HALFWAY through the swing shift on a warm spring night, a group of Gary police officers pulls off the beat for a dinner of cheap pizza. The talk quickly turns grim.
Two rookies recall responding to homicide calls in their first week. A veteran recounts a triple murder involving a VCR a few nights earlier. The stories aren't bravado.
Known throughout Indiana simply as ''the region,'' Gary is one of the most crime-ridden cities in the United States. In 1993 it had the highest murder rate in the US, and after a dip last year is headed toward reclaiming that distinction. Gangs and drugs are prolific, domestic violence all too common. ''I even carry a gun to church,'' says Officer Al Galinis. ''A year on the beat in Gary is equivalent to five in surrounding communities.''
At the southern tip of Lake Michigan, Gary is inner-city America, struggling with the same challenges as Harlem, South Side Chicago, or Watts. Unemployment is in the high teens. Nearly two-thirds of eligible adults are on some form of public assistance. Racial tensions isolate the city from adjacent communities.
How to make streets like Gary's safer and improve the lives of struggling urban citizens has been one of the most difficult and important social problems of postwar America. Today, it is again at the center of a national debate -- sparked by the GOP revolution in Congress and its ideas about welfare, crime, and the balance of power among local, state, and federal governments.
To many Republicans, Washington has only exacerbated Gary's problems. Public-assistance programs created in the 1960s to eradicate poverty have, in fact, advanced it, they say. They advocate instead ''tough love'' reforms designed to promote self-reliance and individual responsibility.
''Existing welfare programs are like pouring toxic waste in the inner city,'' says Robert Rector, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation and the source of many GOP ideas about social welfare. ''A whole generation of young men has lost the attachment to education and labor, and as a result they are prone to criminal activity.''
But critics say that cutting off welfare benefits and building more prisons will come at the expense of the measures that are truly needed to renew the inner city -- greater investments in education and job creation. ''The Republicans are writing off places like Gary,'' says Evelyn Brodkin, a sociologist at the University of Chicago. ''They are balancing the budget by turning out cities and the disadvantaged.''
It is on these streets that the outcome of this debate will have its greatest impact, either precipitating urban renewal or accelerating racial and class fragmentation.
Gary is a case study in the rise and fall of an urban center. Established in 1906 and named after Elbert Henry Gary, the first chairman of US Steel, Gary was for most of its history a mill town, home to the company's flagship plant, which still covers 12 square miles and once provided more than 30,000 jobs to a rich tapestry of Greek, Polish, and Russian immigrants. But when blacks started arriving in large numbers, drawn by mill jobs, the tapestry changed.
The European immigrants fled rapidly to homogeneous suburbs, taking their businesses and investments with them. By 1967, as the civil rights movement was reaching a pitch across the country, Gary's population had shifted enough to elect one of the nation's first black mayors.
During the next decade Mayor Richard Hatcher (D) would bring in enough federal money to finance a convention hall, a transport center, and other developments. But none of these projects was sufficient to offset the damaging effects of the white flight that followed on the heels of his arrival in office.
Then, in the early 1980s, the bottom dropped out. Competition from Japan sent the overstaffed and outmoded American steel industry into a depression. US Steel closed five plants in the region and spent more than $1.5 billion to modernize its Gary mill. The result: the most productive steel furnace in the world run by 7,800 workers -- less than a third of the number 20 years earlier.
The combination of whites leaving and mill jobs disappearing has been devastating for the people of this city. Property values have plummeted, convenience stores have replaced supermarkets. Service-sector jobs and lending institutions have moved out to the surrounding suburbs.
''Gary used to be one of the more prosperous places for blacks,'' says Prof. Jack Bloom, a sociologist at Indiana University Northwest in Gary. ''And when the working class was well off, it supported the merchant and professional classes.''
Brick buildings reduced to rubble and boarded-up storefronts are common sights in Gary. Median household income, at roughly $9,000, is less than a third the state figure.
Still, it isn't hard to find people who express pride and faith in their community. ''I know what determination is,'' says Annette Roby, who worked her way off welfare while raising four children, all of whom now have jobs. ''If you have to start at the bottom, start at the bottom.... I pray to God to make a difference in my community. Real prayer and a belief in each other works for the whole community.''
Earline Rogers, a Democratic state senator from Gary, is equally committed. ''The biggest challenge is that young people have no recreational outlets or jobs,'' she says. ''A lot of people sell drugs as a means to help their families meet the daily cost of living. But I'd hate to give up on that generation. We've got to do something within our public schools and community.''
Rebuilding, though, isn't easy in a city whose coffers have shrunk so much that the municipal demolition unit, charged with taking down old structures, itself operates out of a condemned building.
