IT WAS ONCE known as “The Magic City” and was home to the largest steel mill in the world, employing thousands of workers.
But as the population of Gary, Indiana plummeted in the wake of job losses and a rise in crime, the city earned a less-than-favorable moniker: “Murder Capital USA.”
Today, Gary has a population of around 69,000, almost a third of the population in 1960, when 178,000 people lived in this city on the outskirts of Chicago.
At least 20 percent of all buildings in the city are believed to be abandoned, while over a third show some degree of decay.
Across the city – which gave the world Michael Jackson – impressive buildings lie in a state of disrepair, testaments to Gary’s former glory.
The story of Gary’s downfall is repeated in the so-called “Rust Belt,” a portion of the northern and Midwestern United States that once powered the world.
But in few other places has the collapse in wealth been as dramatic as in what was once dubbed the “City of the Century.”
Like so many other US cities, Gary emerged from the swamp almost overnight in the early 20th century.
Founded in 1906 on the south shore of Lake Michigan, 28 miles from Chicago, it took its name from Elbert Henry Gary, the founding chairman of the United States Steel Corporation.
The steel mills were by far the largest employer in Gary and thousands were drawn there from across the country.
However, many hopeful immigrants found that the streets of Gary were not paved with gold as hoped.
Instead, if they were lucky, they lived in cramped barracks, otherwise in tents or huts.
Pubs and bars thrived and by the 1910s there was one notable tavern for every 88 residents of Gary.
In the 1920s, about 16,000 workers sweated daily in the 12 hot and dirty blast furnaces of the country’s largest steel mill.
Between 1920 and 1940, Gary’s population doubled.
Initially, the city consisted mostly of Eastern European immigrants, but attracted more black workers from the South as part of the Great Migration.
Among them was Michael Jackson’s father, Joe Jackson, who raised his nine children in a small house in Gary.
But racial tensions in the city had increased since the end of World War II, and in the 1960s Gary’s population declined for the first time in its history as it experienced the “White Flight.”
“When the jobs went, the white people could move, and they did. But we black people didn’t have a choice,” 78-year-old Walter Bell told The Guardian in 2017.
This became a full-blown exodus in 1967, when one of the nation’s first African-American mayors, Richard Hatcher, was elected.
The flight of whites to the suburbs also coincided with a decline in steel industry fortunes.
We used to be the murder capital of the USA, but there’s hardly anyone left to kill
In 1969, US steel production reached an all-time high, with 32,000 workers employed at the plants.
But a lack of innovation and cheaper alternatives to steelmaking overseas sent the industry into a tailspin.
The first layoffs were announced in 1971, and tens of thousands of steelworkers lost their jobs in the decades that followed.
“We were expecting some layoffs, but now it looks like this is going to be a lot tougher than we anticipated,” local union boss Andrew White told the New York Times at the time.
By 2005, the Gary Works employed just 7,000 people, while the town had lost almost 80,000 people in 35 years.
As jobs disappeared, stores closed and crime rose. In 1994, the Chicago Tribune named the city “Murder Capital USA”.
But now, with so many people leaving the city, even the homicide rate has gone down.
As one Gary resident put it, “We used to be the murder capital of America, but there’s hardly anyone left to kill. We used to be the drug capital of the US, but it takes money to do that, and there’s no jobs or things to steal here.”
Today, about 36 percent of Gary residents live in poverty.
Among Gary’s many stunning ruined buildings is the striking City Methodist Church, a massive limestone building that stands on the corner of Broadway and 5th Avenue.
In 2019, All That’s Interesting reported that the abandoned church was now covered in graffiti and weeds, earning it the nickname “God’s Forsaken House”.
The city leadership has tried to reverse the population decline and find new forms of job creation to replace the steel mills.
In 2019, authorities announced they were selling a number of houses in the city for just $1, or 83p.
Dubbed the Dollar House Program, the program selected homeowners through a lottery system, although not everyone could apply.
To be eligible, prospective owners had to refurbish the home within a year, live in it for at least five years and have a minimum annual income of around $35,000 (£28,800).
Lakia Manley, of Gary’s Community Development Division, endorsed the scheme, saying: “This would allow the person to purchase a property for a dollar, put their own sweat capital into the home by doing the rehab work necessary to improve the property up to date and live in the property for five years before they can do anything that may rent or sell the property.”
Business Insider, which named Gary “America’s Miserable Town” in 2019, reported that the program had received hundreds of applicants, but many failed to realize that the $1 homes were “fixer-uppers” in need of extensive repairs.
The city also hosts an annual tribute to its most famous son, Michael Jackson, while authorities have been trying to tap into its urban rot as a Hollywood revenue stream.
Gary has served as the location for a number of big-budget blockbusters, including Transformers: Dark of the Moon and the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street.
And many believe that despite his troubled recent history, Gary will be able to turn his fortunes around.
Meg Roman, who runs Gary’s Miller Beach Arts & Creative District, told Curbed, “People think about what Gary is, but they’re always pleasantly surprised.
“When you hear Gary, you think steel mills and industry. But you have to come here and open your eyes to see that there are more things.”
The city also offers historic preservation tours of its ruined buildings, highlighting Gary’s once glamorous architecture.
Gary’s Mayor Jerome Prince was elected in 2019. In his inaugural address, quoted by ABC7 Chicago, he was realistic about the challenges he faced.
“You need to roll up your sleeves to do everything humanly possible to correct this, I’m willing to do that and I’m asking you to join me in this,” he said.
And speaking of Gary’s people, he added: “In a lot of ways, they were convinced that they couldn’t succeed. It’s our responsibility to reverse that narrative and show them that we support them, and through trial and error and with a little effort and dedication and dedication, they too can succeed.”
https://www.the-sun.com/news/5893178/inside-most-miserable-city-us/ In “the most miserable city in America” where the population has fallen by 100,000 in 60 years and homes are selling for $1