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Gary, Indiana: A Midwestern steel town making a slow comeback

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Dismissed as de-industrialized and blighted, the “Magic City” digs in for redevelopment

The "Welcome to Gary" sign at City Hall in Gary, Indiana.
Carol Highsmith

When the sun sets above City Methodist Church in downtown Gary, Indiana, and the warm hues of its stained glass flare up in the early evening light, the building’s true scale becomes apparent. Built in 1926 for the equivalent of more than $11 million in today’s dollars, the limestone edifice can fit 3,000 worshippers. Its nickname, “Seaman’s Folly,” was a reference to then-Pastor William Seaman’s outsized ambition.

And why wouldn’t he have had faith? One hundred years ago, the sun was rising on Gary, a new settlement on the south shore of Lake Michigan nicknamed the “city of the century.” Gary was founded and funded by the industrial colossus U.S. Steel—chairman Elbert H. Gary, for whom the town is named, even donated an organ to Seaman’s congregation.

Nearly a century later, City Methodist is known not for its congregation or choir, but its disintegration. Devoid of pews, the graffiti-scrawled interior is open to the elements, green weeds and bushes sprouting above vaulted pillars and stained glass. Now dubbed “God’s Forsaken house,” the church has become a famous pilgrimage site not for the faithful, but for explorers in search of so-called ruin porn. That this symbolizes Gary—a Rust Belt city with a predominantly African-American working class—points to its perception not as an historic boomtown, but a city left reeling when the manufacturing left.

City Methodist
Sam Salvesen
Patrick SIsson

“It’s really easy to paint the entire city as a ghost town,” says Sam Salvesen, an associate city planner in Gary who recently hosted an architecture tour of the city’s forgotten gems. “Sure, there’s abandonment, but there’s so much architecture. We’re trying to change the narrative without sweeping the blight under the rug.”

He’s not the only one trying to tell a more positive story these days. There are signs that Gary is—if not totally reinventing itself—doing the hard work of rebuilding a city left for broke.

“Rust Belt”: pejorative or reality?

Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, a Gary native elected in 2012, has focused on blight busting and targeted development, attempting to inject optimism back into the town and its citizens. A number of new community initiatives and institutions, including ArtHouse, run by Chicago’s Theaster Gates, are using art as a catalyst for change. Even the City Methodist may soon have a second life: Gary won a Knight Cities Challenge Grant to transform it into a “ruin garden,” turning its demise into a selling point.

Mayor Freeman-Wilson doesn’t sidestep Gary’s trajectory and challenges—white flight and the disorderly departure of industry in the later half of the 20th century resulted in a lack of jobs and development—and acknowledges the suffering in her hometown. But she also sees the promise of the city and community, and has a vision for revival that could apply to other working class cities on the ropes.

“I had seen other communities such as Pittsburgh and Dayton, Ohio, turn around, cities with similar histories to ours,” she said about her decision to seek the mayor’s office. “And I like a challenge.”

Charles F. Schultz, in his capacity as first helper at the Gary Steel Works, directs the addition of molten iron into the open hearth furnace in 1952.
Getty Images

Gary does share similarities with Pittsburgh and Dayton, prospering with the arrival of industry and manufacturing then wilting when those businesses left. The format is so common that Stephen G. McShane, archivist-curator with the Calumet Regional Archives at Indiana University Northwest, declared to the New York Times: "Gary is American history in microcosm. You can see the 20th century of America simply by looking at Gary."

Still, Gary’s story differs in crucial ways. Founded in 1906 by U.S. Steel, one of the largest corporate behemoths in American history, this Indiana city is a pure example of an industry-built town. Writers describe its formation and creation on an undeveloped tract of land, 25 miles from Chicago, as a divine act of capitalism: “A city will spring into being at the bidding of no gods or demigods, but of half a dozen very practical businessmen.”

During the 1920s and ‘30s industrial titans poured money into funding glittering civic buildings, schools, and churches, including the gold-domed City Hall where I spoke to Mayor Freeman-Wilson. The largesse, and jobs in the mills, helped the city’s main thoroughfare become a booming center of commerce. Gary was home to cutting-edge architecture, and an ahead-of-its-time educational system, the progressive Wirt Method (a “platoon” system that introduced real life experience into the curriculum). The city also regularly showcased Broadway shows at its many theaters, a connection highlighted by the song “Gary, Indiana” in The Music Man.

