Gary, Ind. — On a crisp fall day, a workman manicures Leatrix Lamberson’s lawn as she sits on the porch of her immaculate red-and-white house on Virginia Street. The elderly black woman watches with approval, and she is dressed to the nines herself, wearing a sparkly purple top, pressed slacks, and matching shoes and earrings. But despite decades of obvious care — flowers fill the planters in front of her house, and even the trim looks freshly coated — Leatrix has a terrible view.
Across the street are two abandoned houses, windows shattered or boarded up, the paint chipped, and the lawns overgrown. One was home to a police officer and his child, and when they sold it, it went for only $11,000, Leatrix says. It has since gone derelict. Down the street are vacant lots, knee-high weeds spilling across the sidewalk. Middle-class houses used to stand there, but they too were abandoned. The blight attracted copper thieves, drug addicts, and arsonists, and Leatrix says that once, several years ago, a boy was slain on the perimeter of her property, a dozen bullets fired through his body.
“Gary used to be booming, honey,” Leatrix tells me. “When I was a young adult, I would walk down this street, and people would drive down just to see it. It was so beautiful. . . . And you know what — I look at it in the spirit. I don’t see the ugliness because I know what God can do.”
Leatrix’s faith must be truly profound, for Gary is a dismal place, a littered and malodorous town pinched between I-80 and I-90. The city treasury is depleted, having run up over $43 million in debt. Past mayors have fronted ambitious and expensive projects — an airport, a baseball park, a convention center — in an attempt to attract businesses, residents, and much-needed revenue, but all these endeavors have failed, devouring the city’s remaining resources along the way.
But the city does have one asset: Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, a Gary native and Harvard Law School alumna. Instead of following her predecessors’ big-spending example, Freeman-Wilson is embarking on a simple, smart, and virtually unprecedented mission: to manage and direct Gary’s irreversible decline. And as Gary embarks on this experiment, it deserves national attention. The stark and intractable realities have forced even Gary’s Democratic leadership to advocate austerity.
Gary’s reputation precedes it. Chicagoans caution passersby to avoid its exits and fuel their cars farther down the road. Big-city gangs have found their criminal protégés here. Though random crime is rare, by October 15 Gary had already matched the previous year’s 43 homicides. This summer, the police chief said he had visited about 20 homes warning against retaliatory gun violence, “stress[ing] to them that vengeance is the Lord’s.” And earlier this year, two people died after their apartment was firebombed, reportedly over an argument about an Xbox 360.
Gary’s average household income is less than $28,000, and 36 percent of its residents fall below the poverty level. Unemployment continued a jagged rise even after the recession ended, up to 14.9 percent most recently. About one in three buildings in the city are abandoned.
Gary is a precautionary tale, one of those places that give reason for skepticism whenever a bureaucrat or bigwig claims to know the way to utopia. U.S. Steel ambitiously founded the city in 1906, planning to create the biggest steel mill in the world. An early city history states that “Gary is the truly Aladdinesque city creation of the twentieth century, and without a precedent in character and destiny in the world’s history.” Early residents dubbed it the Magic City, and for a time, it did flourish. Its single industry drew immigrants from Mexico and across Europe, as well as southern blacks, and Appalachians who were, as one steel executive recounted in the late Sixties, “the gaddam sorriest white people I ever saw.” The city peaked in 1960, a year when it had 178,000 residents — a respectable population, but short of the expected 250,000.
Gary was soon plagued by the usual problems of one-industry Rust Belt towns. Racial tensions stoked violence and led to white flight and black frustration. Foreign competition chipped away at the primary industry. Union intransigence scared away at least as many jobs as it purportedly protected. Political corruption was pervasive but rarely prosecuted. Suburban malls upended mom-and-pop businesses. Federal help gave a false sense of security, but when those dollars evaporated, the city’s true desperation was revealed. And because it was populated by immigrants and lower- and middle-class Americans, Gary lacked the philanthropic titans who helped some similar cities limp along.
A sort of backhanded optimism of the things-can’t-get-worse variety pervades Gary today. And even the city’s inspirational stories have a bite: Take Veronica Townsell-Burnett, a 44-year-old resident who spends her time voluntarily cleaning up blighted properties while she’s between jobs. She does it because “I love my community. I just love Gary,” she tells me; and also because “you don’t know who’s gonna come out [of those buildings], hurt you and rape you.”
