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. 

Stephanie Dowell/Post-Tribune/AP/File
Karen Freeman-Wilson, speaking to supporters in Gary, Ind., is now pushing for business development and a greater role for residents.

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

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.

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.

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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