A familiar story

The city began its stark descent when the steel companies started shutting down or modernizing production beginning in the 1950s and ‘60s. White flight, amplified by economic forces and the 1967 election of Mayor Richard Hatcher—one of the first African-American mayors of any big U.S. city—led to disinvestment, shuttered storefronts, and plummeting property values.

“When Gary fell into hard times, there was this sense that we created our own problems,” says Freeman-Wilson. “I think that sentiment was really driven by the demographic changes in the city. There were certain people who had perceptions about what Gary would be under African-American leadership. It accelerated the departure of those who had choices—doctors, lawyers—and could find clients in other places.”

Visiting Gary, IN for the first time

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In 1970, Gary had boasted 32,000 steelworkers and 175,415 citizens. That dropped to 7,000 steelworkers in 2005, and less than 80,000 residents today. U.S. Steel once employed more than 25,000, and now, even though the Gary Works’ blast furnaces turn out 7.5 million tons of steel annually, it only employs 4,000. As the city’s population ages, slightly over 1 percent of Gary’s population is young professionals, according to the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a low number even among comparable Rust Belt cities.

“That’s full employment in any community,” Freeman-Wilson says. “You’ve gone from full employment to quite the opposite. Imagine the impact on the community, tax base, and educational system, the blight that we deal with. It puts a greater strain on the social systems.”

By 1972, Time magazine wrote that Gary “sits like an ash heap in the northwest corner of Indiana, a grimy, barren steel town.” That decline radiated outward, notes Freeman-Wilson, to the can companies, auto parts factories, and other manufacturing hubs that grew up around the steel furnaces and foundries. Gary was dubbed the “murder capital of the nation” for several years during the 1990s and 2000s, according to FBI statistics, and now an estimated 20 percent of the city’s buildings are vacant. It all contributes to the Gary stigma, a phrase uttered by a half-dozen residents when I visited town.

“I think the crime that we have seen in this city is a direct result of the environment,” she says. “People go outside, see their city looking a certain way, and say, Forget it.”

The smokestacks of US Steel, which was the source of Gary, Indiana's meteoric rise at the turn of the century and collapse in the 1970's, as seen on November 2, 2011. While manufacturing still represents one in five jobs in the city, low-skilled jobs in the growing transportation and warehousing sectors may represent a way to fill the employment gap.
Mira Oberman/AFP/Getty Images

For many, like me, who grew up in the western suburbs of Chicago, Gary was best known as the birthplace of the Jackson 5 and a drive-through town for travelers heading east on Interstate 90. More recent attempts to revitalize downtown Gary with a minor league ballpark or riverboat casinos (including a failed investment from Donald Trump in 1993) didn’t change its image. A 2001 bid to bring the Miss USA beauty pageant to town for three years, another Trump endeavor, ended in embarrassment when the contest was moved to San Antonio.

When I meet her in her office, Freeman-Wilson was anything but overwhelmed by her city’s challenges. On the contrary, she was looking for partners to make something incredible happen.

“We’re rebuilding a community, and when we finish it’s going to be great,” she said. “And to have had a part in that, from a professional standpoint, well you can write your ticket anywhere. From a personal point of view, you’ll have a feeling of satisfaction you can’t get anywhere else.”

A block in Gary, Indiana, that includes a onetime bank building that for a time was Gary's City Hall
Carol Highsmith

From City Hall to neighborhood streets

The mayor’s strategy to help Gary doesn’t rely on big-ticket development. It’s about doing the small things well, or “hitting singles,” as she’s describe in previous interviews. Like other post-industrial cities who find their oversized buildings impossible to care for, Freeman-Wilson had discovered that the patchwork of abandoned and deteriorating properties was holding the city back.

“The way the city looks has an impact on our ability to do economic development, and on the way residents feel about their city,” she says. “The city controls 54 square miles, so that can feel like an insurmountable challenge. Luckily, two are in the lake, so I don’t have to worry about [the ones] underwater.”

