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."