City limits

Chicago Harris’s Gary Project joins forces with a dynamic new mayor to reframe the Indiana steel town’s future.


An icy wind blew down Broadway, the main street in Gary, Indiana. It drove wisps of snow past boarded-up shops and tugged at the plastic that hung over the empty floors of an abandoned Sheraton Hotel. Most of the sidewalks were full of snow, so pedestrians walked in the street, including a blind woman in a fur coat who found her way by tapping her cane against the windrow of snow. To the north, on the other side of Interstate 90, gigantic clouds of smoke and steam billowed from US Steel’s sprawling Gary Works, which hummed along despite the cold.

To a city as economically battered as Gary, the harsh winter of 2014 was a special affront. The thriving steel town that once proclaimed itself “City of the Century” has become one of the most impoverished and economically depressed cities in the country. Jobs have disappeared, more than a third of residents live in poverty, and the population has dwindled to less than half its former size. Covering 50 square miles, the city is too big for its residents and for efficient snow removal. To clear its 434 miles of streets, Gary deployed a fleet of just four snowplows plus an assortment of pickup trucks fitted with blades. “We have more workers than snowplows,” said Cloteal LaBroi, the city’s public works director. When nearly 20 inches of snow fell, overwelming Gary’s crews, the mayor of nearby Portage, Indiana, sent four more plows—and caught grief for showing neighborliness toward Gary.

Still, the mood in city hall was buoyant that January afternoon. Karen Freeman-Wilson, Gary’s mayor since 2012, had brought good news: that morning, officials of the Gary airport had approved a deal with a private company to spend $100 million over 40 years to develop the airport and the surrounding area, which for decades had failed to deliver the economic boost that had been hoped for. In 2013 the airport lost its only airline—the sixth to have come and gone since 1999—and was hardly used. The agreement included a pledge not just to bring business to the airport but to train and hire Gary residents. “This is a big deal,” said Richard Leverett, JD’10, the mayor’s interim chief of staff.

The mayor and a dozen or so other city officials were gathered in a conference room to hear ideas about reviving retail business in Gary. Doug Nagy, MBA’13, had brought a thick report on strategies that he and another Chicago Booth graduate had worked on as students the year before. An Ohio native who calls himself “passionate about the revitalization of the Rust Belt,” Nagy was part of an effort organized by the Harris School of Public Policy to give University students firsthand experience wrestling with the tough problems of a struggling industrial city.

Nagy, 28, had once worked on a Main Street project to revive a small town just outside Cleveland, and he brimmed with ideas for Gary. The city staff, who are surprisingly young, listened intently as he outlined his ideas on a screen at one end of the room: making the downtown friendlier to pedestrians, saving historic buildings, concentrating traffic on Broadway, creating bike lanes, moving Gary’s casino downtown, and setting up business incubators so that starting a business might be a less lonely endeavor.

“People always try to start new businesses in Gary, but it’s all over the city,” said Nagy. He was fast-talking and relentlessly upbeat, heading to a job back in Cleveland but still passionate about Gary. “Our idea is that every neighborhood can have a sense of place,” he continued. “It doesn’t have to be a highfalutin place to have a sense of place.” He sprinkled bits of data throughout his presentation—how much Gary residents spend annually at barbershops and beauty salons, references to cities facing similar problems. “We called Detroit,” he said. “We called Youngstown. We called Cleveland and asked what they did.” In a city chronically short of money, he stressed the importance of starting small. But he also warned against “low design expectations.” The city had neglected to make sure that existing retail development, as modest as it was, suited “Gary’s historic character,” his report said. “The prevailing wisdom is that Gary can’t be picky.” Nagy urged the city to focus on its most promising locations. It wouldn’t take a lot of money, he said. His hometown added bike lanes and new parking places, and “All it cost us was a can of paint.”

The mayor seemed pleased. The report “leaves us with a lot of good options,” she said. “It gives us a lot to think about as we go forward.”

Mayor Freeman-Wilson received the Chicago Harris Dean’s Award during Alumni Weekend 2014. (Photography by Drew Reynolds)


For years, going forward in Gary has meant trying to halt the backward slide. The city was founded in 1906 when US Steel chose a seven-mile stretch of sand dunes on Lake Michigan’s south shore as the site for a new plant. Named after the company’s chairman and CEO, Judge Elbert Gary, the city flourished, attracting immigrant workers from the Balkans, Italy, Greece, and other European countries, as well as African Americans from the South. It endured the Depression and labor struggles, and by 1960 had grown to 178,000 residents.

