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Historian personifies diversity of Miller community

Cullen Daniel

Cullen Daniel

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Updated: August 29, 2013 7:47PM



“Where after all do universal human rights begin? In small places, closest to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person: The neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination.”

— Eleanor Roosevelt

Cullen B. Daniel wore a yarmulke while I interviewed him. He’s the son of an interracial couple, and he’s married to a man named David.

OK, we got that out of the way.

Daniel, 36, also is a historian by trade, an artist, and one of the most interesting human beings I’ve ever met. And he lives in a gorgeous, solid brick, three-bedroom, two-bath, Tudor Revival home with hardwood floors on Lake Street in the Miller neighborhood of Gary, on Lake Street near the Big Lake.

***

Nice digs.

“An old Norwegian family named the Balogs lived here before me,” he said. “Betty Balog was an English teacher at Wirt High School. I walked past this house all the time on the way to Lake Street Beach as a kid. I’d see Betty in the yard gardening and I’d wave to her.

“I found an old coffee mug in a cabinet when I moved here. It said, ‘You can always tell a Norwegian, you just can’t tell them much.’”

That’s funny. If you don’t mind me asking, how much did you pay for this gem?

“I paid $21,000 almost two years ago. It was built in 1937.”

Your husband?

“David works in Cook County. He’s a cartographer — a map maker.”

I know what it means.

“We got married two years ago in New York City. It was the same summer that New York passed marriage equality. We’d already been living together for a couple years.

“What makes it difficult is he and I don’t have any marriage protection in Indiana. If I got in an accident and had to go to the hospital, he couldn’t make any medical decisions for me. As far as the State of Indiana is concerned, we’re strangers.”

I believe that will change soon.

“We’re only a few years away. The Supreme Court will force it. My parents were an interracial couple back in the early ‘70s. They moved here because Miller was a tolerant and liberal place to live.”

Historic William A. Wirt Senior High School?

“There were really great teachers a Wirt. Teachers like Kittie Bjorklund-Cozza who had an amazing impact on my life. She taught English and directed plays. As a historian, I write a lot. Many of my writing skills come from having her as a teacher.”

College?

“I have a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in world history. I work for Roosevelt University in Chicago in its Center for New Deals Studies. It’s a division of the history department that is dedicated to preserving the legacy of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.”

Early Miller?

“Miller is more than a half-century older than Gary. I believe Gary annexed it in 1919. Most of Miller belonged to the Potawatomi tribe by law. There was a particular Potawatomi individual and his wife who owned what became downtown Miller. They sold if off to a person named Ewing. It was called Ewing Subdivision.

“Miller was settled around 1850 as a railroad town. It was called Miller Station and Miller’s Junction. At first, there were just squatters, people who hunted and fished in the dunes. The French fur traders were the first Europeans to settle around here.”

Very interesting.

“Then, after the Great Chicago Fire, there were a large number of Swedes who settled here. The Swedes opened up the Lutheran Church which is on Lake Street. It’s actually the oldest church within the boundaries of Gary. Miller was a small, sleepy town.”

I love the history.

“The area nestled between the lagoon, Miller Woods and Lake Street Beach contains the oldest beach homes and dune cottages ever built in Miller. It has recently been dubbed Cottage Row.

“During the early 20th century, most of the land around Lake Street Beach was owned by Robert and Drusilla Carr. They built Carr’s Beach, a lakefront recreation Mecca which included a dance hall, several night clubs, a miniature railroad, a shooting gallery, a roller rink, a boardwalk, and a pleasure boat. By 1917, the Carrs had built more than 100 cottages on their property which they rented out for $100 a year. By the Roaring Twenties, Carr’s Beach was the most popular vacation destination in all of Lake County.”

Tell me more.

“When I moved back to Miller, I wanted to do something to help preserve, protect and promote the history of this area. People who have lived here all their lives don’t know that Miller was once a Swedish community, or that in the 1950s, a large population of Jews lived in Miller.”

I know several who still do.

“Yeah, we lay low. In 2010, I got together with some local citizens; we started a historical society in Miller. We still have our town hall which is on the National Register of Historic Places. It has been vacant for 20 years and the city has done nothing to keep it up. It’s a beautiful building that sits on the corner of Grand Boulevard and Miller Avenue.

“One of the goals of the historical society is to do a full historic preservation and restoration of that building and turn it into a welcome center with a small museum in it.”

How often does the Miller Beach Historical Society meet?

“The last Saturday of every month at the Paul H. Douglass Center here on Lake Street. We usually have lectures and programs on various aspects of history, not just Miller history. We’re history buffs who sometimes get together and watch documentaries.”

Miller today?

“I’ve lived in several places, but none of them felt like home. Miller is home. Miller is a place where you know your neighbors, and you like them.”

Final thoughts?

“Miller is a diamond in the rough. It’s racially and socioeconomically diverse. There is so much potential in this community. It’s an area that is surrounded by a national park right on Lake Michigan. And my commute to Chicago is a snap with the South Shore within walking distance.

“The area between Grand Boulevard and Lake Street is the historic core of Miller Beach. It contains some of the oldest structures in the entire city. Our historical society has designated this area the Grandlake Historic District. The houses are an eclectic mix of early 20th Century architectural styles including Tudor Revival, Spanish Colonial, Craftsman-Style Bungalows and even Sears Catalog Homes.”

The future?

“Within five or 10 years, I see downtown Miller and the residential neighborhoods around it, being one of the most artsy and hippest places to live in the entire region. Our best days are ahead of us.”

***

Daniel also gave me the dime tour of his backyard where he raises a wonderful urban vegetable garden and maintains a pond that was built along with the house in ‘37. When I ribbed him about the pair of plastic pink flamingoes near the pond he told me they were there before he was and they deserve to stay. I like the way he thinks.

And it is nice to know Cullen B. Daniel has come back home.



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