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Our forgotten towns: struggle, resilience, love and respect in ‘back-row America’

In his new book, Chris Arnade lays bare what life is like for America’s marginalized poor – and exposes the broken social systems that have betrayed them

By Chris Arnade | The Guardian | June 5, 2019

In the Bronx’s Hunts Point neighborhood, I found myself going to McDonald’s every day – because everyone did. It was an essential part of my new friends’ lives. Without a stable home, they needed clean water, a place to charge a phone, a place to get free wifi. McDonald’s had all of those, and it also had good cheap food.

They started their day in the McDonald’s, often around noon, cleaning up and sometimes shooting up in the bathrooms and, since the bathrooms didn’t have mirrors, putting on makeup in the sideview mirrors of cars in the parking lot. Then they spent hours off and on hanging at a table, escaping the heat or the cold.

McDonald’s was a space where they could be themselves on their own terms. It was a place to momentarily escape the drama and chaos of the streets, a place that allowed them to rejoin society on the same terms as everyone else. They needed and appreciated that far more than I did. McDonald’s wasn’t just central to my friends, it was important to everyone in the neighborhood.

McDonald’s was one of the few spaces in Hunts Point open to the public that worked. While wonderful and well-intentioned nonprofits serve Hunts Point, whenever I asked anyone where they wanted to meet or grab a meal, it was almost always McDonald’s.

When I asked why not the nonprofits or the public parks, the answer would be some variation of “What is that?” or “They’re always telling you what to do.” The nonprofits came with lots of rules and lectures about behavior, with a quiet or not-so-quiet judgment.

By the end of my three years in Hunts Point, I’d been spending part of each day in the McDonald’s. It had become central to me because it was central to the neighborhood. McDonald’s was Hunts Point’s de facto community center, and if I wanted to understand Hunts Point, I had to spend time in the McDonald’s.


Photograph: Chris Arnade

Three years after I left Hunts Point, after driving 150,000 miles back and forth across the country, I pulled into Portsmouth, Ohio, looking for another McDonald’s. There wasn’t one in the historic downtown, where a series of 20ft high murals on the floodwall against the Ohio River depict past scenes of Portsmouth.

Portsmouth has suffered dramatically since its peak in the 1940s, when it was home to 40,000 people who manufactured steel, shoes, and bricks. Now the factories are mostly gone, and with them the jobs, and it is a town half the size, filling with drugs.

As the factories, jobs, and many of the people left, those remaining in Portsmouth have done their best to keep the city together, hold tightly to the past, and stay proud. That pride is reflected in the murals, a well- intentioned attempt to sell Portsmouth as a quaint place to visit, but they are also a distraction masking a larger decline. The bulk of the downtown area is mostly empty, beyond county and city services, and a few local businesses holding on.

Portsmouth is part of the other world – the world of Hunts Point, where the stories told are about wrongs endured, frustrations that seem truly insurmountable, and a longing for what once was. The anxieties here come from having limited options: My company changed ownership, and there are rumors it will move to another state. With my sisters gone, there will be nobody to take care of my parents if I move. I’ve got symptoms that scare me, but I don’t have the money for the doctor. I can’t apply for school because I’ve got an outstanding charge and don’t want to be found.

In this world the energy is found outside of downtown, and in Portsmouth that is where I find the McDonald’s. It is on a busy road heading out of town, one lined with fast-food franchises, shopping malls, vape stores, check-cashing stores, and auto shops. Anchoring the area is a massive Walmart, surrounded by acres of parking and next to a railway filled with cars of coal. This is where the steel mill once was. Now only a tall, slender smokestack at the edge of the parking lot remains.


Photograph: Chris Arnade

It’s a Sunday evening, and I find a quiet spot toward the back of the McDonald’s parking lot to sit and rest from the drive.

In the morning, the McDonald’s is busy, and not just with families getting food. There are regulars who take over a corner table and booths nearby. Some collection of them are there all day, although it is busiest in the morning. They are mostly retired men born in Portsmouth who spent their lives working union jobs as firefighters, ironworkers, construction workers, and truck drivers, providing for their families.

They gossip about politics and one another and note each passing siren, often prompting speculation about where it is going and if it is another overdose. There are lots of sirens passing by and lots of shaking heads.

While Gary, Indiana, is larger (population 80,000) than most communities I visited, and only 40 minutes from Chicago, it has the feel and warmth of a small town. That warmth isn’t obvious at first because of the shocking visuals: while there are scattered clusters of neighborhoods with simple, well-kept homes, much of Gary is devastated, home mainly to rusted factories and overgrown lots.

Along with massive job loss, Gary has suffered from another big problem: racism. Gary is overwhelming African American and has been since the factories left, when most whites also left. Leaving to chase a stable job, or getting a loan to buy a better home, was an option few blacks had. Since then it has been endlessly studied, stigmatized, preached at, and finally dismissed as an example of “what was wrong with inner-city blacks”.

