On Friday afternoon, 29 July 2016, the Gary Redevelopment Commission voted unanimously in favor of a scheme that will radically reshape the city. So much so we can declare a fourth major period in Gary’s history. Let us first re-examine the three previous periods:
1. The Magic City of Steel
Summer 1906: US Steel leveled a black oak savannah/dune and swale ecosystem between the hamlets of Clark and Pine to the northwest, Tolleston to the southwest, and Miller and Aetna to the east. They built the world’s largest (at-the-time) fully-integrated steel mill and a brand-new town for its workers. Actually they built only half a town, the First Subdivision, for its white ‘American’ workers. The immigrant Hunky and migrant Negro crowded into the raucous, unplanned Patch to the south. The corporation was quick to avoid the appearance of a company town but US Steel’s hegemony was in place from the start and remains so long after the corporation’s property agents, the Gary Land Company, had sold its last property and folded.
2. Gary’s Augustin Age
This term coined by historian Powell Moore describes Gary’s emergence from Indiana’s last frontier into a roaring industrial city. Gary’s downtown, formerly the First Subdivision, took shape with fine public buildings and a bustling commercial district. Neighborhoods of solid brick homes grew east, west, and south of downtown and the old Patch, now the Central District. But six decades of rapid growth through annexation and migration resulted in two Garys: one white, one Black. The Hunky became the ‘white ethnic’, won the right to a union, and built a new house in Glen Park, Tolleston, Brunswick, Miller, Aetna, or even the unincorporated areas beyond city limits. They segregated Gary’s Black residents to the increasingly-crowded Midtown. They created a Democratic political machine to maintain this system of oppression. And their failed attempts at urban renewal (or was it Negro removal?) would loom like a cold, dead, pale hand well into the 21st century.
3. End of the Century
The once-brash City of the Century held a quiet centennial. The mayor implored people to “come back home to Gary” but the plea was unheeded. The next census recorded the greatest population drop since the Reagan years, by 2010 the city had lost over half of its population in half a century. The indignity of all indignities, Gary was no longer even the largest city Northwest Indiana. The last third of the 20th century in Gary saw Glen Park attempt to secede. Downstate lawmakers bent the rules to create the town of Merrillville. Most of those with means left; first white flight, later Black follow. The Steel City became the Plywood City, the Magic City became the Murder Capital, the city of East Gary became Lake Station, and Gary became Scary Gary. It will be easy and tempting for the next historians to build narratives entirely around decline.
Those narratives will be key to the new period. They will help obscure the History inconvenient to Gary’s Neoliberal period and they will provide all the whitewashing necessary to make a privatization scheme between the city and MaiaCo seem justified. How did it come to this? What are the arguments for and against this scheme? What do Gary residents think about it? Stay tuned.