By Matt Altstiel
On a snowy, ten-degree day in January 2009, my girlfriend and I woke up and randomly found our way to Gary, Indiana. We had Broadway to ourselves. At that time, the former Sheraton Hotel (since demolished) loomed menacingly over downtown. At more than one house, trees poked through the roof. Signs announcing “Build It Up Or Tear It Down” referendums were everywhere, their dates long-since passed. The City Methodist Church, that majestic and oft-photographed symbol of Gary, beckoned us inside.
Gary looms large in the public imagination. In the common narrative, Gary is beyond hope, a crumbling monument to an era of off-shoring and mass-automatization. At the height of the Great Recession, five decades of population loss suddenly went into overdrive. Indiana’s former second city fell to 9th place, dwindling even below neighboring Hammond. As recently as 2013, Gary was considered a drastic contraction, hoping to leave 40 percent of its landmass to the elements. Residents would see their utilities shut off, and be shunted into more viable neighborhoods; a survey of 7,000 properties reported that 93 percent were already abandoned.
Still, it was here in Gary where I first realized I loved the woman who became my wife. Her sense of wonder and compulsive need to understand the world matched my own; her black and white photography of the City Methodist Church still captures my imagination and takes me back. In 2009, I was just starting my career and figuring out my place in the world. At the time, the Chicago region still felt fresh, as I was just six months removed from Minnesota, and Gary helped cement my love of exploration and photography. For all of these reasons, my fascination with—and love for—Gary remains.
Since then, I have developed a successful career with stints in government and the nonprofit world. But my weekends remain my time to explore, fueling a creative streak. Through my job as Development Manager for the Metropolitan Planning Council (a nationally-recognized public policy and research organization), I am able to take closer look at the work being done to revitalize communities both within and outside Chicagoland. Yet, despite wanting for years to visit Gary again, I did not return for almost a decade.
On June 17, 2017, I went to the first annual Gary Historic Preservation Tour. I arrived via the South Shore Line, exiting with a slew of wide-eyed hipsters and families with school-age children. The tour, a partnership between the Department of Redevelopment and the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority, showcased Gary’s architectural splendor in eight properties. As an extension of my new job, I was able to make it back and cast a critical eye on the work being done.
My verdict? Gary is now planting the seeds for its rebirth. I do not come to this conclusion lightly. Even at its most vibrant, much of Gary still exudes a palpable sense of unease. There is no escaping abandonment. It’s all too easy to pop into a cavernous Broadway storefront, chunks of plaster collecting grey dust on the floor. Single homes stand as bulwarks against an otherwise empty block. Trees sag against the chain link fences designed to keep out urban spelunkers—those traffickers of ruin porn.
Yet, while half of the sites were abandoned, Gary’s rebirth was tangible in places like the Gary State Bank, where the interior had been painstakingly restored. I struck up a conversation with a graying photographer. As a kid, he’d set up his first savings account in the bank. He hadn’t been back in 20 years, but was intrigued enough by the event to return. A timid couple from Wicker Park initially followed me around (as the “expert”) but gradually found their confidence and their bearings.
Signs of progress, however incremental, were apparent. A new Jackson 5 mural was an instant reminder of the town’s outsized role in popular music. The enormous hull of the Post Office building was full of twenty-somethings musing of creative reuse in the form of artist lofts or a brewpub. Theaster Gate’s ArtHouse Social Kitchen is bold new experiment on the transformative power of art. It is a learning space that feeds the stomach and the soul. The city won a prestigious Knight Foundation award to transform the City Methodist Church into an urban garden park, stabilizing the structure and clearing out decades of accumulated brush. Even derelict Union Station was filled with plywood murals, an explosion of color inside and out.
The positive trajectory isn’t limited to downtown. If anything, it started in the lakefront enclave of Miller Beach. It was there, in 2010, that the Miller Beach Café became Gary’s first “destination” restaurant. Miller Beach has always had its own beat, settled far before Gary’s first foundation was laid in 1906. After decades of decline, it has emerged as an increasingly artsy district with rapidly accelerating dining and retail options. It’s also where priced out Chicagoans are looking for a slice of the good life along the beach, buying up houses for a fraction of their Michigan counterparts.
As I wrapped up my Broadway tour, I took a Lyft to Miller Beach. Lake Street was blocked off for the Lake Effekt festival, organized by the Miller Beach Arts & Creative District. In alleys, muralists were hard at work, stepping back occasionally to wipe off sweat. Every two years, I discovered, the walls along Lake Street assume the vision of international artists—awash in bold colors and shapes. A blues cover band belted out Muddy Waters standards. Young families pushed strollers in search of shade. Many were huddled under crowded beer tents, seeking respite from the sun. “For Sale” signs were ubiquitous, flagging the next building to be restored or vacant lot to be transformed. A co-worker of mine, a Miller Beach resident, groused about an imminent price surge.
Miller Beach has staked its future on historic preservation, food, and art. From the superficial lens of a June weekend, it’s succeeding. I downed some fantastic beers at the crowded 18th Street Brewery Tap Room, and enjoyed an unholy amount of deeply satisfying BBQ. Part of me could even picture myself living in the neighborhood, a part of the new Gary.
Gary has become a place where things are happening. Though an influx of steady jobs will be needed to sustain the turnaround, the city is bringing people in—even if it’s just for a day’s walk along Broadway. Already, artists are starting to look at Gary as a new ground-zero. This is a place where the barrier to entry is low, and the risks are even lower. The “Detroit Effect” is happening here, less than an hour ride from downtown Chicago.
The transition from 2009’s depths to future resurgence is going to be lengthy and arduous. It is not possible to reverse a half-century of disinvestment and neglect overnight. Yet there is a cadre of committed residents who are willing to stick it out. They are gaining traction by winning grants and directing the right people to the right efforts. Gary knows that rebirth doesn’t only happen with big-ticket items like new stadium or a convention center. It begins when citizens become invested and empowered. I left Gary on a high. In the rearview of 2009, 2017 is a far brighter time.
Cover photo: Miller Beach, IN by Matt Altstiel.
Matt Altstiel is a Chicago-based writer/photographer. View more of his photography on his site: http://www.mbaphotography.org/ . He is also the Development Manager for the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), a national urban policy and development leader. MPC is taking a close look at the work being done to revitalize communities both within and outside the Chicagoland region.