This morning, we overslept, and I had to drive Mr. Shakes to the train station in Gary. Yes, that Gary—of Michael Jackson birthplace, The Music Man, and murder capital of the world fame. Gary is also the “blackest” 100,000+ resident city in America, with 84% of its population being black, which is why this little corner of NW Indiana in which I live is the only blue part of the state.
Starting with the 1960s trend of urban centers falling into disfavor, as suburbs began to expand, and exacerbated by the near-total collapse of NW Indiana’s steel industry, and then by crack, Gary fell slowly into a state of such bleak and crime-riddled disrepair that by the 1990s, it looked like a war zone. For many years, residents of Gary did not even have a grocery store within their city’s limits. No one, white, black, or otherwise, from my town, just a ten-minute drive away, ever went to Gary, and no one from Gary came to my town. Today, 37.9% of those under the age of 18 and 14.1% of those 65 and older are living below the poverty line.
As we were driving down Broadway, neither of us could help but look at the decay of what were once beautiful buildings, now boarded up, half-burned, crumbling. Mr. S commented that the city looked as though it had had its heart ripped out.
In the past few years, Gary’s tried to come back from the brink. They built a new convention center, and a great new ballpark for the triple-A Gary Railcats. We’ve been to a game there before, and we’re going again tomorrow night. The Railcats totally stink to high heaven, but it’s fun. The immediate area has begun to get some other business in as well, and I keep hoping that the trend will continue. The parking for the stadium is quite a distance away, and as you walk or hitch a ride on old-fashioned streetcars on wheels back to the park, you can't help but have a long, sad look at the vacant buildings bordering this new area of development. They are beyond saving, which it pains me to say, but they were lost long ago; they’re not just ugly, they’re unsafe, many of their frames weakened by small- and medium-sized fires started by drug users, or homeless trying to stay warm.
After I dropped Mr. S at the train station, I went back down Broadway in the other direction, and I stayed on it right from one end of town to the other. On Broadway, the buildings are different. They are dilapidated, but don’t appear structurally unsound. I saw a movie theater with a crumbling and crooked marquee, but below it was an amazing mural of jazz musicians. I saw an old brownstone that was in desperate need of tuck-pointing, and probably could have used a new roof and stoop, formerly home to Playboy’s Barbershop, the painted sign told me; its old-time barbershop pole on the outside was still in good condition, and the painted sign just needed some refreshing. There were a lot of buildings like this—a cool old diner, a department store, a launderette—and it was like looking at the shadow of a town that had once been grand. Gary just needs some love and attention, and it could be grand again.
But from where does that love and attention come, with such a high poverty rate? The average income per capita in Gary is under $15,000 a year. That’s not enough to live on, no less invest in refurbishing an old building and starting a business. Meanwhile, as long as it looks like a Town That Was, I fear few businesses will bring in more money and better jobs to help make it the Town It Can Be. A baseball park and a Bennigan’s aren’t remotely the definitive answer to Gary’s problems, nor even a big convention center. The answer is, of course, complex and difficult and has thus far been almost exclusively incumbent upon the people of Gary’s collective willingness to sort it out, unfair as that may be, because there just isn’t much goodwill toward the town, for reasons both legitimate and not.
So what’s going to become of Gary? I don’t know. I need to find out more about plans for development, state and federal grants received, and talk to other people who are interested in seeing Gary become grand again.