Yet despite the one-two punch that has hit Gary, leaving it in a seemingly endless state of decline, despite the devastation, despite the initial skepticism, there was still a warm community in Gary. Much of it was happening in one of the few places always busy – two McDonald’s – one downtown near the old factories, the other farther out. Both have morning groups that occupy a corner, taking over more and more tables as other regulars arrive. They are mostly older men, many arriving very early, having spent a life working the morning shifts. Many were born and raised in Gary and have known one another almost their entire lives.


Photograph: Chris Arnade

Two regulars, Walter, 78, and Ruben, 85, sit at their table a little after noon in the McDonald’s of a largely empty shopping center. They are the last of their morning group still lingering. They grew up just one block from each other. As a child, Walter looked up to Ruben, the cool older kid. “He pretty much raised me.”

Ruben says, “I am proud of Gary because it is the only place I know. I have been to other places in the service – Japan, Europe – but I came right back to Gary. Thing is, Gary has changed. First the workforce in the steel mills went down, and then in 1967 they nominated a black mayor, and the white flight started. We once had a ‘thriving downtown’ back in the day, as they say. People used to come here to shop from all over. It was the second largest city in Indiana, and we were damn proud of it. Damn proud. The drugs really started in late 60s. That is when the snake started showing its head. Have you been downtown now? It is a shame. A damn shame.”

It isn’t just the morning groups that fill the McDonald’s. In the downtown McDonald’s, there are people playing dominoes (“Been getting together for a few afternoons each week for a while”), people sitting quietly reading the Bible, younger people on their phones watching videos, or playing online video games with their headsets on, or reading Harry Potter, or just sitting for hours at a time listening to music and watching the world go by. It isn’t just Gary’s community center; it is Gary’s town square.

Gary, like other poor communities, is dealing with serious problems, including drugs and homelessness, problems reflected in the McDonald’s. Inside the bathroom Rudy is wearing an old St Paddy’s hat, slowly and purposefully holding his clothes under the hot air from the hand dryer after washing them in the sink. His bike is out in the parking lot, with bags of cans, bottles, and clothes attached to it. He smiles and apologizes for the mess, saying he would like to talk and I should come visit him where he stays: “I don’t rightfully have a home right now, but you can find me at the intersection of Fourth and Broadway. I spend my time there.”

Waiting outside the bathroom is an older man, dressed in an all-blue mishmash of clothes from various eras of varying cleanliness. He is holding four stuffed plastic bags, patiently waiting for Rudy to finish up. When Rudy does leave, as he goes in, an employee walks by and yells: “No taking a bath in there. No taking a bath in the bathroom. You hear?”


Photograph: Chris Arnade

On the other side of the McDonald’s, a young woman, Imani, 23, is watching a video on her phone, earphones in. We have been sitting across from each other for a while, and I eventually approach her, tell her I am writing about Gary, and ask if I can talk to her.

She moved to Gary with her mother a few years earlier to escape the crime and cost of Chicago. Today is her day off work, and she is waiting for her sister, using the free wifi. She says she hangs in the McDonald’s because it is a safe spot. “It is still violent here in Gary. Not as bad as Chicago, but still bad. There are just so many abandoned buildings here. It scares me to walk by them. I don’t want to end up a body lost in one of them.”

We talk for a while about her hopes and dreams, and then I ask her about the rest of her family.

Her dad is in and out of jail and not much in her life, she says. I ask what he’s in for.

“First time for drugs, the next few times for domestic.” Domestic?

“He doesn’t have a problem putting his hand on females.” She pauses. “Like my mom and myself.”

Sylvester sits in a booth, looking out the window, sipping coffee. Born in Belzoni, Mississippi, where his grandparents worked picking cotton, he moved to Gary when he was in his teens in the early 60s. “Why Gary? Race situation down south wasn’t appropriate. Part of why we moved is because I hit a white kid in the eye with a piece of coal, when we were just playing. We had to leave.”

At another table is an older man about Sylvester’s age, dressed entirely in white except for a black Stetson. He introduces himself as Jesus Christ, without any hint of craziness. He is friendly and in the mood to chat, talking about his past, talking about his work.

“I grew up here, only went away to do two years in the army, then worked for Ford Motors for 18.9 years.” Like Sylvester, he talks about how Gary was when he was younger, about the bars, the clubs, the gambling. When he is done, I ask him if he is religious. He stops.

“Well, I believe in reading the Bible.”

I ask him why he goes by Jesus Christ, and he pulls out his wallet and shows me his driver’s license and bank card – both with the name Jesus Christ.

Before I leave, I ask him one last question: “I don’t mean to be rude, but you ever been mixed up with drugs?”

He smiles.

“Not much. I quit all that. Just do cocaine now.”

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