It was also growing into a center of black culture and political awakening. In 1967 Gary elected its first black mayor, Richard Hatcher; he and Carl Stokes of Cleveland, voted into office the same year, were the first elected black mayors of large American cities. Whites resisted—the local Democratic machine backed Hatcher’s white Republican opponent—and began leaving Gary for surrounding communities. Many businesses followed. At the same time, the globalization of trade and industry resulted in the closing and relocation of many area factories. The Gary Works stayed open, but its workforce declined. Still, US Steel’s biggest plant, the Gary Works’ four blast furnaces can turn out 7.5 million tons of steel a year. But with improved equipment, says Michael R. Millsap, District 7 director of the United Steelworkers union, the number of workers needed to make all that steel has fallen from a high of more than 20,000 to around 5,000 today.

Gary’s population continues to shrink, falling by 22 percent in the first decade of this century, to about 80,000. “When people start making money, they move out,” says Pleas Yates, a longtime resident whose neighborhood has slowly been emptying out. As those with jobs leave, abandoning houses and other property, the city’s tax base shrinks and essential services suffer, like policing and snow removal. To make things worse, many homeowners don’t or can’t pay their taxes. The city collects only about 42 percent of what it’s owed, far less than the Lake County average. Meanwhile state policy has shifted the burden of taxation from businesses to homeowners and imposed caps on rates, forcing cities across Indiana to make do with less.

The city’s wide streets now transect a landscape of neglect, decay, and abandonment. Most of the old businesses are boarded up or torn down, leaving empty lots. What survives is largely fast food joints, liquor stores, payday loan shops, beauty parlors, and car repair shops. The streets themselves are potholed, the sidewalks cracked and overgrown, the lots brush choked and cluttered with trash from the illegal dumping that afflicts the city. Officials estimate that as many as 15,000 homes—a quarter of the city’s housing—stand empty. 

In Gary last fall, the mayor shared a laugh with Jocelyn Hare, MPP’13, the Gary Project’s first postgraduate fellow. (Photography Robert Kozloff)

Gary’s reputation has suffered too. Once celebrated for steel, the city is now best known for crime and poverty. In 1994 the Chicago Tribune proclaimed it murder capital of the United States, and rates of violent crime remain high. Ed Feigenbaum, publisher of Indiana Legislative Insight and a longtime observer of state politics, says that Indianapolis, the state capital, sees Gary as little more than a supplicant. “It’s always had to go to the state to ask for things,” he says.

Freeman-Wilson promised a fresh start. A Gary native, graduate of Harvard Law School, former Indiana attorney general, and judge and practicing lawyer in Gary, she seemed to possess many of the qualities the city needed in its mayor. Now 53, she is intelligent, energetic, well connected outside the city but also deeply loyal to it. 

Mayor Karen, as she is known throughout Gary, came into office facing two huge challenges. One was to do more with less—to fight the city’s decline with ever dwindling resources. The other was to restore the hope and trust of residents grown weary of false dawns, empty promises and ineffective government, and big ideas that never lived up to expectations. Gary was founded on a big idea—making steel in as efficient and modern a way as possible—and for years its leaders have grasped at the big ideas that would reverse the city’s fortunes: a new convention center in 1981, two Miss USA pageants in the early 2000s, the $300 million museum once proposed to honor Michael Jackson. All these and more were conceived of as answers to Gary’s woes. None of them were.

For the most part Freeman-Wilson has avoided the kind of grandiose symbolic projects that inspired her predecessors, focusing on modest efforts to attack the city’s most pressing problems: unemployment, crime, blight, struggling schools, and widespread resignation. “Instead of one big answer, a lot of smaller answers,” says historian S. Paul O’Hara, who wrote a book about Gary and says he’s impressed with the new mayor. She has strived to restore confidence in government but also to awaken a sense of civic responsibility. “It’s a New Day!” proclaims the sign outside City Hall, but also “Keep Gary Clean! Pick Up!”

In her State of the City address in February, she began not with a list of her adminstration’s accomplishments but with a sobering overview of Gary’s problems. Just a week before, two gunmen had shot up a senior citizen’s club on Broadway, wounding four and bringing a lot of unflattering attention to the city. “Crime, specifically the murder rate, has been the Achilles heel of this administration,” the mayor acknowledged. Only a few months earlier, the state had issued a scathing report on the Gary police department, finding, among other problems, “a profound lack of direction, authority and discipline.” The city clearly had a long way to go. “It’s a balance,” Freeman-Wilson says. “You want people to understand that progress and success in an area where you have had so many challenges is measured in baby steps, and you have to walk through those baby steps and help them understand what is being accomplished. At the same time there is a need to manage expectations.” 

