Gary Revitalization Project Begins Demolition Phase

The little red and white brick house at 2325 Monroe Street, situated one block from Michael Jackson’s childhood home in Gary, Indiana, has been empty for more than a decade. The grass on the lawn is overgrown, and the house has long since been stripped of most valuables: fixtures, copper pipes, steel, anything that can be sold or repurposed.

This is a common scene in Gary, a postindustrial city whose population has more than halved since its 1960 peak of 180,000. At 52 square miles, Gary is roughly the size of San Francisco but with less than one-tenth the population. As many as one-third of the city’s 60,000 residences are estimated to be vacant or abandoned. Blight and neglect are pervasive.

On this early August morning, though, the neighborhood is buzzing with excitement. The Taylors, an older black couple, have lived on the block for 11 years and have never known a neighbor to their north. Mrs. Taylor watches with a mixture of curiosity and nervousness as the yellow track hoe prepares to crush the concrete steps leading up to the house next door. The demolition crew makes fast work of the dilapidated structure. In less than 20 minutes, the claw of the track hoe has pummeled the house into a pile of rubble.

The house on Monroe Street is the first of hundreds that will come down as part of a strategy to raze Gary’s most blighted properties. The ambitious 18-month plan is designed to remove stains on the landscape that reflect the downward spiral of disinvestment and stand in the way of revitalization. Only three businesses remain open on Gary’s main street, Broadway, where shuttered buildings still advertise businesses last open decades ago, and where burnouts and decaying roofs and walls threaten to collapse. Compounding the situation, the city’s 40 percent tax collection rate provides very limited funding for day-to-day municipal operations.

When Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson came into office in early 2012, tackling the city’s abandoned buildings problem was among her top priorities. But the $400,000 annual allocation for demolition allows the city to demolish around 100 properties – a drop in the bucket compared to the thousands of structures in need of demolition.

In the fall of 2012, Mayor Freeman-Wilson teamed up with former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who had recently joined Chicago Harris as a distinguished senior fellow, and announced a formal partnership between Harris and the City of Gary. Under this partnership, Harris students and others across campus have been working closely with Mayor Freeman- Wilson and her senior staff to help tackle some of the city’s most pressing pol- icy issues.

For one of the first projects, run in partnership with the nonprofit LocalData, Harris students helped design and build a mobile phone surveying app, which allowed volunteers to canvass the city block by block, collecting data on housing conditions. So far, these efforts have helped to survey more than three-quarters of the city’s residential parcels on an extremely tight budget. The data have helped city officials map levels of blight, improve their redevelopment plans and target areas ripe for demolition.

The data also gave the city a leg up when Indiana announced in January that it would soon distribute $75 million in funds from the federal Hardest Hit pro- gram to municipalities across the state. The parcel survey was a key component in the city’s successful bid for a $6.6 million grant. “I could not contain my excitement,” Freeman-Wilson said on May 22, the day the city received the funds. “We had a team of people who worked extremely hard on this application, and their diligence and tenacity has now paid off in large dividends for our city.”

The infusion of Hardest Hit funds will enable the city to tear down at least 379 blighted properties – though officials believe they may be able to stretch those dollars to double the number of demolitions the city completes under the 18-month program.

Last year, Daley participated in a neighborhood cleanup event in Gary, part of another initiative developed by Harris students for Gary. Reflecting on the city and what its future may hold, he said, “Everything can be reborn. There are big challenges, but challenges can be overcome by people.” 

–Jocelyn Hare

To learn more about the Gary Project, follow GaryProjectUChicago on Facebook and @UChicagoGary on Twitter. You can also contact uchicagogaryproject@gmail.com.

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