Ex-Chicago mayor rallies help for Indiana steel town

September 25, 2012

The city of Gary, Ind., is visible from Chicago’s famous Navy Pier. Separated by barely 25 miles via land route, the cities can seem much farther away if you consider the differences in term of comparative economic success.

But former Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley hopes to use some of his big city know-how to help the long-struggling Gary.

“If you look at many of the people who live out there, [they] have all come from Chicago and the metropolitan area and vice versa. Many of their kids have moved here, so it’s really like one big metropolitan area,” Daley told WBEZ Tuesday afternoon.

Since leaving office, Daley’s been teaching at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy Studies. The school will collaborate in an effort to assist the city of Gary, with Daley himself heading the effort.

“I always thought there was a long relationship between Gary and Chicago, historically,” Daley said.

Gary was once once considered the “City on the Move,” a contender that could compete with Chicago for jobs, economic development and political clout.

But while Chicago’s maintained its rank as the nation’s third-largest city and one of the world’s most recognizable, Gary star slowly faded as its mainstay – steel factory jobs – declined and residents fled by the tens of thousands.  

As a result, Gary’s struggled with crime, poor public school education and disinvestment.

Gary once claimed more than 170,00 residents; today, it barely has 80,000 and it now hold the title of Northwest Indiana’s second-most populous city; first place now goes to Hammond, which touches Chicago along its southern border.

Daley said forgetting Gary — and cities like it — is wrong.

“We forgot Gary in the last 40 or 50 years, its people in the city and we should not forget anyone in America,” Daley said.

Earlier this year Daley invited Gary’s new mayor, Karen Freeman-Wilson, to speak to his class. That friendship is now growing into a collaboration between Daley, the U of C, and Gary.

“I thought it would be a good opportunity for the students to offer their thinking,” Freeman-Wilson told WBEZ Tuesday. “It’s certainly a great benefit to us to get the value of their new thinking.”

Some of Daley’s own students have been visiting Gary to see first-hand all the issues confronting it.

“There is certainly a natural nexus; the fact that we’re 30 miles away from Chicago; the fact that we share one of the largest bodies of waters in the Great Lakes; the fact that we share a lot of residents and a lot of transportation assets,” Freeman-Wilson said. “I’m hoping that this will certainly strengthen this collaboration. Mayor Daley and I are making sure that happens.”

This new venture isn’t Daley’s first move trying to assist Gary.

In the mid-1990s Daley used his office to form the Chicago-Gary airport compact, which brought O’Hare and Midway airports under one umbrella and added Gary’s own regional airport.

The compact continues today, with Chicago contributing $3 million each year to Gary International’s operating budget.