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Gary at 100: gritty, worn and looking for new life
As city prepares for centennial, leaders are trying to turn around urban decay

By Theodore Kim
[email protected]

GARY, Ind. -- Elbert H. Gary could not have predicted the city that bears his name would endure so many twists and turns over the years.Consider his Midwestern company town an austere example of 20th century industrial boom and bust -- staggering initial growth followed by melting-pot politics, racial friction, job cuts and a surge of drug crime that has left a stubborn imprint of decay.
"We've come full cycle," said Charles "Chuck" Hughes, a member of the Gary Common Council.
One hundred years after Gary, an entrepreneur and Illinois county judge, helped establish the U.S. Steel Corp. and founded a community on the shore of Lake Michigan for the company's work force, the self-proclaimed City of the Century is taking stock of itself.
Festivals, an air show, the dedication of a new statue and other revelry this summer will mark the city's first 100 years of existence.
Arranged by a city-appointed committee and called the Gary Centennial Celebration, the events will reach their climax on the July Fourth weekend with an outdoor concert featuring famous son Tito Jackson of the former Jackson Five.
The centennial also comes as city leaders are launching new attempts to revitalize Gary's airport, lakefront and downtown.
Such buoyancy might seem peculiar for a community that, despite its traditions, has served as a portrait of urban decay after thousands of layoffs starting in the late 1960s gutted its cornerstone industry.
A stroll along Broadway, the city's main thoroughfare, reveals a once-proud downtown that was seemingly frozen in time by job losses. Ornate post-war storefronts have changed little save from age and abandonment.
Downtown buildings also offer evidence of the nearby steel plants: Most are plastered in a dark grit and enveloped in the abrasive stench of sulfur, including City Hall.
"The neglect is palpable," said James B. Lane, author of the book "Gary's First Hundred Years: A Centennial History of Gary, Indiana."
A lingering image

Perhaps most troublesome is the city's interminable image as an axis for crime.
Over the past 20 years, Gary has made headlines regularly for averaging more homicides per capita than any other major urban area in the nation -- a problem that local officials say is isolated and spawned almost exclusively by drug violence.
Gary residents who remember the city's heady days are sensitive about its present reputation.
Founded in 1906 by U.S. Steel in the marshlands southeast of Chicago, Gary was anointed the Magic City because it literally sprang from the ground out of nothing.
Anchored by steel, the city's population exploded, reaching 100,000 by 1930, said Stephen G. McShane, an archivist at Indiana University Northwest in Gary. Then, it was a vibrant melting pot.
Longtime residents can list Gary's historical highlights from memory: home to one of the nation's first urban black mayors (Richard G. Hatcher in 1967); site of a pioneering school system; the birthplace of pop icon Michael Jackson and his famous siblings; and the subject of the famous musical number, "Gary, Indiana," in Meredith Willson's classic "The Music Man."
"There was much to be proud of," said Jeanne Bliss, 79, a lifelong Gary resident who was a school nurse for 32 years.
While many forces beyond Gary's control coincided to plunge the city into disrepair -- racial tension in the 1960s, a 1970s suburban migration, drug crime in the 1980s and 1990s -- most agree the city's fate has been ruled by the woes of Big Steel.
Walter Robinson, a retired 58-year-old steelworker, remembers Gary's vanished past, when high school seniors would graduate and immediately head to the steel plants and a good-paying job.
Steel's decline

But U.S. Steel, which used to have perhaps 25,000 workers here, has since whittled its work force to about 5,000.
The city's population, which once approached 200,000, had fallen to about half of that total by 2004, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Gary has closed 11 schools in recent years, said Superintendent Mary Steele.
About one-quarter of its residents, 85 percent of whom are black, live below the poverty level, census data show.
"For me and others, this has been a land of opportunity," said state Sen. Earline Rogers, a Gary Democrat. "But those opportunities are gone," leaving a minimally educated work force with few employment options.
Recent volatility at City Hall, which claims a history of political corruption, has not helped Gary's cause.
Mayor Rudy Clay is the city's third since March. He was recently chosen in a special election after fellow Democrat Scott King resigned abruptly last month to pursue a private-sector career.
Yet revitalization efforts continue. A new minor league baseball stadium has opened downtown. And the airport is getting a multimillion dollar overhaul.
Reviving Gary

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican, has taken a particular interest in reviving Gary and other communities in Lake County, crossing his own party's leaders to do so.
Daniels concedes the area, a bulwark of liberal politics, is "genetically, impossibly, forever Democratic." But he takes the long view: A robust Gary would serve as a statewide economic engine.
"We're treating Lake County and Gary now as full members of the Hoosier family," Daniels said. "That has not been true for a long time."


Famous faces
• The Jackson Five and solo stars Janet and Michael. Brother Tito will sing in the centennial celebration.
• Frank Borman, astronaut, on first manned flight around the moon in Apollo 8.
• Glenn Robinson, NBA forward and former Purdue star.
• Alex Karras, TV actor and All-Pro Detroit Lions player.
• Karl Malden, Emmy award-winning actor.

Glory days
• Founded in 1906 by U.S. Steel for its workers. Grew to 100,000 by 1930.
• Political first: One of the first urban black mayors, Richard G. Hatcher in 1967.
• Progressive schools system: Lessons included nonacademic subjects such as carpentry, sewing and manners; curriculum was imitated elsewhere.

