A city built on steel attempts to reverse its decline

Gary, Indiana, was once a symbol of American innovation. Gary, home to US Steel’s largest plant, produced the product that helped build America’s bridges, tunnels and skyscrapers. The city is reaping the benefits, with a thriving downtown and vibrant neighborhoods.

Gary’s smokestacks are still visible along the sandy shores of Lake Michigan, sharply juxtaposed between the eroding dunes and the towering skyline of Chicago to the northwest. But they now represent a city seeking a new beginning.

More than 10,000 buildings are abandoned and the population of 180,000 in the 1960s has fallen by more than half. Poverty, crime and a vile nickname – “Scary Gary” – deter private investors and would-be homeowners.

As U.S. Steel finds itself at a crossroads — a planned acquisition would put it under foreign control — the city named for the company’s founder and who helped build his empire also finds itself at a crossroads. A new mayor and planned revitalization projects have revived hope that Gary can forge an economic future beyond steel, the kind of renaissance that many Midwestern industrial towns have achieved.

In theory, the potential is there. Gary is in the nation’s third-largest metropolitan area, straddling major railroad crossings and next to a shipping port. A national park, Indiana Dunes, is a popular destination for park-loving tourists and curious drivers.

“We have a recipe for success,” said Eddie Melton, the newly elected mayor. “We need to change the narrative and let the world know that Gary is open for business. »

A minor league baseball stadium and casino are among the construction projects city officials are calling successes. But they failed to generate the kind of lasting economic effects hoped for, said James B. Lane, a history professor at Indiana University Northwest and a Gary historian.

“The problem with all of these projects is that they have not led to a multiplier effect of the shops and businesses around them,” Dr Lane said.

Other efforts failed. The city agreed to the sale of its convention center to a technology company that promised thousands of jobs, but then took the company to court. in default of payment on its contracts. A multibillion-dollar plan to create a theme park capitalizing on Gary’s fame as the birthplace of the Jackson Five was abandoned in the 1990s.

“We certainly missed an opportunity to make this place a Dollywood, a Graceland,” said Chuck Hughes, president of the Gary Chamber of Commerce.

US Steel’s presence in Gary is significantly reduced. Gary Works, U.S. Steel’s largest plant, employs about 3,700 people, up from more than 30,000 at its peak. But local businesses still depend on the economic activity generated by the factory, which remains one of the city’s main employers.

One such business is Great Lakes Cafe, a restaurant located just outside the gates of Gary Works. Every morning, steelworkers in orange jumpsuits stop by the restaurant, which displays signs expressing support for the United Steelworkers union, to enjoy plates of hash browns, biscuits and gravy before starting their work day.

“We love US Steel,” said Cindy Klidaras, the owner of the restaurant opened in 1994.

Economic research doesn’t offer a clear solution for Gary’s revival, but suggests crucial elements like investing in infrastructure and making the city a more attractive place to live.

Mr Melton’s election was celebrated by many as a new milestone. Kia Smith, a small business owner who has lived in Gary all her life, said the mayor’s focus on transparency is a positive sign for business in a place that has long struggled with corruption. Ms. Smith, whose grandfather worked in a steel mill, said the city needed to diversify its economy beyond steel.

“No one owns Gary,” said Ms. Smith, 43, who owns and operates a health food store and catering business. “Gary belongs to all of us.”

Beautification and restoration efforts are underway. Mr. Melton’s administration began demolishing old buildings to attract developers who could build new housing and other structures on the many vacant lots. One idea is to make Gary a viable alternative to Chicago, where rents have soared. Jim Wiseman, a lifelong resident who has worked in local construction for more than 40 years, said his company has begun working with the new administration, recently razing 15 buildings.

Mr. Wiseman’s childhood home, located in the hard-hit Aetna neighborhood, is among those to be demolished. “Demolition is a way to change the community forever,” he said. “I hope to see a renaissance of new growth and new housing for the community as we change things for the better.” »

The South Shore Line, a commuter rail line that connects Chicago to cities in northwest Indiana, is expected to open a second set of tracks between Gary and Michigan City to the east. The Gary/Chicago International Airport received $6 million in federal funding and added additional cargo capacity in 2023, with the goal of serving as a logistics hub for tenants like United Parcel Service. In December, Governor Eric Holcomb announced a $127 million grant to improve Interstates 80 and 94, which run through Gary, with funding from the bipartisan infrastructure law.

However, the challenges are significant.

Growing up in Gary, Kamal Minkah knew it as a thriving town. Things began to change in the late 1960s, when many white residents left, and continued with the first mass layoffs at Gary Works in the early 1970s.

Mr. Minkah left to join the Air Force in 1980 and returned in 1991. Gary was unrecognizable.

“It was like an empty feeling,” Mr. Minkah, 60, said. “It’s like the city has collapsed.”

Today, Mr. Minkah is a police officer assigned to the Gary school system and runs a karate teaching school. He cited Gary’s proximity to Chicago and low housing costs as selling points.

Political isolation is another difficulty. Gary’s demographics — the city is more than 80 percent black and heavily Democratic — put it at odds with Indiana’s majority Republican legislature. Lawmakers blocked initiatives that would have allowed Gary to expand his tax base and offered him little public funding, citing concerns about corruption. At the same time, there was little incentive for the Illinois government to better connect Chicago to a city in Indiana.

Paul Helmke, the former Republican mayor of Fort Wayne, said a quirk in Indiana state tax law helped his city, but not Gary, recover from the decline of the manufacturing sector. Gary was a smaller, majority-Democratic city within a larger, more conservative county that Indiana law controlled over its ability to manage its taxes. He couldn’t increase his tax base without county approval.

“Gary was a prisoner of what the other towns in his county wanted to do,” Mr. Helmke said.

Other cities offer contrasts and possible lessons.

About 450 miles to the southeast, Pittsburgh’s steelmaking heritage remains a vital part of its identity, even though the city bears little resemblance to its heavy-industrial days. Chic bars, coworking spaces and university hospitals rise where steel mills once lit up the night sky.

Unlike Pittsburgh, Gary does not have a major research university, a key driver of economic transformation. Mr. Melton said his administration had worked closely with Detroit’s mayor to understand how that city had worked to revitalize its economy after losing much of the nation’s auto manufacturing.

A useful model for Gary could be Erie, Pa., said John Lettieri, co-founder of the Economic Innovation Group, a nonprofit research organization. Like Gary, Erie relied heavily on manufacturing – and suffered when those jobs were shipped overseas. But a combination of economic and political leadership and investment from one of the city’s largest employers, Erie Insurance Group, led to a significant turnaround.

There, Erie Insurance worked with a group of local business owners, development organizations and others to revitalize the waterfront, investing $50 million with outside partners in 2020. That project was boosted by a federal program that provides tax breaks for development in distressed areas. . The company also added a $147 million building to its campus in 2021.

But most important for Gary, Mr. Lettieri said, is to continue to focus on the city’s safety and quality of life. “When the population is declining and crime is high, these are prerequisite problems that the public sector must first solve before the private sector joins in,” he said.

Although Gary has long been associated with decadence, the residents who remained, white and black, saw it as a chance for renewal.

Mr. Wiseman is one of the hopefuls. His mother worked in the steel mill in the 1940s and ’50s and felt loyal to the town, remaining there when many other whites left, a migration that occurred around the 1967 election of Richard G. Hatcher , one of the first black mayors of a city. large American city. Before she died, she made her son promise to help get Gary back to where he was: a place where people want to live.

“It is my absolute dream to see Gary thrive again in my lifetime,” Mr Wiseman said.