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


Mayor Freeman-Wilson
February 8, a day in the life: 11:50: Rushing to appointments. For more photos, launch the gallery »

After graduating cum laude from Harvard University and earning a degree from Harvard Law, she plunged into a rising-star career that included tours of duty as a Lake County prosecutor, a Gary city court judge, the head of the National Association of drug Court Professionals in Alexandria, virginia, and Indiana’s attorney general. For the past five years, she was a private-practice attorney in Gary.

Eventually, she realized that what she really wanted to do was to run the show. It took three tries (she lost to Scott King in 2003 and Rudy Clay in 2007), but in between she built valuable state and national connections that she could tap if—when—she became chief executive.

Her opening came last year when the man who beat her once, Rudy Clay, a flamboyant old-schooler with 1970s-style muttonchops, announced that he would not seek a second term. After a bruising primary race that included nine democratic candidates—among them Regan Hatcher, the daughter of four-term mayoral icon Richard Hatcher—Wilson-Freeman delivered a two-to-one butt-kicking.

After that, in a town that polls as blue as Lake Michigan, the election itself was a formality. Freeman-Wilson won in a landslide, pulling close to 90 percent of the vote against her Republican opponent.

One of her first moves was to call Newark’s Cory Booker. “I reached out to him immediately,” says Freeman-Wilson. “I knew we had similar cities, similar problems.”

Similar to the point of uncanny. Both Booker and Freeman-Wilson were Ivy Leaguers running midsize cities that butted up against much larger metropolises— Newark to New York, Gary to Chicago. Both of their elections marked a break from decades of ineffectual mayoral administrations. And both wanted to bring new ideas to the challenges of fixing their deeply troubled cities.

Like Booker, Freeman-Wilson has collected around her the kind of brainy gogetters, corporate titans, and economic advisers—many of them Gary natives—who would have made John F. Kennedy proud. There’s her chief of staff, B. R. Lane, a fellow Harvard grad, and J. Forest Hayes, a senior economic adviser to former Washington, D.C., mayor Adrian Fenty. One of the biggest fish she landed—at a salary of $1 a year—was Tom Collins Jr., the CEO of Hobart, Indiana-based Luke Oil and Luke Transport, whose job is to get Chicago firms to buy into the notion that Gary is a good place to do business.

“They’re not the usual suspects,” says Earline Rogers, an Indiana state senator. “Her appointments have been based on the ability to do the job as opposed to paying back political favors. I see that as perhaps the number one difference between her and other mayors.”

Shunning the typical payback system ruffled feathers, Freeman-Wilson admits. “There were a lot of folks who felt that they had worked very hard in the political campaign and that that earned them a role in government,” she says. “We certainly appreciate hard work, but politics and government are different things, and my job is to deliver good government.”

Her criteria were simple: be smart, be good, and, above all, don’t whine. “I didn’t want anyone coming into City Hall wringing their hands, talking about, ‘What are we going to do?’ did you ever watch The Flintstones with that character Schleprock? I didn’t want anybody coming to City Hall saying, ‘Wousy, wousy, woo, woo.’ ”

Early on, Freeman-Wilson connected with Bo Kemp, Booker’s former business administrator. “I was talking to her on the phone and was just very impressed—with her story, her background, what she was trying to achieve,” Kemp says. “I offered to share with her and her team what my experience was with Newark, and she took me up on it.”

Kemp flew out in August for what was scheduled to be a two-hour presentation. Eight hours later, “we had barely taken a bathroom break,” Lane says with a laugh. “We talked about financial issues, budget and balance sheets, economic development, crime. You had light bulbs going on all over the place.” Eventually Kemp volunteered to help the mayor in a more formal way. He’s now the executive director of her transition team.

Freeman-Wilson is seriously considering adopting one part of the Newark crime-fighting blueprint: the Compstat system, which tracks where crimes occur and adjusts street patrols accordingly. The approach was implemented by Booker and overseen by the director of Newark’s police, Garry McCarthy, now Chicago’s top cop. It has been credited with a 28 percent reduction in homicides and a 21 percent drop in overall crime in Newark from 2006 to 2010. “I honestly could not imagine having to tackle the scope of the problems we have without [Kemp],” says Lane. “We will be able to accomplish in two years what would have taken four because we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

* * *

Fighting crime costs money. Already nearly 80 percent of Gary’s 2012 budget goes toward police and fire. That budget, by the way, is $47 million—down from $63 million as recently as 2008—due largely to state-mandated property tax caps that kicked in this year. They put the city in a terrible financial bind just as the new mayor got started. At her State of the City address on February 24, Freeman-Wilson projected the 2012 deficit at $10 to $15 million.

To improve Gary’s desperate financial situation, the mayor has put together a blockbuster plan that includes a land-based casino, improvements to the airport that could finally make it an attractive and viable field for commercial and cargo flights, a transportation and shipping facility next to the airstrip, and possibly a teaching hospital for the Gary branch of Indiana University. The price tag for all this? “It really is too early [to say],” she says, “but our current plan is that the dollars that will be leveraged from the land-based gaming will be invested in the airport and other parts of the industrial corridor.”

Her plan is hardly a slam dunk. Freeman-Wilson can’t make it happen without approval from state legislators, who in recent years have been cool to massive spending proposals for Gary—understandable given the mismanagement and corruption that have marked some previous efforts. And believe it or not, the Indiana legislature is in recess from March through mid-November in even years like this one. The soonest her bill could come up for vote, insiders say, is early 2013.