The police force, the most active in Indiana, is ill-equipped and understaffed to serve and protect its residents.
Last year, according to Officer Alen Ross, the department answered 100,000 calls, almost one for every resident of the city. On an average shift, he says, he responds to 15 to 20 calls. Yet the starting police salary is $22,500, about $6,000 less than neighboring communities. At any given time, only 12 cars are on patrol. None have radios. Several officers have had to buy their own weapons and bulletproof vests.
''We're so spread out that most of us ride without partners,'' Officer John Breese says.
The police department has secured a number of federal and state grants in recent years to hire new officers and purchase a few more cars. And the private sector pitched in to help hire a new police chief last year. Since then, the department has instituted a number of community-oriented policing programs.
But these efforts, community leaders say, are like dousing grass fires when the forest is burning. ''How do you take that kid and say, 'Hey, you shouldn't join a gang?''' asks Police Chief Douglas Wright. ''It is difficult to talk to them about education and role models. Being the kind of town it is -- black, undereducated, and underemployed -- it can't be competitive. That kind of stuff leads to crime.''
Through the lens of conservatism, places like Gary represent the inevitable moral breakdown of the welfare state. In this view, crime is not a result of poverty but of the damage that long-term reliance on public assistance causes to the family structure.
''The No. 1 cause of crime is the collapse of the family,'' Dr. Rector says. Welfare, he argues, has ''eliminated the role of the male as a breadwinner,'' and thus has undermined the incentives for poor men to marry, become educated or skilled, and find jobs. Previous generations of blacks ''had an above average capacity to move around in response to economic circumstances. Why doesn't [the current generation of poor] move to where the new jobs are? Welfare paid them to stay.''
That's not how Shawn Clarke and Stephanie Rodriguez see it. A young couple, they say they are searching desperately both inside and outside Gary for jobs.
''Where there are no jobs there's going to be crime,'' Mr. Clarke says. ''How many people wake up and say, 'I want to sell drugs and get chased by the police?' Give anybody a decent chance and they'll take it.''
Some sociologists and economists argue that the root of inner-city crime lies in the lack of economic opportunity, not uncontrolled welfare.
Professor Brodkin calls Rector's argument the ''bantam rooster'' theory, which she says many studies discredit. Welfare rolls have declined steadily during the past 20 years, she argues, and the majority of recipients stay enrolled for less than two years, undermining the notion that prolonged dependency is a primary cause of crime.
Katherine Newman, an anthropologist at Columbia University, has just completed a two-year study of entry-level employment in Harlem. Her findings refute the argument that young inner-city men are inclined not to seek work: 73 percent of the blacks and Hispanics she studied could not find work after a year of consistent searching.
Most service-sector jobs, she notes, have moved out to the suburbs, beyond the reach of inner-city residents who often have no means of transportation. Gary, for example, runs the only municipal bus service in its area. The surrounding communities declined to extend it.
And competition for those jobs that are available, Professor Newman says, is so stiff that those who do land entry-level jobs tend to be out of their teens.
''The Republican philosophy of self-reliance has a willing partner in the inner city,'' she says, speaking of the desire that poor, urban residents have to work. But ''we haven't begun to register what it means for an entire generation of young people that they can't get a foot in the door.''
Rep. Rick Lazio (R) of New York agrees that something needs to be done to create greater economic opportunity in the inner city. Balancing the federal budget, he says, is a vital part of that effort.
''As the nation prospers, urban areas will prosper,'' he says. Interest rates will drop as a result of smaller deficits, which should in turn boost savings, investment, and productivity -- and thus economic opportunity for a great number of Americans.
But Peter Navarro, an urban expert at the University of California at Irvine, argues that the spending reductions needed to reach a balanced budget could devastate urban centers. He laments that both Republican and Democrats seem to be paying too much attention to angry, middle-class voters at the expense of urban renewal.
''We're building prisons at the expense of classrooms,'' he says. ''Blacks who get a solid education have the best chances of succeeding.'' Without investments in schools and job training, he says, the country may end up with ''ghettos which are segregated from the rest of the economy, serving as pools of unskilled labor.''
Brodkin agrees: ''We need to provide job opportunities that allow people to thrive and succeed. We know that means investment in education. We know that takes an economic strategy that brings jobs and people together.''
In a community center in the middle of Gary, Senator Rogers contemplates the task ahead. She looks across the street, where neighborhood kids in high-top tennis shoes shoot baskets through a steel jungle gym. She sees a road ahead that looks steeper and lonelier, with less government support. But maybe it isn't insurmountable.
''We're just going to have to rebuild job by job, business by business, industry by industry,'' she says.