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Can Karen Freeman-Wilson Fix Gary, Indiana?

The Harvard-educated new mayor is drawing national attention with her out-of-the-box ideas to turn Chicago’s most notorious neighbor back into a thriving city

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Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson
Freeman-Wilson overlooking downtown Gary. The domed building at left is the county courthouse; right rear, City Hall. For more photos, launch the gallery »

It’s morning in Gary, Indiana. From the windswept deck of a battered, barren parking garage, this century-old city hard by Lake Michigan and 30 minutes from Chicago unfurls like a map of heartbreak and glory. In the foreground, the dual bronze domes of City Hall and the county courthouse rise against white billows spewing from the mammoth U.S. Steel plant across Interstate 90. To the left hulks the faded facade of the Genesis Convention Center, the rounded edges of its early-1980s styling an architectural puzzler beside the neoclassical domes. Just east gleams the pristine U.S. Steel Yard baseball stadium. To the west and south, a vast landscape of homes: some well maintained, some boarded up, some as burned and cratered as if in a war zone. And looming over all, casting City Hall itself in shadow, the most potent symbol of disillusionment in a city scarred by it: the abandoned 12-story Sheraton Hotel.

On the garage’s deck, a woman in her early 50s walks to the edge and gazes out over a waist-high concrete wall. This is her city, the place where she was born and that she has called home since the days when she was a Girl Scout living with her steelworker father and community service worker mother in a modest frame house on Arthur Street. Where you could shop at Sears and Lytton’s and Goldblatt’s and Sax Footwear or duck into Kresge’s for a 35-cent Sloppy Joe (a dollar with a bag of potato chips and a pop). Where you could walk the streets at night and stare awestruck at places like the Palace Theater on Broadway. This is the city she knew before Gary became synonymous with decrepitude, squalor, and crime.

But the woman isn’t here for nostalgia. And though she can’t deny that words like “squalor” and “decrepitude” are true enough when it comes to describing certain swaths of her city, they fall far short of defining the people and the possibilities she sees. To her, those who would save this town—who will save it—have to look beyond caricature, use a new vocabulary, see with a new set of eyes. There is bad, yes, and it hurts to see it. But there is plenty of good too. And nothing is unfixable.

So when she looks across the highway at the chugging smokestacks of Gary Works on this raw gray February day, she sees not a heartless steel plant that torpedoed the town through rounds of brutal layoffs but “one of the most powerful corporations in the country, pumping at full gear.” When she looks at the cheerless Goliath that is the Genesis Center, she doesn’t see a lumbering white elephant. She sees “evidence of an effort to rebuild the city,” a facility that, while far from being the revenue generator that was once hoped for, is ripe for a renaissance if the other dominoes she plans to kick over tumble the right way. Above all, she refuses to see hopelessness. “I see rails,” she says. “Highways. City Hall. All of our assets.”

And then Karen Freeman-Wilson smiles. Not just any smile, but the mile-wide, confidence-gushing, cando dazzler that helped make her the first female mayor of Gary, a job she began in January. It’s also the smile that has many in this beleaguered city believing that maybe, just maybe, they have finally found the thing that she, a woman of deep Christian faith, would never call herself: a savior.

If any place needs one, it’s Gary. The median household income here is $28,000—$20,000 less than the state median—and unemployment is nearly 16 percent. The city is bleeding money (its debt: $43 million and counting), bleeding population (178,000 residents in 1960; 103,000 in 2000; 80,000 in 2010), and just plain bleeding. According to FBI statistics, Gary was the murder capital of the nation for several years running in the 1990s and 2000s. By 2011, the city’s murder rate had dropped a fair amount, to 4.4 per 10,000—which may sound like great news until you consider that’s still nearly three times Chicago’s rate and seven times New York City’s.

In Gary you’ll find no big-box stores, no movie houses, no downtown hotels, and no fine dining. Rusted swing sets stand silent next to schools that have not heard children’s voices for decades. Curlicues of gang graffiti mar walls and overpasses. Some buildings—the soaring gothic City Methodist Church, the once majestic Palace Theater—are almost beautiful in their decay. That fact has made them a favorite of moviemakers looking for the perfect backdrop for postapocalypse (Transformers: Dark of the Moon) and horror (A Nightmare on Elm Street).

As with so many problems, those in Gary tend to boil down to money. The city is so strapped for cash that even the main branch of the public library had to be shuttered. There’s precious little fat to cut and bleak prospects for new revenue. “She has basically inherited a city that’s on the brink of bankruptcy,” says Joe Gomeztagle, an Indiana tax expert and one of the few skeptical voices to emerge in Freeman-Wilson’s first 100 days. “If they don’t go through it this year, I give it one more.”

Some cynical Chicagoans may ask: What’s it to me if this woman turns things around? Gary’s that place you don’t go anyway, a drive-by on the way to somewhere else. If it gets worse, just lock the doors and go past a little faster on the Skyway.

But if Freeman-Wilson succeeds, Chicagoans could reap some real benefits. For one thing, should the Gary International Airport actually become more than a bad joke with too-short runways—and fixing it is one of her top priorities—the metro area’s longed-for third airport would become a reality, shortening chronic pileups at O’Hare and Midway. A revitalized Gary would create a stronger market for Chicago’s goods and services. Improved schools there would mean a better-educated labor force within commuting distance, helping the area succeed in luring big employers. And that’s just for starters.

