s other major industry was, and remains, steel. Immediately after the Second World War, mills in Indiana and Illinois accounted for about 20 percent of total US production capacity (figure 2). Their steady concentration in the area since the late nineteenth century occurred by virtue of available land, waterway access, and an excellent rail network just outside of the nearby Chicago transportation hub. By the 1960s, Bethlehem Steel’s Burns Harbor facility made Calumet the geographic center of the industry. But in the 1970s and 1980s, steadily increasing foreign competition contributed to a sudden collapse that left thousands out of jobs. As the mills began to decrease production or shut down, Cialdella noticed the distinct changes that came with the absence of these jobs and the funding the companies put into the community.
The photographic project then became a sort of preservationist effort of the region and of Whiting in particular, charting its shifts, and recording the homes and structures that resolutely remained. These quaint homes—many from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s—the legacy of a community built for the mill and refinery workers and their families, became part of the visual identity of the region. There was, as Cialdella describes, “something poetic about the simple functionality” of the architecture. He began to notice a distinct pride in the homes, even as they lined streets dwarfed by the presence of the refinery. The townspeople who lived here did not look out from their porch or yard to the sight of the refinery, but instead they saw the spaces that made their homes: grassy lawns, sidewalks, and empty lots in which their children played and explored. To his surprise, meticulous care was put into these spaces—the patches in sidewalks always fixed, the lawns well-tended, and religious figures ponderously-positioned before picture windows or in side-yard gardens.
The home itself became a distinct unit of Americana, a representation of the American Dream with a brick-front façade, garage, and lawn—a simple formula repeated continuously down the streets of Whiting. A survey of the individual homes reveals a diversity of details, an individuality beyond the consistent designs and plot sizes. Siding was painted in vibrant colors, ribbed awnings hung above brightly colored doors, and iron balustrades clung vine-like to homes’ front stairways. One feature that especially stuck out to Cialdella was the presence of a shrine or Madonna figure at many of the houses he photographed. Raised Catholic, he was drawn to the modest religious presence adorning these homes. His camera would capture simple, often all-white Virgin Marys in niches adjacent to the front steps, or a saint on a garden pedestal, its robe red as oxblood. The Catholic presence, he noted, predominated as the majority of the mill workers were Eastern European, and with latter-century trends, increasingly Hispanic.
Cialdella uses a traditional process of large-format photography, setting up his tripod in public streets to capture the homes of Whiting. The perspective is at street level, spreading horizontally such that there is a sense of continuation at the edge of the image. In framing a home or three of the same shape, Cialdella often exposes the chimney or weathervane of the next house on the left or right of the subject to show a continued chain along each block. Instead of isolating a subject, he shows the similarities between homes, bridges, refinery towers, and spaces that weave indistinctly between residential and heavily industrial (figure 3). Even within an image in which far-off exhaust pipes spout flames behind a backyard basketball hoop and a wood-slat fence, a kind of cohabiting normalcy is revealed. Cialdella’s photographs capture cross-sections of a sprawling landscape in order to establish a sense of interconnectedness.
Another shift arrived with changes in security concerns following the September 11, 2001 attacks. Cialdella suddenly found photographing, specifically on transportation and refinery sites that he had frequented beforehand, became an onerous task. When exploring the interstitial gravel lots of rail-yards, he would meet resistance from security guards or even be chased off the property. Companies were becoming suspicious of outsiders. Cialdella sought permissions from higher-ups to access the land and buildings, but sometimes improvised in restricted areas like a kind of investigative journalist. “This is a public street,” he declared at one site, after a guard drove up and challenged the photographer. In response, the guard asserted, “No, this is a steel mill street.”
Cialdella’s Calumet series demonstrates both the change and familiarity of these spaces over time. The photographer returned to shoot the same homes over the years or drove by just to remind himself what they looked like—to see if they still matched his mental image. One particular home on Schrage Avenue remained persistently anchored in his memory, somehow symbolic of the entire region. Beyond a brick façade, a carefully-positioned Madonna just below the windows in the front garden, the right-side garage, and an empty lot across the street, rose the silhouette of the refinery. You can see this house reappear multiple times in the series, and even as time passed it seems the owners never stopped keeping up the outside of the home and tending the lawn (figure 4). In 2010, Cialdella returned to the same spot on Schrage Avenue; when he faced the refinery, he was shocked to find the home and all its traces gone. It was a shock to him to lose the symbol he had so long kept of the region, yet many such homes had to be destroyed after oil was found seeping into their basements, or simply by virtue of their decay.
While much of the Midwestern oil and steel industry has moved on, these companies nonetheless continue to play an important role in these communities. Partially due to legislation deadlines, the requirements of environmental regulation compliance, and shifting attitudes toward public relations, many companies reinvested in the communities in which they operated. Today, Whiting is booming, and much of the industrial detritus and environmental degradation has been cleaned up. There are new, deliberate public spaces such as Whiting’s extensive lakefront developments featuring tennis courts, a baseball diamond, picnic facilities, sand volleyball courts, and a fish pond with a waterfall. This kind of community development of public spaces, as Cialdella explains, was never part of the town’s culture beforehand. It was simply expected that the folks in town would create their own community, develop their own yards and streets to build a life for themselves and their kids, while local churches and synagogues functioned in lieu of community gathering spaces. While many empty or abandoned lots are being reclaimed with success, the hulking remnants of steelworks, refineries, and transportation hubs are increasingly left to decay as monuments to the Calumet’s industry-defined past.
Gregory Maher lives and writes in Chicago, where he is a regular contributor for Newcity Magazine. More of Gary Cialdella’s photography can be found at garycialdella.com. All photos used courtesy of Gary Cialdella.