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Images of a Broken City

By Jasmin Bleu Pellegrino
On May 3, 2011

Whenever the subject of Gary, Indiana comes up, there seem to be several different reactions. Many people are judgmental, and talk about how scary the city is, and how dangerous the people are. Instances like the two bodies that were recently found in a pile of manure on a farm don't aid in changing this negative ideology. It also doesn't help that in 1993, Gary was the murder capital of the nation. The city of 119,125 had a record of 110 murders, which translates into a murder rate of 91 per 100,000 residents. To put this into perspective, consider that the homicide rate in Chicago at the time was only 31 per 100,000 residents. However, few people concentrate on the families there, how things became the way they are, and how average citizens can help.

Gary was established in 1906, by the owners of U.S. Steel, for its laborers. Within 30 years, the population had quadrupled in size. This was a city that housed some of the best schools, the best parks and the most beautiful neighborhoods in the country. It was of interest to the investors that Gary's only industry was steel; as this secured the wages and ensured that their workers would stay with the company. Unfortunately, the catalyst of this once great and thriving city would eventually become the cause of its demise.

U.S. Steel began to collapse in the 1970's due to other countries manufacturing cheaper and more superior steel and, having no other industry, the city of Gary began to fold. The phenomenon, known as "white flight," took place; rich, white residents moved to the surrounding cities and suburbs to escape the ensuing poverty in Gary. As poverty covered the city like a suffocating blanket, the violence here began to rise and by 1993 Gary, Indiana was the murder capital of the nation.

Many people are quick to point to Detroit, MI as being in a state of disrepair similar to Gary, IN and when speaking of ghost towns they are almost synonymous. The problem is that it's not similar; both towns were plagued with the issue of having one main industry in their respective cities and when those industries began to collapse, there was nothing to replace them and support the residents whom were all industry workers. However, Detroit is undergoing revitalization. The city has taken their problems into their own hands and is destroying approximately 20 houses a day - per wrecking crew, with the hope of getting rid of 10,000 abandoned properties a year for the next 4 years and rebuilding the city from the ground up.

 

No one has taken this interest in Gary, and the politicians there have not started any initiatives to rejuvenate this once beautiful city. In recent years, the devastation only became worse as people feared living in the city, resulting in more buildings becoming abandoned. Looting of abandoned properties has become commonplace, as has arson - and the city is not boarding up properties, nor are they demolishing the old buildings to make way for new growth.

There are other issues that plague Gary, which is not the case for Detroit. One of the larger incongruities in the scenery rests in the fact that most of the deterioration in Detroit is the abandonment of residential space. Gary has not only had a large part of residential structures abandoned, but also the cornerstones of the community. These include, but are not limited to, the original Post Office, the largest church and hospital, libraries, theatres, schools, and the original train station. Additionally, almost all of these structures are within a block of the main street of downtown Gary. Gary has truly crumbled, at its epicenter.

What have we learned from Gary? Diversity is important to a thriving community, whether this diversity comes in the form of multiethnic or multi-industry cities, excluding people or companies because they are different is a recipe for disaster. Before seeing Gary, it is easy to imagine that it is like any other ghetto in the U.S., but the devastation here is so much worse. After taking Christopher Caswell of Chicago, to Gary, he stated that his expectations did not match up to the reality of the situation.

"I figured that it would not be too different from the ghettos of Chicago; trash in the streets, police everywhere, drug dealers on the corners and drug addicts wandering around in a haze. However it was far worse than I ever expected. An almost abandoned city. People tired of the way things are done, civil institutions closed and destroyed buildings that posture as a haven for gangs, squatters and arsonists. Some are directly across from grammar schools and what's to stop children from being raped, kidnapped or worse? And why? Because it costs too much for the city to tear the buildings down. There are entire deserted blocks and a downtown that looks more like Skid Row than anything else."

When walking through the city of Gary, Indiana; the feeling of sadness and despair can be overwhelming. The images of deserted buildings are the sort of depictions that one might see on the set of a horror film. But for the residents here, this is everyday life. Several questions immediately come to mind: how did this happen? Will it ever change? How can people help? There are messages everywhere in this deteriorating city and it's time that everyday people started paying attention. On the wall in the post office, someone has surreptitiously spray-painted, "I'm listening, are you?" While on the wall of the abandoned church, someone has scrawled, "Question Everything." The people of Gary have not completely lost hope, but they need our help.


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