Neither the distinctive image portrayed by the media nor the myriad of comments made by the casual observer adequately characterizes my personal experiences and overarching view of Gary, Indiana. It has been insightfully spoken, “We are only as strong as our weakest link.” If Gary is that weak link in Northwest Indiana, it is of no benefit to kick a community that is already down. It’s time to strengthen Gary’s community for the betterment of our region as a whole and, in order to do so, we must first understand the contributing forces that have weakened this "diamond in the rough.”
In many ways, Gary is the victim of a perfect storm. A city founded in 1906 by US Steel, the first corporate politicians ensured that Gary’s economic base would not be diversified. Born in the heat of the labor movement, the Steel Strike of 1919 failed to unionize workers and subsequently sparked a mass immigration and hiring of minorities at sub-par wages. In turn, this led to serious racial tensions as segregated (and substandard) housing confined African-Americans in Midtown. During this exact timeframe, Gary Superintendent, William A. Wirt pioneered a triad model with respect to education known as Platoon, explicating a balance between work, study, and play. To its downfall, school segregation policies did not provide equal opportunity for all residents.
At the turn of the century, monopolistic practices of many ‘robber barons’ were halted through the enforcement of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Yet, in 1920, US Steel endured as one of the few companies to successfully dodge such legislative policies, continuing to consolidate the industry. The incentive to innovate within the industry and sufficiently pay employees was minimalized as a result. Permanent unionization of Gary’s industries would follow as the impact of the Great Depression caused steel output to decline by nearly 85%.
In the 1930s, the industrious community offered refuge for gangsters and notable figures such as John Dillinger. Prostitution and opportunities for illegal gambling activities also colored the prohibition era in Gary and surrounding regions of Northwest Indiana. While much a part of the city, such activities were ‘relatively controlled’ as law enforcement, media personnel and others were likely ‘on the take’. With the start of World War II, the steel industry soared like never before and the demographic of its workers shifted. As white Americans were stationed overseas, minorities were pulled into skilled positions and leadership roles that were previously off-limits.
Between the boom and bust years of steel production, the colliding forces of globalization and the civil rights movement produced a thundering impact on the city. As African-Americans became political leaders in the late 1960s, manufacturing jobs all but disappeared due to automation and imported products. US Steel, the world’s first billion-dollar company, began an irreversible, slow decent in market share. Where 100,000 steel jobs once existed in Northwest Indiana, roughly 20,000 are left today. Between the process of redlining by banks and the elimination of Gary’s buffer zone through state legislation, white flight and disinvestment became all too easy over the next two decades. With the passage of time, the City of the Century became another victim of deindustrialization in America’s Rust Belt . . .
Raised just a mile east of I-65 in neighboring Lake Station, I have had the privilege of working off and on at a small engineering contractor on Gary’s west side since high school. Whether it is a walk at Marquette Park, eating at establishments or engaging the locals at the train station, my time in Gary has been more than positive over the past 12 years. The spirit of faith, hard work, family and community are firmly rooted within the city, stronger than many are led to believe. These values are consistently overshadowed by the media’s magnet towards reporting the negative happenings within the city streets. Every time I read about a murder in Gary, I know a false stereotype is reaffirmed in the minds of many. Allowing 80 people to brand 80,000 is not only a disservice to the community, but also a perpetuation of institutional racism in America.
It is easy to sit back and criticize, point fingers, diffuse responsibility, and blame issues of the past - politics, racism, corporate outsourcing, socio-economics – which only serves to weaken this important link in Northwest Indiana. Only through collaboration – by taking action now – can we strengthen Gary for the future. With its proximity to Chicago, one of the largest economies in the world and business friendly policies of Indiana, Gary is poised to be one of the most vibrant cities in America.
Given my experience in government and politics, I believe the city’s administrative leadership is stronger than it has been in decades, however, it will take partnerships beyond the walls to rebuild Rome, to shine this diamond in the rough. Whether one lives in Lowell, Valparaiso or Michigan City, we all have a stake in Gary’s success and should embrace the city as our true hub to Chicago.
At the NAACP Life Member Banquet in 2013, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson made a statement that has continued to resonate with me to this day regarding the future success of Gary, “You are either part of the solution, or you are part of the problem.” When it comes to making The Region a better place to work, live and play, which part are you?
Robert Ordway is the Co-Chairman of the Valparaiso Republican Party.