GARY | Gary, Indiana has experienced more highs and lows than most cities during its relatively short existence. The city was founded in 1906 by the United States Steel Corporation as the home for its new plant, Gary Works, and was a prosperous city up until the 1960s, when steel manufacturing in the USA went into decline. Most famous at the birthplace of the Jackson 5, today Gary is a prime example of Rust Belt decline in the USA, and attracts visitors with a fascination for urban decay.
While visiting friends in Chicago, we planned a road trip to the wineries of South West Michigan and Gary was but a 10 minute detour from our route. When I told my friends that I wanted to visit Gary, they returned puzzled looks, but for me a visit to Gary was something I’d wanted to do for a long time. How, in the wealthiest nation in the world, could a city like Gary exist? How could a city that was once so prosperous decline so much in such a relatively short period of time? Stories and documentaries about the decline of Rust Belt cities like Detroit and Gary had garnered my interested, and I had to see it for myself.
There are two things you notice when you first drive into Gary. First is the derelict buildings, and second is the lack of people. Even on Broadway, the city’s main downtown street, there aren’t that many people walking about. At its peak in 1960, Gary had a population of 178,320 and was the largest company town in the USA. In 2016 its population was 76,424, a 57% decline that continues to increase. One of the results of this population decline is that an estimated one third of all homes in the city are either unoccupied or abandoned.
I walked around for a little bit, and got close to some of the city’s once grand structures. Union Station, City Methodist Church, and the Palace Theatre were all impressive, beautiful structures in their day, but today look like buildings from a war zone. In fact, parts of Gary have been used by television and film makers to film post apocalyptic and war scenes. Scenes for the 2009 remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street were filmed in Gary, as were scenes for 2010’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon.
Leaving downtown to explore some of the suburbs, and the confronting scenes didn’t stop. Neighbourhoods that were once prosperous now contain houses that are literally falling apart. In between the decay are regular people, trying to live their lives amongst the decay and crime. While the crime rate in Gary isn’t as high as it was in 1993, when it was dubbed the “murder capital” of the USA, it’s still high. Leaving Gary is hard for its remaining residents – you can’t simply pack up and leave when perhaps the only thing of real value that you own is your home, and that home is almost worthless.
People that do live here have pride in their homes though, and amongst the decay there are many well kept homes and a few nice streets. One such street is Jackson Street where, by coincidence, the Jackson 5 grew up at number 2300. Many residents are trying to effect positive change in Gary, but its hard when the population (and tax base) continues to decline. To raise more funds to keep the city running, things like schools and other services are shut down and the land sold. With less services, it becomes even harder to stay.
I left Gary with more questions than answers. Seeing the city first hand was eye opening. It’s shocking that such a situation should be allowed to occur in a nation as rich as the USA. Who’s responsibility is it to stop things like this? The government? The companies who founded then left the city? The residents? Should people stay when things go bad, or should they take the opportunity to leave if it presents itself? Can a city like this turn itself around at all? Like I said, more questions than answers.