David Smith has seen Gary, Indiana like a lot of Chicagoans— from 50-feet up, at 70 miles an hour. Even from the roadbed of I-90, Smith says “I always knew there were problems.”
Smith’s one of several University of Chicago students taking a small step in tackling those problems; simply counting and cataloging Gary’s many abandoned properties. Gary’s mayor hopes it’s the beginning of a comeback.
“When you see Gary return, you’ll know you had a role,” Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson tells U of C students and staffers about to go out and inventory Gary neighborhoods on a recent Saturday. Freeman-Wilson hopes to have a reliable count on the location and condition of abandoned properties by the end of summer.
There are plenty. Gary officials estimate that 6500 of 7000 properties the city itself owns are abandoned. Mostly, they are houses that owners bailed on.
Empty buildings and lots corrode neighborhoods like Arthur Joe’s. "It's a sore," he says, pointing to the house next to his on Adams Street, calling it a haven for “drugheads”. Joe sees trash spilling from uninhabited buildings on all sides. Lawlessness and blight and fear spring from abandonment.
The students surveying the problem cruise the streets, 2-3 to a car, tapping info into a cell-phone app about each property they pass. Is there a building on the land? Does it look abandoned? Fire damage? Open to the elements? They grade structures, A through F.
The data will help Gary officials apply for Federal money to take down the worst hovels. Survey results will help them dispatch the city’s one-man boarding-up crew more efficiently.
Salvageable houses the city owns may be put up for sale, at $1 a pop. Buyers would have to pledge to complete repairs of $15,000-30,000 within a prescribed time frame.
In the long run, the property survey will help city officials decide which parts of their city are worth saving, and which areas should be allowed to return to nature. Mayor Freeman-Wilson envisions downsizing Gary from its current size of 57 square miles to something around 35 square miles, letting 40% of its current land grow wild again, for now.
A block with one habitable house, three burnouts and four vacant lots? Not salvageable. A block with 4 occupied homes, two dwellings that could be rehabbed, and a vacant lot? Worth a salvage effort.
Saving Gary this way would take political heavy lifting— forcing residents, many of them elderly, from their homes and getting them to move to more viable parts of the city would be no easy feat. But when your population has shrunk from 180,000 to 80,000 in the last half-century, options are limited.
“Housing is very durable,” says University of Chicago Professor Ben Keys, as he embarks on the Gary property survey. “Solutions are either very harsh or very incremental.”
Mayor Freeman-Wilson doesn’t talk incremental improvement. “It’s appropriate for the city to look at the prospect of attempting to close off certain areas,” the Harvard-educated lawyer and former Indiana Attorney General says. Another former mayor agrees.
“All those buildings represent the deterioration of Gary,” says former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. “You have to get those down. If you don’t, that’s a symbol.”
Daley, two years out of office, has been advising Mayor Freeman-Wilson, who says she first met him when she was his student guide when he visited the Harvard campus years ago.
Daley is a believer that a turnaround is possible— “I see a great future for Gary,” he says. Daley points to the city’s transportation infrastructure‑ lots of railroads left over from the heyday of the steel business, interstates running through town, and Gary’s position on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Daley’s the one who’s brought grad school brainpower to bear on Gary’s plight. He’s a guest lecturer at U-Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. The students doing the housing survey attend his class, supervised by his former mayoral chief of staff.
Arthur Joe sees the students traversing his Midtown neighborhood, tapping on their cell phones. While he hopes their survey helps, he wonders why some student brawn can’t be brought to bear, too.
“Get some kids and a dumpster,” says Joe, gesturing at a garbage-strewn abandoned duplex next to his house, “Get ‘em to clean it out, get it to where somebody might buy it.” Joe thinks inmates at local jails ought to be made to pitch in, too.
Gary’s mayor thinks that idea might have promise, eventually, but says Daley has urged her not to open too many fronts in her war to save her city. “So often, people confronted with a big problem go off like worker bees,” Freeman-Wilson says. “We have to work smarter, because we have so many limitations of resources.”
While working smarter may mean eventually cutting off services to the most blighted areas, Daley says the city should surely retain ownership of neighborhoods. “Abandoned buildings are a liability,” he says, “but land is always an asset.”
Gary’s empty lots, now a curse, may one day be the city’s biggest blessing.