posttrib
SWEET 
Weather Updates

Jerry Davich: Years change, but Gary’s hope for a better city remains

Buniforms from Gary EmersHigh School's glory days can still be found inside closed school. | Jerry Davich~Sun-Times Media

Band uniforms from Gary Emerson High School's glory days can still be found inside the closed school. | Jerry Davich~Sun-Times Media

storyidforme: 70094442
tmspicid: 24890502
fileheaderid: 12498600
Article Extras
Story Image

Updated: September 19, 2014 6:08AM



The city of Gary is littered with gangster thugs, drunkards, gamblers, prostitutes and foul-mouthed ruffians.

Do you agree? You would if you lived in the city nearly a century ago, when those complaints were voiced in the Gary Post-Tribune. In the early 20th century, this newspaper launched, “If I Were Mayor,” asking readers for ideas on improving city government.

Responses included those grievances against a city still in the works, back when it was considered an “urban experiment” by national planners, as well as crowned the Miracle City, Magic City and City of the Century.

“Gary, whatever else, is a paradox,” wrote Arthur Shumway, a former Post-Tribune reporter in a sharp-tongued 1929 essay. “It is busy. It is dull. It is modern. It is backward. It is clean. It is filthy. It is rich. It is poor. It has beautiful homes; it has sordid hovels.”

“It has a past, but it has no traditions. (Gary) lies in the gutter and looks at the stars,” Shumway wrote, though I’m not sure how many residents from “Hunkytown,” including my ancestors, caught his reference to Oscar Wilde.

I stumbled upon this satirical critique while absorbing “Gary’s First Hundred Years,” by region historian James Lane as part of his Steel Shavings book series. The exhaustive 285-page book is packed with everything you’ve ever wanted to know about Gary but were afraid to ask.

How Gary began. Why Gary began. When Gary began. And how, why and when the city started rusting. An urban experiment that imploded in its own laboratory, causing white flight, urban decay and the loss of more than half of its population since 1970.

Today, we’re all too familiar with such somber realities, outlined in a new study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. Only Detroit, the study suggests, comes close to matching Gary’s grand scale of urban decline.

This is not news to Northwest Indiana residents, I agree.

The city’s checkered past, however, also is rife with somber realities, chronicled in great detail in Lane’s book. I’ve been scouring through it to educate myself about my hometown for my upcoming book, “Lost Gary: Rusted Landmarks of the Steel City.”

Through History Press, my book hopefully will capture the historic, if not romantic, notion of what has been lost to time, neglect and politics in what was once billed as the Steel City. What I discovered through my research is that Gary always has been tarnished, regardless of generation.

I recalled this while not only reading Lane’s book but also while touring the City Methodist Church in downtown Gary, which can be cited as a microcosm for the city — its past, its hope and its current state.

The church, like the city, is still standing, sort of. It’s been through hell over the decades, showing it at every level, every angle, every point of view. But, believe it or not, it still has a soul, beneath the rubble of lost faith from Gary natives who have scattered across the country.

By 1910, the city’s black population totaled about 400 and they experienced racial barriers no different from the South where they escaped such discrimination. Half of them helped build the early framework of the city and its reason for existence, U.S. Steel.

In the early 1920s, Indiana boasted (and I use that word on purpose) the largest Ku Klux Klan ranks outside of the Deep South, posing as “defenders of patriotism, morality and clean government,” Lane wrote.

Some masquerades never change, do they?

In July 1921, after earlier praising the KKK as a “bulwark against anarchy,” the P-T questioned the group’s principles, asking, “How is it possible to sell such a collection of tomfoolery, cajolery, hate, suspicion, bunkum, rot, idiocy and unAmericanism to the American people?”

Some propaganda never changes, does it?

Union workers also were targeted and bullied by U.S. Steel Gary Works management, which called them “unpatriotic troublemakers,” again for obvious reasons. Obvious now, at least, through the clearer lens of 20/20 hindsight.

“The city is going to clean up the front yard, mow the lawn, and trim the hedge,” the Post-Tribune stated on March 19, 1924.

Free seeds even were given out to homeowners, prompting me to wonder how much grass still grows each summer from those seeds of promise.

Old photo after old photo, I saw promise, hope and pride splashed across the faces of civic leaders and city residents alike. During the construction of the Dunes Highway in 1922, on the faces of Pete Mandich supporters on Election Night 1955, at a Serbian wedding, and at the Gary Country Club, “where the liquor flowed.”

Other old photos quickly doused any flames of nostalgia, such as a KKK march, picketing union workers, a Glen Park crack house, and a gambling joint in the city’s central district.

A century ago, the rest of the state considered Gary, if not this entire region, a “Hoosier stepchild.” It accepted us because it had to, not because it wanted to. Today is no different, though Northwest Indiana continues to make money, greasy hand over greased fist.

I’ll leave you with three telling quotes from yesteryear. Each one is true. Each one is bittersweet. Each one is from a different era from the city’s meteoric past. It’s up to you which one best defines your perspective today.

“I see a city rise as if by magic, in proportions vast and splendid.” — Indiana Gov. Frank Hanly, 1907

“Let us dare to make a new beginning. Let us shatter the walls of the ghetto for all time. Let us build a new city and a new man to inhabit it.” — Mayor Richard G. Hatcher, Jan. 1, 1968, in his inaugural address

“It’s important to understand where you’ve come from in order to see where you are going and to move ahead in the future.” — former Gary First Lady Irene Smith-King, 1996



© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit www.suntimesreprints.com. To order a reprint of this article, click here.