Short on funds, Gary struggles to provide lighting, police, fire protection, street services, snow removal, and other basic services. The police force has already lost at least 15 officers this year, the police ranks falling to around 220. In the late summer, Mayor Freeman-Wilson asked the governor to send 60 Indiana State Police troopers to help out. (He instead sent a technical-assistance team to help review Gary police operations.)
#page#Part of the problem is that Gary is too big for its population. The city has only 80,000 residents but more land mass than San Francisco, says Joseph van Dyk, the city’s 29-year-old director of redevelopment. And “instead of having large swathes or neighborhoods that have been abandoned, we’re kind of like Swiss cheese,” he says. “There’s holes all over the city.”
As in many ailing cities, some of the blight is as exquisite as it is heartbreaking. Memorial Auditorium, where Frank Sinatra once spoke out against racism, is an icon of collapse, bricks and debris littering its grand floor. The City United Methodist Church, a stunning Gothic structure, is in similar disrepair. I visited it with van Dyk, peering up at the stained glass that remained. A group of Chicagoans had traveled to take high-school senior photos in the majestic ruins; other photographers had spray-painted their Twitter handles on the stone walls. Outside, an impeccably dressed older black man approached van Dyk and me. Squeezing our hands, he told us how much it would mean to him if this church were restored to its former glory, and he looked like he was about to cry. Later, I asked van Dyk if he got that a lot. Yes, he replied — but residents weren’t always so nice about it.
Blight is a vicious cycle, both a symptom and a cause of decline, and it quickly becomes the central focus of my interview with Mayor Freeman-Wilson, a petite woman with an easygoing demeanor. Several residents have commented that her best trait is her humility, and sitting in her office one late September afternoon, she talks so bluntly about Gary’s problems that it’s easy to forget she’s a politician. Then again, she may be the first leader in a long time with some practical ideas on how to fix Gary.
“Our No. 1 problem is jobs, and so if you don’t have a job, you can’t maintain [your property], and so that leads to blight,” she says. “So the loss of jobs and the increase in our poverty rate has had a devastating impact on the appearance of the city. And it’s done that in two ways. It’s done that because individuals have not been able to take care of their property, but it’s also done it because as a corporate entity, the city has lost dollars that we would use to take care of property as well.” Furthermore, blighted property scares away would-be investors and residents.
The first step in addressing the problem has been taking an inventory of all 64,000 parcels in Gary. Surveyors, almost all of them volunteers, are in the process of recording what, if any, structures are on the land, building a database that will eventually allow the city to calculate accurate cost estimates for demolitions. Furthermore, the city will factor in information about crime statistics, fire-department calls, energy usage, business licenses, construction permits, and other things. Once the data have been collected, Freeman-Wilson says, she hopes to see which neighborhoods are still salvageable and dedicate resources to saving them.
But, she says, there are also “whole square-block areas [where] you may have maybe 50 houses in a place that you would normally have 500. So it’s worth it to close that off, not have to deliver services. But that’s a difficult conversation to have and a difficult determination to make because people are so vested in those 50 parcels.”
Freeman-Wilson readily acknowledges that unpopular choices await her. “If you look at some of those places and see what these folks have done in the face of the blight around them, that’s a special character trait you want to cultivate,” she says. “I’m not saying that it is without a degree of trepidation, but it’s also with the realization that the end result will be better for all involved, because even with those folks who have maintained their property well, there’s a certain element of danger involved.”
In the best-case scenario, right-sizing the city will enable its leaders to focus on other priorities. And Gary does have a few things going for it. The Indiana University Northwest campus has a sizeable presence in the city limits. The Lake Michigan beachfront is exquisite, and the region’s unique and bizarre ecosystem — cacti, orchids, and fir trees all sprout up — draws tourists. Gary is also situated near major highways, railroads, and waterfronts, giving it potential to expand into the transportation industry.
Closing down whole blocks will certainly be thorny, not only emotionally but also legally. And the city risks scaring away some of its most dedicated, responsible residents, people like Leatrix Lamberson who have stuck it out on their lots. Then again, Gary may well be out of other options.
Despite all these complications, van Dyk, Gary’s director of redevelopment, says he’s excited and hopeful, partially because Gary is breaking new ground with its urban planning.
“Up until very recently, every single municipal plan in the history of the world was predicated on growth,” van Dyk says. “And now we’re seeing, in America at least, for the first time, major cities that were predicated on growth — these plans don’t work anymore. . . . You have to invest what little we have in areas we think are already succeeding and hope that builds out, and hope that raises our reputation, while at the same time managing areas that are shrinking and having a very honest approach with what we can and cannot do given our limited resources.”
– Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.