“Gary is Gary,” says Maurice Eisenstein, an outspoken professor of political and social sciences at Purdue University. “Nothing really changes.” While Eisenstein says he holds no personal animosity toward Freeman-Wilson, he sees her falling into the same trap as her predecessors—a sort of “brass ring” syndrome. “They don’t want to do the nitty-gritty, the day-to-day stuff, the difficult things. They want the brass ring: If we can just win the lottery, we’ll be back on top.”

“In the past we have gone for the home run, the economic development effort that would be the be all and end all,” Freeman-Wilson responds. “The difference about my solution is that I’m looking to build on existing assets. I don’t have to build a stadium. I don’t have to build an interstate. I don’t have to build a rail line. I don’t have to build an airport. I don’t have to build a lake or create our proximity to Chicago. These things already exist.”

The mayor is busy laying the groundwork for the vote on her bill. “She has spent a lot of time in Indianapolis, meeting with the right people,” says Ed Feigenbaum, a longtime observer of the political scene in northern Indiana and the publisher of Indiana Legislative Insight. “She’s got a lot of allies down there, people who want to see Gary succeed.”

Her admirers include not just fellow democrats but two conservative Republicans: Greg Zoeller, Indiana’s attorney general, and Luke Kenley, a state senator. “Karen is very bright, very direct, and very focused on where she thinks she’s going,” Kenley says. “She has a chance to do a lot of good for Gary.”

Freeman-Wilson isn’t focusing only on macro solutions, mind you. For example, she has issued a call for volunteerism, including an adopt-a-park program. That’s both an appeal to civic pride and a reality-check acknowledgment that while big-ticket changes are afoot, there’s little room in the budget for block-to-block cleanup. Gary’s citizens, she says, are going to have to do their part.

When I ask her about the “savior” talk, Freeman-Wilson doesn’t exactly look comfortable, but neither does she back down. “I know people are expecting a lot. I understand people need hope. But this is so not about me. I don’t have a magic bullet.” And then it appears again: the Smile. “But I do have vision,” she says.

Luke Oil CEO Tom Collins shares it. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here,” he says. “Karen has the ability to see this is going to be a 20-year turnaround. She is able to look at Gary over the long term versus the short term.” As a practical matter, Collins says, the time to criticize is over. “Being critical of Gary is easy and to a certain extent lazy. At this point there are truly only two choices left: Help the cause or move out of the way.”

* * *

Along the spine of the city we travel: past abandoned cinder-block buildings whose empty windows stare back with dark, unblinking eyes; past low-slung strip malls, nail emporiums, liquor stores, and off-brand cell phone shops; past Silky King Ribs, run out of a trailer on the side of the road; past a long-deposed dairy Queen and a sign that says Noble Park, ironic against a very ignoble brick shack whose ripped-off shingles expose its roof’s scorched skeleton.

Where I see blight in the vast blocks of tumbledown houses, Freeman-Wilson sees a landscape of possibilities. “These would be great for our dollar home program,” she tells me, referring to a proposal she has put forward to let residents buy viable homes for a dollar each, provided they bring the dwellings up to code within six months.

When we pass the shuttered and abandoned Tolleston Middle School, where she went to junior high, she grows animated. Thanks to some $4 million in donations and a $500,000-plus kick-in from federal block grants, she says, it’s going to be turned into a state-of-the-art Boys and Girls Club. (Little more than a week later, she’s back in a hardhat and safety glasses, working side by side with community and corporate volunteers to clean out the building.)

On this day, we don’t take a trip out to the airport. But she visits it a couple of weeks later to gaze at an Allegiant Air plane roaring down the runway and soaring into the blue—its maiden voyage from Gary to Orlando. It’s the first commercial flight to take off from here in years. Though with flights just two days a week the airport hardly qualifies as bustling, the moment is a symbolic early win for Freeman-Wilson.

Later, as our car emerges from the “bat cave,” the garage in the basement of City Hall, the Sheraton looms before us. I glance at the 135-room wreck, a graffitied mess of rusted porch railings and broken windows. Wind whistles through the open doors. Inside, a ruptured floor lies under boulders of rubble and debris. There was talk under Mayor Clay of turning the building into a senior citizens’ home. (“That’s a done deal,” he told the Sun-Times in 2009. “It’s going to be a centerpiece.”) As with so many other projects in his administration, however, nothing came of it.

Freeman-Wilson seems to take the Sheraton’s existence as a personal affront, perhaps because it is the first thing she sees every time she leaves her office. “It’s an embarrassment to the community and an eyesore,” she says. “That’s the place that I’m going to get torn down. For free.” She has already reached out to several construction companies.

Our car reaches the roof of the battered downtown garage. A raw wind is sweeping off Lake Michigan. Freeman-Wilson stays in the car for as long as she can, but a photographer is ready to shoot. And so she removes her coat and steps out onto the deck in a thin blazer, its bright blue picking up the color of a building at the steel mill off in the distance. “You OK?” the photographer asks. She nods and offers a wide, warm smile.

As if on cue, the sky over her city brightens. Far below, it’s recess at a charter school. Children’s squeals and laughter float up, riding the chilly wind. For a moment, Freeman-Wilson turns and looks out over Gary. To her right, the Sheraton hulks, but she looks past it, smiling, as if it’s already gone.


Photograph: Brian Sorg