Images of a Broken City Published: May 03, 2011 Awarded: February 2012
Whenever Gary, Ind., is discussed, there are several different reactions. Many people are judgmental and talk about how frightening the city is and how dangerous the people are. Things like the two bodies recently found in a pile of manure on a farm there, don’t help this negative image.
In 1993, Gary was the murder capital of the nation. The city of 119,125 had a record of 110 killings, which translated into a murder rate of 91 per 100,000 residents. To put this into perspective, the homicide rate in Chicago at the time, was 31 per 100,000 residents.
With this toxic combination of factors, people began leaving Gary in greater numbers, and the population declined even further. According to the 1960 and 2010 U.S. Census, today Gary has a population of only 79,956, only 45 percent of its peak figure of 178,320 in 1960. While many judge, few people concentrate on the families there, how things became the way they are and how we can help.
Gary was established in 1906, by the owners of the United States Steel Company, for its laborers. Within 30 years, the population had quadrupled. This city had some of the best schools, the best parks and the most beautiful neighborhoods in the country.
Gary, Ind., was growing rapidly and despite the interest of other business, it was of interest to the Steel investors that Gary’s only industry remained steel. This secured that the wages would not sharply increase and ensured that United States Steel Company employees would stay with the company.
Unfortunately, the catalyst of this once great and thriving city, would eventually become the cause of its demise.
U.S. Steel began to collapse in the 1970s due to other countries manufacturing cheaper steel and processes becoming automated. Having no other industry, the city of Gary began to fold. The phenomenon, known as “white flight,” took place. This was when the richer, white residents moved to the surrounding cities and suburbs to escape the ensuing poverty in Gary.
As the flight took place and poverty covered the city like a suffocating blanket, the violence there began to rise and by 1993 Gary was the murder capital of the entire nation.
Many are quick to point to Detroit as being in a state of disrepair similar to Gary and when speaking of ghost towns in the midwest, they are almost synonymous. The problem is, that they are not all that similar.
Both towns made the erroneous choice to have only one dominating industry and when those industries began to collapse, there was nothing to replace them and support the residents that were all industry workers. However, today, this is where the similarities end.
In the April 2010 issue of GQ there was a piece on Detroit, explaining how the city is undergoing a revitalization. According to GQ, Detroit is undertaking a renewal project to try and jumpstart its economy and neighborhoods. The city has taken it into their own hands and is destroying approximately 20 houses a day per wrecking crew, with a hope of getting rid of 10,000 abandoned properties a year for the next four years and rebuilding the city.
No one has taken this interest in Gary and the politicians there are not starting an initiative to rejuvenate this once beautiful city. In recent years the decimation became worse as people feared living in there, resulting in more buildings becoming abandoned.
Looting of abandoned properties has become commonplace, as has arson, and the city has not boarded-up these properties. Additionally, they are not demolishing the old buildings to make way for new growth, so squatting and gang activity are rampant issues, making area homeowners nervous.
There are still other issues that plague Gary that are not the case for Detroit, one of the larger discrepancies, rests on the fact that most of the deterioration in Detroit, is the abandonment of residential space. Gary has not only had a large part of the residential structures abandoned, but also the cornerstones of the community.
Some examples of these losses, are the original Post Office, which covers almost an entire city block. The 6th Street Methodist Church, libraries, auditoriums, theatres, elementary schools, middle schools and high schools, a hospital, as well as the original train station. Additionally, almost all of these structures are within a block of Main Street in downtown Gary.
Gary has truly crumbled, at its epicenter.
An important question to extract from this situation, could be, what can be learned from Gary? One lesson could be that of the importance of diversity to a thriving community, whether this diversity comes in the form of multiethnic neighborhoods or the allowance of multi-industry sectors to occur.
Before seeing Gary, it is easy to imagine that it is like any other struggling, city experiencing economic collapse in the U.S., but the devastation there is so much worse. To put it into context, picture the most decimated neighborhoods that you can think of in Chicago and know that Gary is worse.
Christopher Caswell, 27, of Chicago, had never been to Gary and after visiting, he stated that his expectations did not match up to the reality of the situation. “I figured that it would not be too different from the ghettos of Chicago; trash in the streets, police everywhere, drug dealers on the corners and drug addicts wandering around in a haze. However it was far worse than I ever expected. An almost abandoned city." He continued, "People tired of the way things are done, civil institutions closed and destroyed buildings that posture as a haven for gangs, squatters and arsonists. Some are directly across from open grammar schools and what’s to stop children from being raped, kidnapped or worse? And why? Because it costs too much for the city to tear the buildings down. There are entire deserted blocks and a downtown that looks more like Skid Row than anything else.”
Walking through Gary, it's difficult to not immediately be overwhelmed by sadness and a sense of what can only be described as, despair. The images of deserted buildings are the sort of depictions that you would see on the set of a horror film, but for the residents there, this is everyday life.
Will things in Gary ever change? How can anyone help? There are messages everywhere in this deteriorating city and it’s time to start paying attention. On a wall in the post office, someone has surreptitiously spray-painted on the wall, “I’m listening, are you?” While on the wall of the abandoned church, someone has scrawled, “Question Everything.” The people of Gary have not completely lost hope, but they need help.
Many of Chicago’s newly gentrifying neighborhoods are pushing out the former residents and gangs into places like Gary, that do not have the police presence that Chicago has and is incapable of stopping the cancer-like spread of corruption. Gary is not a receptacle for the trash of Chicago and its residents are in need of a change.
This is happening to communities across so many cities in the U.S., the residents want a change, but they require help. As members of one nation and a collective society, it is time to step up and contribute to bettering the lives of our fellow Americans in need.
For additional information and ways to get involved, email: Jpelleg1@bu.edu