Tough times
• Crime stats: In the past 20 years, Gary often has averaged more homicides per capita than any other U.S. city.
• Impoverished: 25.8% of residents live in poverty.

Population: 99,961 (2003 estimate).
White: 11.9 percent (2000 estimate).
Black or African-American: 84 percent (2000).
Median home value: $53,400 (2000); (U.S.: $119,600).
Median household income: $27,195 (1999); (U.S.: $41,994).
High school graduate or higher (age 25 and above): 72.7 percent (2000); (State: 82.1 percent).
Bachelor's degree or higher (age 25 and above): 10.1 percent (2000); (State: 19.4 percent).
People below poverty level: 25.8 percent (1999); (U.S.: 12.4 percent).


• In the beginning: Miami and Potawatomi Indians lived in the present-day Gary area from 1600 to the 1800s.
• Boom town: In 1906, Judge Elbert H. Gary, then chairman of U.S. Steel Corp., acquired 12,000 acres along Lake Michigan to build a $100,000 mill. By the end of the decade, the city of Gary was born.
• Booms and busts: The lure of jobs turned the area into an ethnic melting pot, and Gary grew from 16,800 people in 1910 to 55,000 by 1920. During the Great Depression, U.S. Steel dropped from 100 percent capacity in 1929 to 15 percent capacity in 1932. During World War II, steel production soared once more, and prosperity continued for two decades.
• Modern times: Manufacturing took a dive in the region from 1979 to 1986. But changes in the world market helped the steel industry rebound through the early 1990s.

Attempts to revitalize Gary have come and gone over the years with varying degrees of success. Here are some of the major efforts:
• Convention Center/Arena: Built in the 1970s, the Genesis Convention Center has helped draw a minor league basketball team (the Gary Steelheads), the Miss USA Pageant and other events. Yet the project has not provided the downtown boost officials had desired.
• Riverboat casinos: Since the 1990s, casino gambling in Gary has provided some new jobs and millions of dollars in city tax revenue. Critics argue those benefits have been canceled out by gambling's social ills. The casinos, meanwhile, recently have suffered from layoffs.
• Baseball stadium: The Steel Yard opened in 2003 as home to the minor league SouthShore RailCats. The $45 million stadium has helped spark interest in downtown, but its long-term impact has yet to be determined.
• Airport/Lakefront: Federal, state and local officials have pledged millions of dollars in aid to help revive the Gary/Chicago Airport. The hope is the facility will one day be seen as Chicago's third airport behind O'Hare and Midway. In addition, local leaders are seeking to encourage development along Lake Michigan -- seen as one of Gary's hidden assets.

Source: Star research, Star archives

847 Posts
cwilson758 said:
• Airport/Lakefront: Federal, state and local officials have pledged millions of dollars in aid to help revive the Gary/Chicago Airport. The hope is the facility will one day be seen as Chicago's third airport behind O'Hare and Midway.
This is precisely what should occur.

649 Posts
Gary was one of the few locations in the US where active duty military where used to break up a strike.

USS Steel went on strike in 1918 or 1919, and troops where sent down from Fort Sheridan to occupy the city (including machine gun nests set up on downtown corners) so the company could bring in scabs to bust the strike.

The city was not this master-planned company town. The areas around downtown where sort of "planned" (and more desirable for managmeent..particularly the areas west of downtown) but the "south side" outskirts, (which later became the "central district) was sort of this jerry-built shantytown in the sand for the millhands.

649 Posts
The wierd thing about Gary is how the downtown totally relocated to Merrillville. In a lot of cities the retail goes away but there is still a lot of office activity downtown.

In Gary it all left for the suburbs. The hospital was going to leave, too, but the city pulled some strings in Washignton and threatened to pull some sort of grant money the hospital was looking for, so the hospital stayed put downtown.

Check out Racial Politics and Urban Planning: Gary, Indiana 1980-1989 by Robert Catlin.

Good read.

4,216 Posts
WOW, I picture Gary would be like at least 150 years old for some reason. So before Gary was a city, the land was just a beachfront and farms?

I been to Gary, and it is very sad that Gary came to this current state of their city.

649 Posts
So before Gary was a city, the land was just a beachfront and farms?
From what I read it wasn't mere beachfront, but a continuation of the Indiana Dunes of the largest dunes on the southern lake, the "Hoosier Side", was levelled to make way for the steel plant.

inland it was marshy and sandy country (two branches of the Calumet river), with, yes, probably a few farms. I think there was a railroad town or hamlet there, too..probably just a station, general store and maybe a few houses. It was called Tolleston.

...the site of Gary in 1897

For some pix, IU has an online photographic history of the construction of the Gary Works and Gary

5,535 Posts
Congratulations to Gary, on the first hundred years!
Hopefully, over the coming decades Gary will follow the remarkable comebacks of Oakland, Newark, Jersey City, Providence, New Haven, Hartford, Bridgeport & other cities that were once given up for dead.
One of Gary's greatest assets is its location within the Chicago CMSA, which has been growing demographically and economically. Seems like Gary should be able to capitalize on its underutilized airport as an third gateway to Chicagoland as Newark & Oakland have done within their regions.
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