In the basement of an old bank in downtown Gary are the reminders and remainders of a once magnificent and even opulent city of steel. Gold lines the vault and the room where safe deposit boxes once held the riches of people who were some of Indiana’s richest citizens.
That society is now but a spectre. The city is known more now for the empty hulks of abandoned buildings that lose bricks and wood with the passage of time, and drip their magnificence on the debris-covered ground. The city that once housed thriving hope and optimism, now enjoys a reputation for the violence of angry abandonment.
Some people call it “Scary Gary”.
“It’s important to understand that because that perception exists that we need to acknowledge it and do everything we can to try to eliminate or at the very minimum diminish the perception that this isn’t a safe place to live,” said Mayor Jerome Prince, talking to Inside Indiana Business.
Prince is fighting what may seem to some people to be an uphill battle. In just the past few months a police officer has been shot in Gary, and a prominent nightclub shooting has caused high-profile negative publicity. YouTube is replete with videos made by urban explorers going into abandoned buildings, left behind to rot when families, often financially devastated by continuous downsizing at U.S. Steel, gave up their homes and businesses and left town, leaving everything behind.
Even schools, left forfeit to the consequences of a dwindling population, have been abandoned with all the materials and furniture inside.
The city in years past has taken on the expensive task of leveling some structures. But, hundreds remain, and are a potential haven for squatters and ner do wells.
Prince is hopeful of succeeding where previous mayors have not, in changing the perception and creating an atmosphere where businesses can thrive.
He tells IIB that though the perception of “Scary Gary” is at the fore, he is not afraid.
“I’ve never really felt unsafe. Some may say, he’s delusional. I don’t think so,” he said. “I travel through the city. I take my family. My wife and I ride our bicycles through the city.”
Perhaps the effort is paying off to a degree. Alliance Steel moved their headquarters from Chicago to Gary. Some business people have made it a priority to repopulate old lots and downtown store fronts.
With northwest Indiana enjoying somewhat of a renaissance that perceived rebirth may this time be sustainable, where it has not been before. Efforts like the Genesis Center have ended up being white elephants, more expensive to run and keep open than they’re worth. If the goal is to thrive, then the possibilities may have multiplied with projects like the South Shore Rail making more Indiana communities viable as places to live away from the thick urbanity of Chicago.