Elbert H. Gary was the chairman of the board of U.S Steel is the architect of Gary Indiana, in Lake County on the southern shore of Lake Michigan. Thirty miles south of the Loop of Chicago. Gary Indiana was founded in 1906, several years before Henry Ford began production of automobiles at his Highland Park Ford Plant in Detroit. Gary was an inexpensive location for a massive new steel production center, the site of rampant land speculation it was billed as, “The Magic City”, “Steel City”, and “The City of the Century.”
The poor planning led Gary to develop burgeoning slums fueled by waves of Southern blacks and Mexican immigrants in the 1920s and 30s, with Blacks constituting as much as 20% of the population in 1930. Unskilled immigrant steelworkers flooded the city from Southern and Eastern Europe until Federal restrictions limited their settlement; Mexican’s were the encouraged heavily to settle, and as many as ten thousand called East Chicago and Gary their home by 1920.
The Great Depression which crippled the city with it’s over reliance on industry, as well as several steel strikes, segregation, and labor problems gave Gary a national spotlight as being a troubled mixing pot. Revived by the WWII boom in steel production the city continued to grow with a dramatically changing composition. By 1950, 30% of the population identified as Black. This was around the time my Grandfather movied to Gary from Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana for an opportunity to work in the Steel Mills.
Gary was on it’s way to decline by late 1960s. With now nearly 40% of the population identifying as black, Gary became one of the first large cities to elect a Black Mayor, Richard G. Hatcher in 1967. What followed was one of the most dramatic flights of immigrant and white businesses in American History. The “white flight” as it was called – European immigrants fled to the suburbs, and their businesses along with them leading to massive population decline and economic failure. By 1980 the dwindling population composition had become much different; now nearly 80% Black and the remainder Latino and White.
In the mid 1980s, as I was born in Methodist Hospitals of Merrillville and Gary Indiana, Gary earned the “Murder Capital of the World” nickname with the homicide rate reaching 73 per capita. The steel mills have largely reduced their production making jobs outside lower paying manufacturing hard to come by; competition from global conglomerates like ArcelorMittal have rendered them uncompetitive without government assistance. To this day Gary remains one of the most dangerous places in North America, with over 50 murders occurring in 2013 for a city that now has a population of less than 100,000 people.
Visiting Gary this year (first time I’d been back in 16 years) I found much of the same things I saw when I would visit as a child – empty streets and blight. The deep irony for me, is that the other place I spent some significant time in as a child, Ciudad Juarez in Northern Mexico with it’s stray cats and poverty, felt completely familiar after Gary.
The only businesses left, and that have continued to thrive are churches; some streets I would drive down had as many as 12 on in less than one mile. Liquor stores and gas stations (bootleg CD’s, mix tapes, and DVDS are sold on these corners) are also everywhere, as well as restaurants selling fried lake fish and chicken are the only other visible industry.
Gary Indiana will always fascinate me, like a Twilight Zone episode where one might think they are looking into a vision of a destroyed past, but actually be looking into the future.