Above water, however, the blight is present and visible. City Hall stands on the corner of Broadway and 4th Avenue, just a few blocks from the entrance to the U.S. Steel Plant, and a few blocks north of a large Jackson 5 mural that visitors quickly snap on their way through town. Further down Broadway, once a hive of activity, blocks become more desolate. On one corner, a vacant lot sports a rusted flamingo sign hinting at a more exciting past; just due east of downtown sits an abandoned Holiday Inn, stripped of everything except the the concrete walls, a barren grid amid overgrowth and weeds.

Freeman-Wilson’s blight-busting has been both symbolic and strategic. From an optics standpoint, her biggest victory was the removal of the Sheraton Hotel in 2014. Once Gary’s tallest building after opening in 1975, it took only a decade for it to become a vacant eyesore looming over city hall. A skywalk intended to connect the hotel to the convention center—which former Mayor Hatcher once called “a gateway to the city’s future”—ceased development mid-air. Quite the metaphor.

Gary city government now focuses on developing smaller properties. Working with the University of Chicago, which runs a Gary Project through its Harris School of Public Policy, the city took inventory, collaborating with volunteers and utilizing a mobile app to catalog more than 58,000 buildings.

Completed in February 2015, the study discovered that a third of the structures were blighted and 6,800 were vacant. By the end of 2015, Freeman-Wilson and her administration had removed 270 buildings, using $6.6 million in funds from the state’s Hardest Hit program. With inventory in hand, the city has focused on clusters of blight, hoping to maximize the effectiveness of demolitions and make way for larger commercial development.

For the next step, an outside firm called MaiaCo helps combine parcels and sell them to developers. Along with a dollar-lot program launched in 2013—as a law school graduate, the Mayor herself bought a $1 home in Gary—the environment is slowly changing.

Preservation without a population

Further north on Gary’s waterfront, an area called Miller Beach has always attracted Midwestern vacationers and second-homeowners from Chicago; the neighborhood’s charms were recently featured in the New York Times. But it’s more than just a hidden enclave of cozy beach homes and lakefront parks, dotted with architectural gems such as the Gary Aquatorium and the Marquette Park Pavilion.

Marquette Park Pavilion
Sam Salvesen

The Miller Beach Arts & Creative District has been a force for community growth since 2011. In the last six years, 18 new businesses have opened in the area, and the biennial Lake Effekt Arts Festival has grown into a much-anticipated draw.

“People have a thought about what Gary is,” says Meg Roman, executive director for the Miller Beach Arts & Creative District. “But they’re always pleasantly surprised. When you hear Gary, you think steel mills and industry. But you have to come here and open your eyes to see there are more things.”

Gary’s history, and the faded buildings of yesteryear, are an untapped asset. Salvesen and a colleague recently hosted Gary’s first historic preservation tour earlier this year, inviting hundreds to visit the city’s collection of early-20th-century buildings. Modeled after events like Open House Chicago, the series (a partnership between the Department of Redevelopment and the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority) showcased the glories of Gary’s golden age of construction, when U.S. Steel footed the bill for magnificent civic structures, including the now-abandoned Union Station. These properties have “good bones,” Salvesen says, with potential for creative reuse.

“We don’t want to showcase the blight, but sadly, some of our most impressive buildings are abandoned,” he says.

You gotta have faith

Rev. Curtis Whittaker, Sr., a pastor and CEO of Families Anchored in Total Harmony (FAITH) community development corporation, operates in the city’s Emerson neighborhood adjacent to downtown. One of a web of local organizations at work in the area, Whittaker’s group was able to take over formerly blighted land after the city knocked down abandoned homes and turned the space into an urban garden, growing a range of produce from onions, cabbage, and herbs to watermelon and papaya. In four years, the project greenhouses and a large urban farm have taken root next to the Progressive Community Church on Emerson.

“We think this is something that can happen in other communities in Gary,” he says. “It’s a process that can build and continue to maintain the beauty in the community.”

Amid the demolitions and new projects, Whittaker says he’s seen momentum grow in the last few years. People are seeing the effects of small changes happening, and locals aren’t waiting on government or anybody else to start making change happen.