She has ranged widely in search of help for her city. One of the first things she did was to staff city offices with a cadre of bright young professionals, many of whom, like Leverett and LaBroi, grew up in Gary. “I wanted to make Gary better,” says LaBroi, a lawyer who worked in public relations for NBA and NFL teams before Freeman-Wilson persuaded her to come home. The mayor also has cultivated friends in neighboring communities, including officials like the mayor of Portage, and in other cities grappling with similar problems. Her administration has reached out to state and federal agencies with the money and expertise that Gary lacks. In January these efforts began to bear fruit when the Obama administration named Gary one of seven cities in the federal Strong Cities, Strong Communities program. Indeed, the mayor has earned respect in both Indianapolis and Washington. “People think Karen Freeman-Wilson has a lot more promise than other mayors,” says Feigenbaum.

Hare and Doug Nagy, MBA’13, center, conferred with consultant Lincoln Chandler. (Photography by Richard Mertens)


The Gary Project at UChicago grew out of a phone call Freeman-Wilson made to former Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, distinguished senior fellow at Chicago Harris, seeking advice on Gary’s challenges. Daley invited the mayor to speak at the school soon after she was elected, and a broader collaboration took root. “It’s not just Gary,” Daley told the Chicago Policy Review, based at Chicago Harris. “There are many other cities in America just like it. I’ve always thought that we should not forget the people in a city like that.”

Launched in 2012, the Gary Project provides a rare opportunity for seven to ten students each quarter to put theory into practice by confronting Gary’s problems. “I thought it was a perfect fit,” Daley said in a recent interview. “We’re taking graduate students and giving them real experience about an issue, to research it, come up with the facts, and come up with ways of solving these problems.” Part of their job is to search for new ideas, often by studying the experiences of other struggling industrial cities, and figure out how to apply them to Gary. It started with Harris students but was soon expanded to include students from other units, including Chicago Booth, the Law School, the Pritzker School of Medicine, and the College.

Early on, Daley and Freeman-Wilson assigned the Gary Project two challenges: dealing with abandoned houses and cleaning up unkempt neighborhoods. These were not only urgent needs, they spoke to Daley’s conviction that to thrive, a city needs to be attractive. Abandoned buildings “represent the deterioration of Gary,” he told NBC in 2013. “You have to get those down. If you don’t, that’s a symbol.”

Abandoned buildings must be razed, says former Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley. “If you don’t, that’s a symbol.” (Photography by David Tribby)

Along with poverty and crime, abandoned housing is one of Gary’s worst problems and the starting point for any rebuilding effort. “One thing about blight and abandonment is it’s extremely contagious,” says Joseph A. Van Dyk, director of the city’s redevelopment department. “If there’s a blighted building on a block there’s a far greater chance that the other buildings will fall into disrepair. The strategy is to find the one or two abandoned buildings and take them out.”

In the spring of 2012 a group of Gary Project students explored what to do with abandoned houses. They came up with a series of proposals, like selling houses for a dollar, a revival of an old US Department of Housing and Urban Development program that transferred abandoned properties to residents willing to fix them up and live in them, and giving vacant lots to a neighboring homeowner who would keep it up and pay taxes on it.

“We had a bunch of recommendations,” says Jocelyn Hare, MPP’13, part of the Gary Project from the beginning and now its first postgraduate fellow. She says she became “pretty enamored” of the problem of abandoned housing. “I figured if you could solve this issue in a city with very limited resources, you could do it anywhere.”

It quickly became clear, however, that good policy recommendations required a better understanding of the problem. No one really knew the full scope of Gary’s abandoned housing problem. The students set out to find answers. It took them a while to figure out how to do it. One idea was to fly over the city with infrared cameras that could detect houses that were inhabited. But geothermal mapping would have been expensive, says Ana Aguilera, MPP’13, now a junior professional associate at the World Bank in Washington, DC. It also would have revealed relatively little about the condition of the houses. In the end the students used software from a Detroit start-up and went from house to house, entering data into their smartphones.

The survey covered more than a third of the city and yielded color-coded maps that showed at a glance the condition of whole neighborhoods. It gave the city a much clearer picture of its housing problem and helped win a $6.6 million federal grant that will pay for the demolition of hundreds of houses. The grant also will fund a pilot project to dismantle 12 houses and sell them as recycled building material, an effort designed mainly to create badly needed jobs. “It’s really huge,” says Hare. “I think we’re going to see changes in how the city feels and looks.”

