Conventional wisdom says Gary is a city that time forgot — the worst, ugliest, smelliest, most decrepit, dangerous city in the Midwest, if not the nation.
But here's a piece of advice for your summer travel plans: Spend a day in Gary. I did.
Yes, Gary is a wounded city. But I ate well there. I met good people. I saw pristine nature. I drank first-rate local beer. I saw the house where Michael Jackson grew up. I marveled at the city's urban ruins. I filled my gas tank for $3.89 per gallon. It was a well-spent 12 hours.
Oxymoronic as it might sound, one of Gary's biggest tourism days of the year is nearly upon us: Wednesday is the fifth anniversary of Michael Jackson's death. More so than any other day, the masses flock to Gary every June 25 to honor Jackson at the tiny house where he lived until age 11 and where The Jackson 5 spent its earliest years as a band, winning high school talent shows and recording for local Steeltown Records.
In advance of the city's annual moment in the sun, I visited if for no other reason than the depleted city of 78,000 — less than half its population during the 1960s — sits a mere 10 miles from the Chicago city limits. And most places are worth exploring at least once, no matter what we think we know about them.
10:30 a.m. The Miller Beach community sits 4 miles east of downtown Gary but remains part of the city. It makes Miller Beach the city's highlight — quaint, clean and free of abandoned storefronts. Better still, though downtown Gary handed over its shoreline to U.S. Steel, Miller Beach has maintained its Lake Michigan shore.
The jewel of that shore is Marquette Park (1 N. Grand Blvd.), 241 acres of walking trails, lagoons, sand dunes, an indigenous oak savanna and 1.4 miles of beach where the air is clean and sweet. Just don't look in either direction — then you'll see factories miles down the coast belching who knows what into the air.
A $28 million renovation has added landscaping and walking paths, but the most impressive piece of revitalization is the two-story beachfront Aquatorium. Back in Gary's steelmaking boom years, the Aquatorium served as the changing rooms for beachgoers. In a familiar Gary story, it fell into disuse and disrepair and sat boarded up between 1971 and 1991. A volunteer committee has spent the past 23 years rehabbing the Aquatorium, which was a graffiti-strewn pile of rubble 20 years ago and now hosts more than 200 events per year.
The Aquatorium's second floor is its real prize. Open to the public every day of the year — the first floor is open by appointment only — it offers stunning, quiet views of a lovely, churning Lake Michigan. I was lucky to run into Greg Reising, 72, a lawyer who has been part of the Aquatorium renovation from the beginning and who gave me a brief tour of the first floor. I asked Reising if the Aquatorium's rebirth could be considered a metaphor for Gary itself, clawing its way back from the brink.
"No, Gary is in continual decline," Reising said. "I've been waiting for it to hit bottom for 50 years. I haven't heard that thud yet."
12:30 p.m. A city still waiting for its thud is, not surprisingly, light on good restaurants. But there are a few. Sitting on Miller Beach's main strip, which also includes Gary Shakespeare Co. (How bad can a town with a Shakespeare company be?), is Miller Bakery Cafe (555 S. Lake St.). The cafe also has a very Gary-like history.
Opened as a bakery in the 1940s, the cafe was transformed into a fine-dining restaurant in the late 1980s and became one of the city's few tourism engines. But in 2010 its former owner closed the restaurant abruptly; some say the staff was given a day's notice that they would lose their jobs. The building, like so much of Gary, sat empty for three years before a mother-son team with Chicago roots reopened the restaurant in May 2013.
On a Wednesday afternoon, I skipped the dining room's white tablecloths to take a seat at the U-shaped metal bar, where a couple from nearby Whiting shared a bottle of white wine on half-price wine day. I ordered the ham-chicken-blue cheese meatballs smothered in a mustard sauce (decadent comfort food) and expertly prepared seared ahi tuna salad (yes, in Gary).
As the hits of yesteryear streamed from the speakers above, a song barely worth a second thought in most places caught my ear: "ABC," by the Jackson 5. The Jackson house I would be visiting next sat 6 miles away.
I asked the server, "Do you guys mean to play The Jackson 5, or is it just coincidence?"
Cathy Bryan, 42, a lifelong Gary resident, laughed and said it was coincidence.
"Is the fact that they're from here a point of pride or just an old, forgotten thing?" I asked.
"Just an old thing at this point," Bryan said. "But I had someone passing through town recently who asked if it was safe to go see the house. I don't know — I wouldn't want to go to downtown Gary if I didn't have to."
A man across the bar, eating a lunch of tater tots, chimed in. It's an old-timers' neighborhood, he said, with many of same families living there as when the Jacksons did.
"People form opinions," he said. "Don't believe everything you read in the newspaper."
What he meant was this: Be smart and be aware and there won't be a problem.
As he left, we introduced ourselves. He turned out to be Kyle Allen Sr., president of the Gary City Council.
2 p.m. The Jackson house (2300 Jackson St. — a coincidence; it's part of a series of streets named for U.S. presidents) sits in the heart of a residential neighborhood that has small white-sided house after small white-sided house. Locals seem wholly unfazed by the curiosity seekers and more concerned with yelling at their kids for running into the street without looking both ways.
The house is only slightly larger than many garages, with white metal shutters covering the windows and a pointy black roof. A metal gate surrounds the property, including the black marble slab in the front yard engraved with an image of the King of Pop moonwalking in a full moon below the words, "Home town of Michael Jackson — Gary, Ind."
Visitors scrawl their best wishes to Michael on a slab of white-painted plywood attached to the gate (poor Rebbie, Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, LaToya, Marlon, Randy and Janet; it's like they never existed).
