Updated: February 14, 2011 2:52PM
As I sit here in my favorite burger joint, which now has free Wi-Fi, I am thinking of what qualities are necessary to lead a community like Gary, or any cities of similar size and circumstance.
However, before I can entertain a discussion regarding what I believe the necessities for the next mayor of Gary to be, I must consider the circumstances of Gary and theorize as to how they came to be. This will be the first in a two-part series on this subject.
What happened to the once-prosperous jewel by the lake known as Gary? How did a community with a stable tax base, homeowners, nearly full employment, good schools, reasonable public safety and a thriving business community morph into that which we see today? For the past 30 years or so, decline described the state of Gary as well as any word.
This is a tough pill for me to swallow as someone who grew up right next door to Gary without any jealousy or bias toward the prosperity I viewed in my lifetime as a resident of Lake County. To see Gary literally transform from a healthy community to its current life-support condition is spiritually and emotionally troubling, to say the least.
The question of Gary's decline begs a larger and more convoluted question regarding why cities sometimes fail in general. Many major cities have undergone decline, decay and urban blight. Some make comebacks, and some still struggle to survive as viable places for people to live and prosper.
So why do cities fail? The short and easy answer is the economics of urban communities that often grew as the result of manufacturing and maintained a dependence on the manufacturing economy. When America became a place where less manufacturing took place, cities that depended on that base for employment of their residents experienced negative impact. Gary was no exception.
In addition, many of these type of cities weren't prepared for the global shift from a manufacturing economy to a technological and service economy. For example, a union mill job making $30 per hour, translates to about one-third of that in a service economy. This is the reality of a service economy that relies more on technology than unskilled labor.
However, delving deeper into the question of why cities decline uncovers several social factors that contribute to decline. For example, when people lose jobs they tend to move to a place where they believe they will be able to find employment. Hence, communities like Gary lose people who are inclined to work, become homeowners/ stakeholders and raise families with similar values. Those who are left by no means are devoid of the value of work, but to some degree and over time, the hope necessary to maintain a positive outlook diminishes with each passing generation. When considering Gary, this phenomenon should always be forefront in the process. People who have lost hope also lose the desire to maintain healthy communities.
This leads to another social factor that leads to decline. Once the process of decline begins, it is important for those of us who share common spiritual values to raise the level of involvement in community affairs from the community of faith or the church/mosque or temple.
From a religious standpoint, I state an uncomfortable truth that we as religious leaders failed to do this on a consistent and structured basis. We allowed the division of the community of faith to be so pervasive that now it is difficult for any congregation to maintain its obligations and still have resources necessary to meet the spiritual needs of a city in distress. In addition and because of this, each generation seems to have less respect for or dependence upon the organized community of faith to provide viable answers to the struggles of living within a city in decline.
Of course, we cannot avoid obvious social factors like public safety and quality education when we consider reasons for a city's decline. To discuss each of these in detail would require a year's worth of columns and then some. Suffice it to say that the visual reality is that Gary and cities like it often struggle to resolve these problems in an effective manner.
Finances and parental involvement or lack thereof often prevent cities from adding public safety officers or investing in educational options. In fact, Camden, N.J., one of America's most crime-ridden cities, is cutting its police force significantly to save money. Go figure.
Each of these factors will be tough for the next mayor of Gary to navigate and solve. In the next column, I will share my limited wisdom regarding some suggestions that may help this process along. I do not wish to see Gary fail or even remain in a state of decline. For when one of us fails, we all fail to some degree based upon our common humanity.
Raymond C. Dix Jr. is senior pastor of Berean Fellowship Church, Gary.