One of the important lessons I learned when I was a kid is that progress usually isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Case in point: the purposeful destruction of my hometown of South Bend, the fourth-largest city in Indiana.
For 100 years, South Bend was a wonderful place to live. The area was originally settled in the early 19th century by fur traders and was incorporated as a city in 1865, the last year of the Civil War. The St. Joseph River shaped South Bend’s economy through the mid-20th century and gave the city its name. River access assisted heavy industrial development such as that of the Studebaker Corporation, the Oliver Chilled Plow Company, Singer Sewing Machines, and other large companies. However, in the mid-20th century (the years of my youth), the manufacturing base of the city (indeed the whole country) began to erode.
Despite some degree of manufacturing diversification, South Bend was in fact a company town, hosting the headquarters of Studebaker, one of world’s most popular makers of carriages and wagons in the 19th century and one of the big four American carmakers in the 20th. The company was founded by five Studebaker brothers—Henry, Clement, John, Peter and Jacob—the sons of German immigrants who came as blacksmiths and foundrymen to South Bend. The Studebaker brothers’ big breakthrough came when they supplied wagons for the Union army during the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln drove a Studebaker to Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC, on the night of his assassination. Ulysses Grant, the leader of the Union army, used a Studebaker carriage during his term as America’s president in the 1870s. In the first decades of the 20th century, Studebaker was the only American wagon-maker to successfully transition into motorized vehicles.
However, the company went bankrupt during the Depression and then faced even more problems in the 1950s, thanks to poor labor relations and fierce competition from car-makers in Detroit. At one time Studebaker was the city’s largest employer and employed 45,000 people. But the firm permanently closed down its plant in 1963, and thousands of local men and women lost their jobs. This was the beginning of the end.
Parts of Bendix, another large employer during and after WWII, were later acquired and subdivided between the Honeywell and Bosch corporations respectively. Honeywell Aerospace continues to manufacture aviation products at its former Bendix facility. In 2010, Bosch announced that it would cease all operations at its Bendix plant location in South Bend by the end of 2011, and Bosch vacated the building entirely in October 2012.
The city has struggled ever since the ’60s with high unemployment, a shrinking population, high rates of poverty and crime, and a proliferation of vacant and dilapidated houses.
In 1960, more than half of all employment in South Bend was in the manufacturing sector. By the year 2000, manufacturing was only 16% of the local economy. Due to the severe loss of jobs, the city’s population has decreased from 132,445 by nearly 30,000 during that period.
In the year 2000, the median income for a household in the city was $32,439, and the median income for a family was $39,046. The per capita income for the city was only $17,121. About 13.6% of families and 16.7% of the population were below the poverty line, including 24.0% of those under age 18 and 9.1% of those age 65 or over.
South Bend is now best-known as the home of nearby Notre Dame University, which is its own unincorporated town just north of the city. The university is South Bend’s largest employer, but this totals only 5,590 jobs. Until recently the university didn’t show much interest in its hometown, but this is changing as administrators realize that the students and faculty they are hoping to attract also consider the quality of a university’s town when they decide where to pursue their studies and work.
I realize that the problems my hometown faced in the ’60s were bigger than the city itself. But it was a sign of the hubris of the time that the “city fathers” didn’t understand this fact. My impulse has always been conservationist, to try to hold on to what you have. But the city fathers believed in the “big fix,” in tearing down everything in the deluded hope that salvation would come in big jumps. I would have preferred that they hunker down and settle for smaller dreams. But they didn’t.
As a result, the city embarked on a program of “urban renewal.” Whole blocks of formerly quaint buildings were torn down and replaced by parking lots and ramps and, for a number of years, what has gone down in the city’s history as “the big hole”—a monument to big plans that never materialized. The program was ironically billed as “Partners in Progress.”
The destruction that a whole generation of American airmen and GIs had visited on Germany and Japan was now self-inflicted.
This draconian fix was avoided by South Bend’s sister-city, Mishawaka (population 48,252), which still preserves it quaint downtown and an apparently vibrant economy. At least, I enjoyed visiting there on a couple visits to the old stomping-grounds.
The history of the Progress Club is emblematic of the fate of the whole town. Founded in 1895 by society women who erected this building in 1928 on the site of the home of Schuyler Colfax (Vice-President to Ulysses Grant) for their activities, this is where I attended ballroom dancing lessons as a kid. My grandmother was a member. Following decades of South Bend-style progress, the building is now home to a Seventh Day Adventist Church and the old Club operates out of a PO box.
Today South Bend is a mish-mash of the occasional magnificent building next to an empty lot, parking ramp, ticky-tacky shack or—worse still—an ugly postwar monstrosity. It is no longer a place I am proud to claim as home.
I’m sure that as a child I routinely looked past the seedy and decrepit and focused on the things which were pleasing to me. Yet there is no disputing that my old hometown is no longer the aspirational place it was to me in my youth.
I discussed this post with my housekeeper as I was writing it, and she said the same thing had happened to her hometown in Connecticut. She says she’s embarrassed to tell folks where she’s from. So maybe it’s a story endemic to all of America. Maybe the strip malls and big box stores and acres of asphalt have robbed us all of our souls.
After college and a stint overseas as a teacher, I adopted my wife’s city of Minneapolis as my new hometown. South Bend appears on lists as one of the best places to live if you’re a skinflint and are satisfied to subsist on the cheap; Minneapolis regularly shows up on lists as one of the best places to live if you’re young and hip. But it too, for other reasons, became inhospitable to my aspirations.
My hometown of South Bend—the way it was—lives on in my dreams. I still revisit the place time and again when I sleep. It continues to provide a stage-set for my imagination, even though the town I knew no longer exists.
“South Bend, it sounds like dancing, doesn’t it? You must have had a most happy childhood there.”
~ Katharine Hepburn to a young Jimmy Stewart
(as Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story )
56° Foggy in the Morning, Cloudy after 3:00 pm, Rain at Night