Gary Hopes Stimulus Cash Transforms City | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Gary Hopes Stimulus Cash Transforms City

The city of Gary, Indiana, started out a century ago as a steel mill boomtown. But as the jobs dwindled a half a century later, so did its population. Abandoned homes and storefronts by the thousands were left behind. With help from the federal government, Gary wants to clear those away to attract new developments, and in the process, become a national model of urban renewal. But some fear the city could lose more than it gains if the plan isn't carried out carefully.

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At the corner of 7th and Washington streets in downtown Gary, you'll find a three-story building that used to house at hotel, a corner store and other small shops.

The building's falling apart. Most of its glass is broken. There are big gaping holes in the walls. It's just one of nearly 4,000 abandoned structures in the city.

CLAY: Gary probably has more abandoned houses and commercial properties than any other city this size in America.

Rudy Clay is the mayor of Gary.

CLAY: You can't have a city where you have economic development where you have vacant buildings, abandoned buildings. You can't even have your crime rate down like it's supposed to be unless you eliminate these abandoned houses by the thousands that we have in our community.

Gary is turning to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for help.

Last year the city received $4 million from HUD to demolish some abandoned structures.

And HUD has indicated there may be more to come.

BROWN: HUD is going to go out of its way to do whatever it can to help Gary get back on the right track.

HUD's spokesman Jerry Brown says the agency will provide Gary officials with advice and expertise so it gets the most out of its federal dollars and find ways to attract new investment.

HUD's offer to help the cash-strapped city came following a summer visit by HUD's Deputy Secretary Ron Sims and U.S. Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana.

BAYH: You know, Gary needs substantial help. This is a city with tremendous needs particularly with so many abandoned houses that have become havens for drug dealers and all sorts of other illicit activity.

Bayh and Sims toured distressed neighborhoods in Gary.And what they saw while shuffling through broken door ways and stepping on glass shocked them both.

From that, Bayh says, came Sims' and HUD's commitment to work with Gary. Bayh says Sims now wants to make Gary a national model for urban revitalization.

BAYH: They are working very hard to perhaps focus on making Gary an example of what you can do. I think what he said to me was, 'Look, if we can turn Gary around, that shows we can be successful in any kind of situation.' This is one of my top priorities and something that I frankly would make me feel good about my job if I was able to help these people.

The concept of urban renewal is simple: Clear away a dilapidated structure and hope something new will take its place: a new home, condo or office complex perhaps.

But some urban planners say the city needs to be careful which buildings get bulldozed or it runs the risk of losing Gary's vibrant cultural history.

One area targeted for revitalization is on Gary's main retail corridor, Broadway.

Along a ten block stretch of Broadway starting at 7th Avenue and heading south are buildings that hold special significance because of their architectural or cultural histories.

JONES: If you look around we're right now in what's proposed as a historic, music, jazz district. This whole area was the center of the African-American community, the culture, the history.

Earl Jones is a professor and urban planner at Indiana University's Northwest campus in Gary. Jones is helping to develop what's called the South Broadway Historic District to preserve certain structures.

Along this stretch includes relatively small buildings but with big ties to music legends.

JONES: Across the street at 1814 we have May's Louisiana Kitchen which was a famous jazz spot where all of the greats in jazz played when they came to the city; Duke Ellington for example.

You'll also find where Vivian Carter started her record store in the early '50s. Carter would go on to help find Vee Jay Records.

The label ended up signing performers such as the Spaniels, Johnny Lee Hooker, Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons and the Beatles.

Like most of Broadway, the block is decaying. Jones says he believes the street can be transformed, à la Kansas City's historic 18th and Vine District.

But he worries that it can lost.

JONES: Once it's torn down you're looking at an empty lot and you say what is that empty lot contributing to this community? But if you look at a building and the building has a fence around it, it's a historic structure and it's targeted for revitalization, then investors begin to look at the area slightly differently, rather than looking at an empty lot.

COHEN: There's a lot of historic preservation and reuse that's possible without flattening everything.

Retired college history professor Ronald Cohen, who lives in Gary, says historic structures need to be preserved and any redevelopment needs careful planning.

But the first challenge for the city is to get the money.

Cohen says with a dwindling tax base, securing federal grants is really the city's only option to foster new development.

COHEN: It doesn't have the economic ability to do these things. It has to attract outside funding. The city is in deep economic trouble.

Gary is hoping HUD provides the city with $25-million in federal stimulus money for urban renewal.

That will not be nearly enough to make the city into a national model, but some say it's a start.

Evan Bayh says he's pushing hard to secure the funds in a competitive process and maybe more.

BAYH: Getting those derelict homes torn down, the site cleaned up so we can attract some investment, some jobs, get people moving back in. So, if we're going to do this we need to it right. If it takes a little bit more as far as resources, then we should make sure those are provided.

(Ambi of demolition site)

For now, the city is doing what it can with limited resources to clear away abandoned structures, like this one at 7th and Broadway.

Across the street a new housing development sits where the city cleared the land three years ago.

Gary resident and worker Ray Norman says the development is an example of what's possible.

NORMAN: They're starting at the right place, getting rid of all these condemned buildings. You've got to start somewhere. In a short time, it'll be back. It it'll be back. Not a problem.

Gary's nickname was once the Magic City. Folks here are hoping there's a little magic left to transform the city once again.

The audio and copy are updated to correct an earlier version which incorrectly stated that Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 performed at Gary's Palace Theater.

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