I stood there all of five minutes before three women, a man and a young boy popped out of a gold van. One of the women, wearing a gray sweatsuit, hauled the boy, a 3-year-old named Elijah, to the front of the Jackson house to position him for the perfect photo. The family was driving from District Heights, Md., to Joliet to pick up a relative and then head down to Missouri for a family reunion.
"Elijah wasn't born when Michael died," said his mother, Kristen Pope, 28. "But even he knows who Michael Jackson is. When he grows up, he'll have the pictures. This is historical. This is important."
As Pope clicked more photos, it struck me: What are the odds that one of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century — alongside Elvis Presley and The Beatles — would come from a tiny house in Gary, Ind.? What are the odds we'd still be showing up 55 years later?
3 p.m. If a building can be abandoned — a school, a church, an office complex, a hotel, a grocery store, an apartment building, a gas station — it has been abandoned in Gary. By the city's own estimate, as many as 15,000 of its buildings have been deserted. Though marveling at such urban decay has been derided as "ruin porn" — fetishizing others' misfortune — the ruins are there, and they are a fascinating window into history.
"It's one thing to come gawk at blight, and something else to appreciate the architecture and history of our city," said Joe Van Dyk, Gary's director of redevelopment. "I suppose it can be a fine line, but those who are respectful are welcome in Gary."
Among the most eye-opening elements of the city's ruin is how seamlessly it blends into everyday life. Such was the case at one of the city's most notable relics, City Methodist Church (577 Washington St.), where parents waited in idling cars to pick up their kids from the charter school across the street as I arrived.
Abandoned since 1975, City Methodist looks at first exactly like what it is — a handsome, hulking 87-year-old church. At second glance, the oddities present themselves all at once: the shattered and missing windows, the decaying stone exterior and the sunlight slicing through a ceiling where a roof should be. No one looked twice as I sized up the building, then walked through the main entrance.
Inside sat room after room of decay: piles of bricks, curling floorboards, a stone and brick fireplace covered in graffiti, a trashed theater (which must have hosted so many Christmas pageants), and, most astoundingly, a soaring sanctuary of columns and pillars and towering windows. But in this sanctuary, rubble sat piled on the brick and dirt floor, weeds sprouted and puddles had formed from a recent rain.
City Methodist gets the most attention from urban spelunkers, but travel down nearly any street in Gary, and what is left behind is stunning. It includes an old office building down Washington Street where nearly every window and door is blown out, weeds grow as tall as the third-floor roof, and disquieting graffiti advertises a name and phone number for buying heroin.
But the most sobering relic sat at the corner of Virginia and 6th streets, where the shell of an old Amoco station fades away. Though the pumps have been ripped out, the awning above where they stood now houses an urban forest. Claw through that thick growth and you find the small brick kiosk where gas was bought long ago, though the windows now are covered with spidery cracks. Abandoned buildings are harrowing but not so uncommon. It's seeing the prosaic things — a gas station, a playground — swallowed up that's so much more apocalyptic and a terrifying notion of what the world will look like when we're gone.
5:30 p.m. It was time for better things. Much better things: beer.
The craft beer revolution came late to Gary, but it came in December, when Drew Fox opened 18th Street Brewery (5725 Miller Ave.) (The brewery is named for 18th Street in Pilsen, where Fox used to live.) Fox, who moved to Gary nine years ago to send his kids to private school, won quick devotees, including being named the best new brewery in Indiana by the Rate Beer website.
Why open a brewery in Gary when Chicago is just over the border?
"Every great city deserves a brewery, and I want to be part of the revitalization process," Fox said.
Which begged an obvious question: Is Gary a great city?
"If you look at the history, it once was, and I think it's getting there again," Fox said. "We've still got a long way to go. It's a blue-collar town and always will be. But Gary deserves an opportunity for rebirth like any other city."
On a Wednesday evening at the brewery, Gary could have been Denver or Portland, with a couple dozen young professionals sipping after-work beers at Fox's bar. That night he poured a standard array of craft beer: a saison, two pale ales, an India pale ale and a smoked wheat beer.
The dinner menu was equally impressive, from a smoked salmon plate (courtesy of Burhops) to a chicken sandwich topped with bacon, roasted red pepper and an over-easy egg. I told Fox I was as impressed with the food as the beer.
"Do it right or don't do it," he said.
7 p.m. There are two ways to wind down a summer evening here: Watch the sun set over the beach or watch baseball. I opted for baseball, as the Gary SouthShore Railcats hosted the Sioux City Explorers at U.S. Steel Yard (1 Stadium Plaza) in a matchup from the American Association independent baseball league.
The stadium is a true minor league experience, with a capacity of 6,139, an outfield wall full of ads for the local hospital, college and utility company, and with Interstate Highway 90 running behind the outfield.
On a misty evening, the crowd was spare enough to hear nearly every bit of chatter on the field, including the bullpen pitchers mocking their own players for miscues in the field. There were few enough people in the stands that it seemed as if every kid in the stands got a foul ball. Most important, tickets started at $5.
Players in the American Association earn somewhere between $1,000 and $3,000 per month, with bus travel between cities. The players are a mix of those who have played for major league organizations and those trying to get there. Since being founded in 2002, the Gary Railcats have sent two players to the major leagues.
"The younger guys are generally trying to catch on with an affiliated ball club," said Dan Vaughan, the team's play-by-play man for radio and online video broadcasts. "Veteran guys just want to keep playing. If they get picked up, great. If not, well, they get to play baseball for a living."
The team is a scrappy, odd fit but interesting and compelling — kind of like Gary itself. The game was scoreless into extra innings, when the Explorers scored four runs in the 11th inning.
As the players filed off toward the clubhouse and the grounds crew spread across the field, an unsurprising song filled the stadium: "ABC" by the Jackson 5. You take your victories where you can get them.Copyright © 2015, CT Now