Marley Snow plays guitar outside his barbershop. (Photography by Richard Mertens)

To tidy up neighborhoods, students in the Gary Project borrowed an idea from Macon, Georgia. They identified five-block areas in five neighborhoods, then organized massive five-week cleanups, area by area. Local volunteers, youth groups, UChicago students, and city workers pick up trash, mow vacant lots, and cut brush. The goal is not just to beautify a neighborhood but also to inspire pride in it. “A lot of people I know have lost their hope,” says LaToya Jones, a 39-year-old Gary resident who has taken part in several 5x5x5 cleanups, first as a volunteer and more recently as a paid city employee. “I want to be a source of hope. If I’m on fire, they can catch on fire.” But the cleanups have attracted relatively few volunteers from the targeted neighborhoods.

The inclusion of students from across the University has given the Gary Project a strong interdisciplinary flavor. This year, for example, Sameer Vohra, a Harris student and third-year pediatric resident, is part of a group of students trying to figure out efficient ways of addressing Gary’s public health problems. The problems—for instance, high rates of asthma—resemble those in Chicago’s poor neighborhoods, but Gary has a small health department and lacks a big medical center. The challenge, Vohra says, is to address health issues from a wider community perspective, starting, perhaps, with education. “One question we hope to try to answer is what can a small city government do,” says Vohra. “What impact can it make on health outcomes without a lot of resources?”


Gary’s predicament is dire but not unique. Its struggles reflect those of many older industrial US cities, especially in the Midwest and Northeast. Some, like Detroit and Cleveland, are well known. But many smaller cities, like Youngstown, Ohio, and Flint, Michigan, also grapple with shrinking populations, dwindling jobs, rising poverty, and the blight that accompanies demographic and economic decline. Nor is the phenomenon uniquely American. Last October the Economist lamented the stubbornly depressed condition of small English cities. “Whereas over the past two decades England’s big cities have developed strong service-sector economies,” it reported, “its smaller industrial towns have continued their relative decline.”

Can these cities be revived? To Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, PhD’92, this is the wrong question. Writing about Buffalo, New York, he argues that government has wasted too much money on projects aimed at resurrecting old industrial cities, trying to save places when it should be investing in people by giving them better educational opportunities and helping them with policies like the earned income tax credit. Indeed, in Gary millions of dollars have been poured into projects that came to little or nothing. But urban planners have not given up on old industrial cities like Gary and Buffalo. They are still strong believers in place-based efforts.They think these cities should accept their diminished size—no more longing for past glory—but build on their strengths. 

Gary Project students introduced 5x5x5 cleanups. (Photography by David Tribby)

A place to start, they believe, is downtown. Cities should revive their centers and reestablish the downtown’s economic importance. One way is simply to make downtowns more attractive, places people want to be. (As mayor of Chicago, Daley was a strong believer in beautification.) They also say cities need to shrink intelligently, focusing limited resources on the most vibrant neighborhoods and finding new uses for abandoned areas. Genesee County, Michigan, home to Flint, for instance, set up a land bank to ease the redevelopment of vacant housing and repurposing of vacant land.

“More cities have come to the understanding that they may at best stabilize their population,” says Jennifer S. Vey, a fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “It’s unrealistic to base their revitalization efforts on population growth. And that’s an important change. Because for a long time people thought that growth had to be the answer.”

Some cities, like Pittsburgh, have been able to transform themselves in part because of the influence of universities, medical centers, and other large institutions that provide jobs, civic leadership, and new economic opportunities. Others have taken advantage of waterfront locations and strong transportation systems. Still others have built on historical expertise. Akron, Ohio, was good at making tires, and it was a short step from tires to polymers. Milwaukee is trying to use its manufacturing legacy and location on Lake Michigan to become a center of freshwater research and technology.

Don K. Carter, director of the Remaking Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, says strong, diverse, and coordinated leadership is critical to these efforts. Once such leadership flowed from the owners and managers of big companies. Nowadays it more often comes from hospitals, universities, and other institutions. “It is the keystone and has to be public/private,” he says. Energetic mayors are necessary but not enough.

Like many small industrial cities, Gary lacks the resources of larger cities. For example, it has little business community to lean on for leadership or philanthropy, as Detroit, with all its difficulties, can. But Gary does enjoy some distinct advantages, including proximity to Chicago, an airport closer to downtown Chicago than O’Hare, and its location at the crossroads of four interstate highways. Already the city is home to several large trucking terminals.

