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Can Gary, Ind., be saved? A new mayor's bid to revive Rust Belt city

Gary, Ind., is one of the rustiest of Rust Belt cities, beset by high joblessness and crime. Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson has an up-from-the-bootstraps plan to reverse the decline. 

By Richard MertensCorrespondent / March 2, 2012

Karen Freeman-Wilson, speaking to supporters in Gary, Ind., is now pushing for business development and a greater role for residents.

Stephanie Dowell/Post-Tribune/AP/File

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Gary, Ind.

The city that steel built is today hollowed out by poverty, lack of opportunity, and despair.

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Gary, Ind., sits on the south shore of Lake Michigan, dominated by U.S. Steel's sprawling Gary Works. It's swamped by problems familiar to many old industrial cities: dwindling population, decaying streets and houses, struggling schools, and a level of joblessness that some say only hints at the real problem of unemployment. In 1994, the Chicago Tribune proclaimed Gary the "murder capital of America," and the town's reputation has never recovered. At the same time, many residents have lost faith in the capacity of city government to make things better.

Gary's new mayor, Karen Freeman-Wilson, aims to change this. She brings to the job ambitious plans to stop Gary's decline and restore a measure of the prosperity it enjoyed in the mid-20th century, when Indiana's steel mills employed tens of thousands of local workers. "It's a new day," she says.

But resurrecting Gary won't be easy. The decline has been going on for decades, and a line of mayors has tried in vain to reverse it. Ms. Freeman-Wilson's most immediate challenge is a fiscal deficit of between $15 million and $20 million in a city where services are already inadequate. She also must try to find ways to create more jobs during difficult economic times. Gary's official unemployment rate is 13 percent – well above the national average of 8.3 percent.

Moreover, poverty is deep: A third of Gary's residents live below the poverty line, with median household income at $27,846. So perhaps the new mayor's biggest challenge is to restore hope.

"People in the area have been down so long, they don't have the vision, or the belief, that something can change," says Chanelle Yarber, president of the Urban League of Northwest Indiana Young Professionals. "We need someone genuine, who seriously cares, and I think she does."

When Freeman-Wilson campaigned for mayor, she presented a "Blueprint for Rebuilding Gary." Those ideas, and ones that she has outlined since then, include:

• Creating jobs by making the city more hospitable to business. Gary is putting out such a welcome mat with plans to expand the airport and promote the town's proximity to Chicago, as well as access to good transportation networks.

• Increasing the tax base by encouraging development along the lakeshore. The mayor also plans to encourage "urban homesteading" by offering abandoned houses for $1 to residents and people who want to move to the city.

• Increasing public safety by adopting a "broken windows" policy, in which neighborhoods are well kept to discourage more-serious crime. One focus is improving lighting and street signs.

• Reaching out to regional, state, and federal agencies for help, especially since the city is desperately short of cash. Another goal is cooperation with other local governments.

• Building trust in government with more transparency and responsiveness.

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