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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. 

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So far, residents say, Freeman-Wilson has gotten off to a good start. In her first month and a half on the job, she established a Department of Commerce to oversee economic development, and she's inaugurated flights by Allegiant Air into Gary/Chicago International Airport. The mayor and members of her administration have met with state and federal officials, including representatives of the Departments of Commerce, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development. She has brought in outside expertise, choosing a former Chicago police officer as police chief and a former official from Washington, D.C., to take charge of the economic development. And she has put together a plan to make the city solvent by cutting personnel costs, increasing fees such as for licenses, and seeking help from county and state governments.

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Although Freeman-Wilson wants local government to be more responsive to residents' needs, she also has challenged residents to take on more responsibility themselves. She declared a "Good Deeds Campaign" in February to encourage residents to help one another. When people come to her with a complaint about crime or uncollected garbage, she asks if their neighborhood has a block club or neighborhood watch. If not, she suggests they start one.

"I make sure they leave with a list of ideas I have that they can accomplish," she says. "I think that's equally important."

She has tried to set a good example. One Friday morning in February, she pitched in to help a small army of volunteers who were starting to renovate a closed and abandoned middle school into a Boys & Girls Club. "It's going to look a hundred times better when we finish the job," she said, standing in goggles and leather gloves amid dust, dangling wires, and old equipment.

The woman whom everyone calls simply "Mayor Karen" is the daughter of a Gary steelworker. She graduated valedictorian of her high school class and went on, eventually, to Harvard Law. A disciplined woman with a ready smile, she served briefly as Indiana's attorney general. In November, on her third try, she became the first African-American woman elected mayor of an Indiana city.

Although Gary's predicament is not unique, its decline has been made worse, and more difficult to reverse, by its historical dependence on a single industry, says Donald Coffin, an economist at Indiana University Northwest in Gary.

While steel provided a lot of well-paying jobs in the town, it also stunted the development of an "entrepreneurial culture" that has helped other cities, like Chicago, transform themselves.

Gary residents do not have high expectations. "Every mayor comes in with some hopes and aspirations," says the Rev. Dwight Gardner, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church and a Gary native. "When the rubber meets the road, though, it is the same city it was before the last mayor came into office."

Still, Freeman-Wilson has offered a fresh start. For now, at least, many residents seem satisfied.

"I'm not looking for a miracle," says Fred Neal, a clerk at West 5th Ave Liquors, a store that sits forlornly among vacant lots on one of Gary's main streets. "But she has the wherewithal to bring in new ideas and expertise. Maybe she can get something going in town."

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