“I’m from the faith tradition, so I trace these developments back to our reliance in God,” he says. “But I believe we have a mayor with leadership, who’s out there and supportive of the work happening in the community. It’s not one particular thing. God is saying, you have all of what you need.”

Still others see in-roads where art and design can help create space for community to reconnect. A few blocks east of Broadway, a recently-opened art incubator wants to become a new kind of gathering place for Gary.

ArtHouse was opened with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies and is jointly operated by Theaster Gates—the Chicago-based artist and community activist known for creative placemaking—and the University of Chicago Place Lab. Ringed with an installation of solar lanterns and steel cables on the facade, it may seem out of place at first glance. But during a visit a few weeks ago, the space, and its vision of building businesses and supporting local artists, seemed like an ideal fit.

One example of such an economic catalyst is ArtHouse’s culinary incubator, the Social Kitchen. According to a study commissioned by ArtHouse, Gary residents spend more than $100 million each year in restaurants and grocery stores outside the city. The Social Kitchen comprises 15,000 square feet of classroom space for teaching caterers and bakers how to start and run small businesses.

ArtHouse, a new arts and culinary incubator in Gary, Indiana.

Arlene Peterson, the project’s community engagement consultant, says the real aim is to bring people together.

“This is what I love,” she says one afternoon in August, speaking over the sound of music. “It’s a catalyst for people coming together. “

ArtHouse was hosting a mid-afternoon jam session, the Seasoned Seniors Blues Party. A crowd was dancing to the sounds of oldies, dusties, and blues. As the sound of Bobby Rush’s “What’s Good for the Goose is Good for the Gander” plays, 68-year-old Donna Wesson shimmied out of the new venue’s entrance, all smiles. She loves the space and the new energy in town that it represents.

“Things are really trying to come around,” she says. “The mayor is really very hands-on. She’s real invested in the city.”

Damion Smith, a community relations manager at Oak Street Health, agreed that there’s something noteworthy around the opening of ArtHouse. “There’s more than liquor stores and churches here,” Smith said. “[And] people can learn about so much more than the Jacksons.”

Cautious optimism

Gary has a long way to go turn miles of vacant lots and abandoned buildings back into vibrant parts of the community. Mayor Freeman-Wilson says there’s no shortage of challenges, and her focus now is creating a source of revenue for the city.

“If someone came in tomorrow and said they wanted to develop a five-acre plot in Gary, they wouldn’t be able to do it,” she says. Many long-vacant properties have liens against them, meaning old debts would need to be paid for a new owner to take claim the land. That’s where MaiaCo comes in; they can shop the land for potential developers, assembling parcels, and help clear the land, literally and legally.

“We have the land, that’s [the city’s] contribution,” Freeman-Wilson says. “They, the potential developer, have the capital.”

In the last few years, progress has come, perhaps imperceptible to those who still focus on the city’s vacant lots and overgrown bushes. A new runway at the Gary/Chicago airport will bolster the city’s place as a transit hub. Alliance Steel plans to open a new $35 million facility. HMD Trucking recently announced plans to build a $6 million trucking depot, set to create 500 jobs. $4.4 million more in state funds have been set aside to address blight. A plan to revitalize the Little Calumet River and give Gary residents a new recreational waterfront are coming to pass. Gary’s railways and connection to Chicago are being restored and rebuilt.

"If you’re a business, Indiana is a desirable place,” says Carol Brown, executive director of the Harris Policy Lab of the University of Chicago, which has worked with Gary on redevelopment. “If you’re looking to set up a new company or relocate, and comparing somewhere in Chicago or the suburbs with Northwest Indiana, it could even be a no-brainer. It offers a lot of opportunity."

The resilience and drive of Gary residents, who the mayor says never gave up on the city, have helped push large and small changes. True change, at scale, is hard and expensive. A critical mass of people and businesses and better schools may be a decade away. But, building by building, the city is getting started.

Many residents say they have more belief in what can happen. Rev. Walker points to late summer activities that maybe he never thought he’d see. His parishoners, “city kids,” are bringing in a harvest. Around the city, in late August, weekend back-to-school jamborees were taking place.

“Give Gary a second chance, go there,” says Peterson. “Gary’s making a turn, it’s coming back.”