City of Steel
"And it's a rule of the thumb,
"People die," says Ryan Lewis. He takes a long slow pull on a Newport menthol cigarette and pauses before considering his hometown of Gary, Indiana. "I just got to get away, dog," he says to me. "'Cause there's nothing really here. All there is is the steel mill. I don't want to go work at the steel mill. It's good money but then I'm stuck here for 30 years."
Just 25 miles south of Chicago, Gary was founded in 1906 by the United States Steel Corporation. But the boom days came to an end in the 1960s and the city suffered from growing competition in the steel industry. Unemployment, declining population and a marked increase in violent crime, the use and trade of narcotics eventually earned Gary the infamous moniker of "Murder Capital." African-Americans, who make up 85 percent of Gary's population of roughly 100,000, face high rates of joblessness with the unemployment rate especially high for black males.
While some may point an accusing finger at Gary's drug trade, Brian, sitting on the front steps of his home on a hot August morning, says otherwise:
"Crime doesn't happen because of drugs. Crime happens because of poverty. When you're in the game you don't want violence--you want your block to be cool. Everybody's cool and business is good. You don't want nobody dying on your block, nobody getting robbed, beat up, jacked. You don't want that around you. You want everything cool so you can make your money."
But business is good. At least according to the brushed steel briefcase that's whisked out of the room when I arrive at the B-House a little after midnight. It reads "B.I.G. Business Is Good," and that's the last I see of it.
I've been invited to the B-House on terms that I can only identify its residents by their noms de guerre. Big Rickie, who left the drug trade to pursue a career as a rap artist but is still friends with the B-House crew, rolls cannabis into a Backwoods cigar while Black Freestyle's over the sound system blaring Young Buck's "Get Your Murder On." Black, leader of the B-House, a .44 Magnum resting beside him, bangs his skull-tipped cane to the beat, "Get your murder on, cock it back and let it go." The joint and a large bottle of 1800 Tequila start to make the rounds.
B-Bogus is more philosophical. When asked about making it in Gary and the morality of the crime game, he replies, "God only spares so many."
Downstairs in the basement Black shows me four caged pit bulls. "We love our dogs," Black tells me. B-Bogus nods and you can feel their respect for the animals. The team at the B-House seems to stand too tall for anyone to challenge.
Back out on the street the next day, Tug-O-War takes a different approach. "Gary, Indiana, is the murder capital for good reason. In my personal opinion--and it don't mean shit---but I got one: The way to survive in this city is to be humble," he says. "When you get to thinking you're the shit and walking with your chest too far out...you know, rollin' on rims. Even if your girl is too pretty, when you get to drawing too much attention to yourself somebody's gonna hate." Tug-O-War stresses they "ain't gonna box you ... it's gonna get to gunplay. The only way to get things done around here is with gunplay." Big Rickie and Ryan both nod and look to the floor.
Ryan, 27, is done with Gary. He's got a good job as a teller at the bank. And after work he cuts lawns. But he never leaves home without his gun. "Some people say that's just life. Just life. Well I can't accept that," he tells me. "It's just me and my brother. And on Christmas we get high. I don't like it. But we're all alone. That's crazy, that's not life."
The owners of L.L.'s Coney Island restaurant are also looking to leave. "This place has been here for 30 years," Arnita Rudder says shaking her head and smoking a menthol. A friend of her daughter was fatally shot yesterday: "We're going to Atlanta."
"How come we don't see the Red Sea being parted?" Ryan asks me. "How come we don't see the homeless being fed? Like ... five loaves of bread turning into 5,000? Is that for real?" he asks me. "Or is that just a real good story?"
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