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Chicago grad students aid struggling steel town

Sarah Taylor is a senior citizen living in Marshalltown, a neighborhood on the east side of Gary, Indiana.

There are abandoned homes and crime tends to be a problem, but Taylor and a few dedicated residents are trying to make things better.

“We just go down our street and clean it up. It can be a garbage can or some debris. Usually it’s just 4 or 5 of us, all women. All old women,” Taylor said Thursday.

But now Taylor is hoping reinforcements in the form of young college students can help pick up the slack.

Taylor was on hand for a press conference at Gary City Hall to highlight the Marshalltown Neighborhood Revitalization Project.

Over the last several weeks, a handful of students have been meeting and talking with residents in Marshalltown. This weekend, they will arrive in the neighborhood again for a community-wide clean-up effort and begin cataloguing abandoned homes.

“Today’s project launch represents the fruit of the students’ labor and it’s only the beginning,” Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said.

The effort began last fall when Freeman-Wilson spoke at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, where former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley teaches. Following that, Daley initiated a project that involves several graduate students to assist Gary with developing ways to improve communication between residents and the city.

Program director Carol Brown says the project will give students real work experience.

“While at the same time, we’re bringing the resources of the university to benefit the city of Gary,” Brown said. “This project was a priority for Mayor Daley because he feels very strongly about the power of residents and government working together to solve problems.”

Daley may have a soft spot for Gary, since his grandfather worked on portions of Gary City Hall in the 1920s.

Brown said the Marshalltown project is actually a pilot program. If it proves successful, it will be duplicated in other Gary neighborhoods. Graduate student Michael Crowley echoed that sentiment and said their project isn’t a one-day effort.

“The work will continue throughout the month of June and beyond,” Crowley said. “City staff and residents will work together to maintain and actually build off the work that we started.”

Michael Puente is WBEZ’s Northwest Indiana bureau reporter. Follow him @MikePuenteNews

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