And there are signs of progress. Last year the city began selling a small number of dollar homes, creating new homeowners and drawing positive national attention. Meanwhile, Gary has quietly started up a 311 program to enable it to respond better to citizens’ needs and revive their confidence in city government. Freeman-Wilson continues to promote civic responsibility, in part by lending a hand herself at many projects, like the neighborhood cleanups and the conversion of her old middle school into a Boys & Girls Club. She regularly appears on a local radio talk show and sets aside afternoons to meet with residents who have ideas for improving the city.


She hasn’t erased skepticism. “We figured with the new mayor the city would start to come around,” said Gary resident James Adams, who stood talking with friends outside a car repair shop one morning. He rattled off some common complaints in Gary—too many unfilled potholes and boarded-up houses, a top-heavy administration. “We don’t see no turnaround in the city,” he added.

Even residents more sympathetic to Freeman-Wilson harbor strong doubts. “It doesn’t matter who the mayor is,” said Yates, who has lived in Gary for 50 years. He recalled when his neighborhood was full of houses. Now those that remain stand among vacant lots, and many are boarded up. “I’ll never see the way it was,” he said. “I ain’t going to lie. It’s never going to get better here.”

After 35 years here, Nancy Wilson says, “I plan to stay.” (Photography by Richard Mertens)

Others are more optimistic. “People around here want immediate change,” says Mike Ballard, the manager of Billco’s Barber Shop, with its 15 barbers one of the liveliest businesses on Broadway. “It didn’t become like this overnight. It’s going to take some time to rebound. She’s doing some good things. She’s trying.”

She’s not the only one. In December Drew Fox opened the 18th Street Brewery, a brewpub that employs seven people and was named the state’s best new brewer by craft beer website this winter. “I saw it as giving back to the city where I live, give it some opportunity,” Fox says. Marley Snow started a barbershop on a desolate stretch of Broadway close to downtown. Although the number of customers is “getting thin,” he says, “I think Gary is still a good place for business.” And when business is slow, as it was on a mild morning this April, Snow takes out his Maestro six-string guitar and plays on the sidewalk in front of his shop.

The mayor says she’s been impressed by the resilience of Gary’s residents. UChicago students, too, are struck by the determination of people they’ve met to tend diligently to their small corner of the city. “I was surprised that even in the worst neighborhoods in Gary there was a strong sense of community among the neighbors,” says Nagy. “It was an inspiration to me that things can get better.”

Nancy Wilson is one such resident. A retired steelworker in her 60s, she’s lived since 1981 in a quiet neighborhood that has bled many of its residents in those years. Up and down the streets, a third or more of the houses stand empty. Trash and construction debris clutter the back alleys. But her block is carefully tended, grass cut, yards neat. She’s worked to keep it that way, picking up trash in front of the vacant homes and encouraging others to clean up too. Her neighbor across the street, Eddie Tarver, helps out, mowing the grass around the houses and using his snow blower to clear the walks. “I try to take care of my neighborhood,” he says.

Their care has its limits. Sooner or later most empty houses in Gary fall victim to “scrappers”—thieves who break in and steal furnaces, appliances, light fixtures, knobs, pipes, and pretty much anything else of value. It’s often the first step on the road to dilapidation. In April, Wilson went to city hall to suggest ways of stopping the scrappers, such as installing surveillance cameras and using monitoring devices to track stolen appliances.  “I’ve lived here for 35 years,” she told the mayor. “And I plan to stay.”

The Gary Project is entering its third year. Freeman-Wilson says it’s already helped her city move forward, through the 5x5x5 cleanups, abandoned housing survey, and more. “It’s the innovations of students who aren’t jaded enough to dwell on what we can’t do that really has made this project,” she said at the meeting with Nagy. For his part, Nagy was impressed by the city’s openness to new approaches. “If the University of Chicago can come up with some great ideas, Gary is perfectly willing to try them,” he says. “It’s a perfect laboratory. ... If we can improve the quality of life in Gary with new strategies, those strategies are likely to work in Youngstown and Cleveland and Detroit and places like that.”

“We owe it to another generation to rebuild Gary into something that no one ever thought it could be,” says Daley. O’Hara agrees that the Gary Project follows in a long tradition of seeing the city as a place of new ideas and possibilities. It’s happened in education, in politics, and, in a sense, in making steel. “Gary has always been sort of a laboratory for all kinds of experimentation,” he says. Whether that spirit can reverse Gary’s fortunes is still to be seen.


Richard Mertens has written for the Magazine about the ethics of anthrax vaccines for children and about the late George Anastaplo, AB’48, JD’51, PhD’64.

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