U.S. 30 and Interstate 65 in Northwest Indiana is among the busiest retail corridors in Indiana. For a long time, this area, much of it in the Town of Merrillville, was the envy of Northwest Indiana, but none more so than for folks living in Gary.
To Steel City residents, the establishment of Merrillville a little more than 40 years ago was seen as a racist slap in the face allowed by Indiana state lawmakers.
White families from an increasing black Gary left in droves once Merrillville became a town.
The hurt from that time still exists today even as Merrillville’s demographics have shifted.
But today, if you need to buy a new car, or celebrate a birthday or buy that special gift or see a concert by a top-notch artist, if you live anywhere in Northwest Indiana chances are you’re doing it in Merrillville.
“Merrillville is the Main Street of Northwest Indiana,” said Rich James, a retired political columnist from Northwest Indiana.
While shops dominate the Merrillville landscape now, James remembers it wasn’t always like that.
“Fourty-one years ago, Merrillville was pretty much a cow pasture,” James said. “It had a name, it wasn’t incorporated.”
But what the area did have was plenty of open land; land to build homes and businesses on. This area became pretty attractive just as the City of Gary began its steep decline as steel jobs began to dry up in the once-thriving community of 175,000 residents.
But loss of jobs wasn’t the only issue facing Gary.
In the mid-1960s, blacks increased in number in what was then a very ethnic-white Gary.
Confined to living in one section of city for decades, blacks pushed for the right to live anywhere they chose, including in affluent white sections.
Richard Gordon Hatcher became Gary’s first black mayor in 1968. In the years up to his election, Hatcher pushed for an open housing law. It wasn’t easy.
“Every time it came up for a vote the council chambers would be packed with screaming and yelling. I liken them to the Tea Partiers today,” Hatcher told WBEZ. “They were yelling and all kinds of racial slurs and they would intimidate. I introduced that bill at least six times. It was defeated five times.”
That 6th time was the charm.
But the victories of the housing ordinance coupled with Hatcher’s mayoral victory came with consequences.
“And so blacks were able to move wherever they wanted to move and that really accelerated the flight out of the city,” Hatcher said. “People panicked and so that’s when they began in serious numbers to move out.”
But move out to where? There wasn’t really anywhere to go south of Gary.
“But a couple of legislators from up here, a fella by the name of Chet Dobis, who is still in office, they pushed a bill through that took away the City of Gary’s buffer zone,” Hatcher said.
Chet Dobis is nearing the end of a 42-year career in the Indiana House of Representative.
He recalls that in order to establish Merrillville as a town, a three-mile buffer zone that existed for all 2nd-Class cities in Indiana would have to be removed.
“Merrillville did not have enough territory to build a town on if that 3-mile buffer zone existed,” Dobis said. “So, if we knocked the buffer zone down we could get right up to the border with Gary.
And that’s what happened.
Dobis may be best remembered for his earliest legislation – a special law allowing a town to be created adjacent to an established city like Gary.
“People call me the father of the town of Merrillville,” he said.
Dobis says he was simply giving the people – mostly white people – what they wanted – a place to go to since they no longer wanted to live not only in Gary – but other racially changing urban areas of Northwest Indiana.
“You have to understand, we were in a different time. It was as different environment. The atmosphere was highly charged. And people had started to move from Hammond, East Chicago and Whiting as well to this area,” Dobis said. “A lot of them made major investments. A lot of them thought and supported this idea of protecting their investment.”
Merrillville incorporated as a town in 1971, developing at a rapid pace with not only new residents, but retail development over the next decade.
As life breathed into Merrillville, in Gary, it was just the opposite.
Residents fled and Gary’s once thriving downtown – devastated.
Carolyn E. Mosby remembers growing up in a rapidly deteriorating Gary and couldn’t understand why it was happening.
“When you see these boarded up buildings on Broadway or you see these vacant homes, a lot of the people who chose to leave, a lot of the people who chose to leave didn’t decide to sell their businesses or sell their homes, they just boarded them up and left,” Mosby said.
By the 1980s, Mosby was a teenager who often found herself not shopping at the Merrillville area’s new mall or other stores – pretty much at the insistence of her late mother, Carolyn B. Mosby, a longtime state legislator from Gary.
“She was very involved in the community as well and this was something that was very near and dear to her was to really support those people that chose to stay in Gary, the businesses and the folks who didn’t abandoned their home and moved to Merrillville,” Mosby said.
Just last year, Merrillville celebrated 40 years as a town.
This town of 35,000 residents is no longer lily white.
In fact, it’s now more than 40 percent African American, with many continuing to move because its school district is considered better than Gary’s.
Kimberly Williams grew up in Gary. These days, the 32-year-old owns Graphics United, a graphic design company in Merrillville. Williams’ office is located near a large shopping center, with ethnic food restaurants close by and other businesses owned by African Americans, Asians, Indians and Latinos.
Williams, who also lives in Merrillville, says there may be always some apprehension in Merrillville because of its past, but those are slowly washing away.
“I don’t think there will ever be a point where it’s never a reservation but i think probably from 40 years ago up to this date it’s probably has become less and less because you’re starting to see business from pretty much all different types of races and I know it wasn’t like that 40 years ago,” Williams said.
Although its retail corridor is thriving, sections of Merrillville struggle to keep residents and businesses. And now, the town is experiencing its own white flight, something Carolyn Mosby finds ironic.
“The white citizens moved from Gary to create Merrillville because they didn’t want to live with black residents so now more black residents have started to move to Merrillville and now they are moving even further out,” Mosby said.
Journalist Rich James says what’s happening in Merrillville is just the nature of all of Northwest Indiana.
“Northwest Indiana never has accepted integration openly or warmly or on a grand scale. As Merrillville became more black, some whites said well, this happened once before and it’s happening again and we’re going to move,” James said. “Well, it’s unfortunate.”