People from much farther away than the Windy City have their eyes on Freeman-Wilson—for good reason. If she succeeds, Gary could become a blueprint for how to turn around blighted postindustrial cities like Camden, Flint, and East St. Louis. She is already drawing comparisons to political star Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark: Both are Ivy League grads who have assembled best-and-brightest teams to fix deeply troubled towns. “For the naysayers and those who think we can’t change,” Freeman-Wilson says, “I can’t wait to prove them wrong.”

* * *

If driving Around Chicago with Rahm Emanuel is a stress test set to a blaring rock soundtrack, driving around Gary with Karen Freeman-Wilson is like hanging with a gospel music star. And that’s not only because she keeps her radio tuned to Praise, a satellite station that plays inspirational Christian music.

When we idle outside West Side High School—the rival to Roosevelt High, where she was the 1978 valedictorian—two starstruck police officers sidle up bashfully to her window to shake her hand, goofy grins plastered on their faces. As she takes to the school’s stage to give a key to the city to a returning student who has won a spot with the Alvin Ailey American dance Theater, the kids erupt in squeals that would rival those at a Justin Bieber concert. Later, at a press conference, residents and community leaders jockey for a spot in the grip-and-grin line, cameras at the ready.

Everywhere, from boardrooms to Broadway, Gary’s blighted main drag, there’s goodwill. “People see her as being one of their own who has achieved something,” says Kyle Allen, president of Gary’s city council and an early fan. “They can relate to that.”

Back in the car, Freeman-Wilson takes me through the nicest part of town, Miller Beach, a community of lovely homes hugging Lake Michigan. (“It is in Gary.”) “A lot of our professional community lives out here,” she says, chuckling. “They ask me: ‘Are you moving to Miller?’ I say, ‘No, I’m already late when I go places.’ ” She and her husband, Carmen, 65, a retired public service worker, and daughter, Jordan, 18, live downtown.

As we swing past the house she grew up in, a ranch in the Tolleston neighborhood, Freeman-Wilson begins talking about her youth. An only child, she played basketball, marched in the high-school band with Delvert Cole (now her deputy mayor), and took the baptismal plunge at Israel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. “We had one of the premier school systems in the country at that time,” she recalls. “Gary was great. It was a vibrant community. Everyone was working, the city was prosperous, and it was just a really good time.”

Indeed, the first half of Gary’s history was defined by prosperity, perhaps because it was founded by some of the country’s most prominent businessmen. In 1906, scouting for a place to build a massive production center, the executives of U.S. Steel decided on an undeveloped stretch of land in a choice location: right on Lake Michigan, just 25 miles from Chicago. The factory quickly became the company’s flagship operation, and the town that sprang up around it rose so fast that some called it the Magic City. It took the name of Elbert Gary, the chairman of U.S. Steel, who was also a judge (and who was immortalized in the Music Man song “Gary, Indiana”).

Unlike the Pullman area on Chicago’s Far South Side, Gary was not conceived as a social experiment. U.S. Steel took no ownership stake in the houses outside its gates. The giant was out to make money, and the blocks of one- and two-story homes reflected this pragmatism-over-aesthetics approach.

As the company prospered, so did the city. At its peak of 178,000 residents in 1960, Gary was solidly middle-class, bluecollar, and mostly white—though plenty of black families (such as the Jacksons, who lived less than a mile from Freeman-Wilson and whose five musical sons would soon achieve worldwide fame) had moved there too.

The unrest of the civil rights era began to change things. By the early 1960s, African Americans were in the majority; in 1967, Richard Hatcher became the first black mayor. Fearing that Gary was going to become a city for blacks, run by blacks, many whites decamped to nearby suburbs such as Merrillville and Crown Point, says Paul O’Hara, assistant professor of history at Xavier University and author of Gary: The Most American of All American Cities. (Today Gary’s population is 85 percent black.)

Meanwhile, overseas competitors were churning out cheap steel, leading to tens of thousands of layoffs at Gary Works. The plant currently employs 4,700 people, compared to more than 30,000 in the 1970s.

The downward spiral of fewer residents, store closings, an eroding tax base, and higher crime proved impossible to stop, despite repeated efforts. Mayors from Richard Hatcher through Freeman-Wilson’s predecessor, Rudy Clay, spent hundreds of millions in federal and other funds trying to help the city regain its footing. On 1981’s little-used Genesis Center, which has been a drain on municipal coffers for years. On the Sheraton, into which the city poured millions in the 1980s before the hotel went under a few years afterward. On 2003’s U.S. Steel Yard stadium, which cost $45 million (nearly double the original estimate), never led to development nearby, and landed a business associate of then-mayor Scott King in the big house. And, of course, on Gary International Airport, a potential economic boon that is still struggling to get off the ground.

These mayors lured casinos in an attempt to boost revenue and beauty pageants (Miss USA in 2001 and 2002) to show that Gary could do glamour. Most recently, Mayor Clay glommed on to what many see as another pipe dream: a proposed $300 million museum complex honoring late native son Michael Jackson that would include a hotel, a golf course, a performing arts center, and an elevated rail line to shuttle visitors—another believe-itwhen-I-see-it project that so far has proved as elusive and confounding as the singer himself in his final years.

* * *

Unlike many Garyites who got away and stayed away, Freeman-Wilson made returning her goal. “Never had a doubt in my life I’d come back,” she told me as we drove through the city, shuttling from one appointment to the next at a breakneck pace. “I knew that I would practice law, then come back and help my city. I wasn’t sure what that would look like, but I did know that I was going to do something that would make the community better.”


Photograph: Brian Sorg

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