The Meaning of Gary, Indiana
“Let us dare to make a new beginning. Let us shutter the walls of the ghetto for all time. Let us build a new city and a new man to inhabit it.” –Richard G. Hatcher
Richard Hatcher’s call to create a new man and a new city, taken from his 1968 inaugural address as Gary’s first black mayor, carried special meaning in the annals of the city’s history. Since the first buildings went up on the shifting sands of Lake County, reformers, sociologists, and commentators looked on Gary as place where a new man could be born—a new man for an industrial age. However, over the course of the 20th century Gary went from a city that represented the possibility of industrial utopia to a city consistently described as a blighted, deindustrialized dystopia. As a new city built from the ground up in the era of progressivism, Gary became a tabula rasa in discourse and in the public imagination.
The forces that shaped Gary were part of no blank slate though. Class, industrial policy, race, and crime in Gary represent a uniquely American urban story. Gary is not part of a separate or aberrant strand of urban development. If today we are tempted to dismiss Gary as an absonant case in the annals of American urban history, we should think about the symbolic nature of Gary’s development. According to historian Stephen Paul O’Hara, “What happened in Gary mattered because it had larger meaning in terms of race relations, public morality, and industrial might.” Gary’s story is a highly symbolic, if contested, tale of urban and industrial promise, failure, and rebirth.
The City of Gary emerged as the brainchild of U.S. Steel. Incorporated in 1901, United States Steel was the first corporation valuated at a billion dollars. In 1906, looking to expand its footprint away from the congested south side of Chicago, U.S. Steel built Gary, Indiana—named after executive Elbert Gary—outside of East Chicago. The centerpiece of the construction was the massive Gary Works. The city itself proved almost an afterthought. Planners prepared themselves for labor troubles from the beginning by dividing the city from direct land access to the Gary Works. Separated from the Dantesque flames of the mill, Gary developed in a seemingly haphazard manner.
Visitors and commentators were often of two minds about the early city: either the city represented a brave new chapter in urban and industrial development, or it represented a dangerous mix of corporate hubris and “foreign” elements. Those who lauded Gary saw it as place where immigrant workers could not only learn the value of work but also embrace “Americanism.” They could also point to the emergence of new Progressive Era innovations in Gary, like the William Wirt system of education. Gary’s detractors mostly saw the vice and crime that thrived in Gary, or the omnipresent U.S. Steel Corporation, which seemed far more interested in profits, anti-unionism, and the safety of the mill than it did about the city.
Conflict came to define Gary as the city developed. Periodic strikes led to shutdowns that literally ground the whole city to a stop. Historian Andrew Hurley sums up clashes over industrial pollution and urban development in the city: “Gary’s history directs our attention to the centrality of the physical landscape in struggles for power.” And it was a divided landscape that played host to struggles for power over neighborhood development, class, and, of course, race.
While much attention is paid to urban ills and black-on-black crime in Gary today, the city’s historical ties to Black Power have been forgotten or overlooked. Racial tensions and near total segregation plagued Gary from the times blacks began arriving in large numbers; yet, Gary came to represent an urban dream for the many southern African Americans who made the long trek to the steel city. Gary’s Consumer Cooperative Trading Company, the brainchild of a local black man named Jacob Reddix, became the biggest black cooperative in the country during the 1930s. While the media covered the ongoing battles over integration in the city during the 1950s, Ebony Magazine dubbed Gary “The best city in America for blacks.” In 1967 Richard Hatcher became the first black man elected mayor of a major city in the United States, bringing African Americans into political power for the first time. By 1969 African Americans in Gary had the highest median income of any urban black community. In 1972 Gary hosted the historic National Black Political Convention, where thousands of African Americans came to decide on an agenda for the black nation.
White flight and urban disinvestment challenged Mayor Hatcher’s own agenda in the late 1960s and 1970s. The problem was so bad that Gary’s Human Rights Commission sponsored legislation to forbid “For Sale” signs. Yet in the era of the “War On Poverty” and the Great Society, Gary evolved into a kind of “urban laboratory.” Gary’s inclusion into the Model Cities program saw a boom in aid and new programs for the beleaguered city. So, while whites fled Gary and increasingly viewed it as a failed city, the black community embraced Hatcher’s call to build a new Gary. Many looked to a more promising future free of segregation and economic apartheid. However, the coming of deindustrialization in the 1970s and 1980s upended Gary’s fortunes and once again shifted the city’s meaning in the eyes of the country.
Unlike mills in Pittsburgh, Youngstown, and other steel cities, the Gary Works never actually closed. Instead, facing challenges from foreign competition, U.S. Steel sought to diversify its holdings away from steel production. U.S. Steel downsized and automated much of the Gary Works. Manufacturing employment in Northwest Indiana itself dropped by almost half between the late 1970s and the mid-1980s. In 1982 Gary, along with Youngstown,
Ohio experienced unemployment rates above 20 percent. Population loss of almost epic proportions and some of the highest violent crime rates in the country followed what sociologist William Julius Wilson calls the “disappearance of work.”
After electing the first black mayor of a major U.S. city in 1967, Gary elected the first African American woman mayor in Indiana history, Karen Freeman Wilson, in 2011. Running much like a modern day Richard Hatcher, Wilson announced a “Blueprint for Rebuilding Gary.” She dubbed her transition team the “New Day” Transition Team.
Part and parcel of her campaign is a strategy to rebrand Gary in the eyes of the region and the nation. Once again, Gary—recently a symbol of America’s urban nightmare—is now being viewed by some for its potential to redefine troubled and shrinking industrial cities. Could Gary, a place that once symbolized industrial might, working class dreams, and the hopes of Black America, become a symbol of a Rust Belt reborn? Could Gary again become a “new city”?
-By Sean Posey