A lovely day in - Gary?

June 30, 2014

The interior of the City United Methodist Church in Gary, In., is shown on June 11, 2104.

Conventional wisdom says Gary is a city that time forgot — the worst, ugliest, smelliest, most decrepit, dangerous city in the Midwest, if not the nation.

But here’s a piece of advice for your summer travel plans: Spend a day in Gary. I did.

Yes, Gary is a wounded city. But I ate well there. I met good people. I saw pristine nature. I drank first-rate local beer. I saw the house where Michael Jackson grew up. I marveled at the city’s urban ruins. I filled my gas tank for $3.89 per gallon. It was a well-spent 12 hours.

More so than any other day, the masses flock to Gary every June 25 to honor Jackson at the tiny house where he lived until age 11 and where The Jackson 5 spent its earliest years as a band, winning high school talent shows and recording for local Steeltown Records.

In advance of the city’s annual moment in the sun, I visited if for no other reason than the depleted city of 78,000 — less than half its population during the 1960s — sits a mere 10 miles from the Chicago city limits. And most places are worth exploring at least once, no matter what we think we know about them.

10:30 a.m. The Miller Beach community sits 4 miles east of downtown Gary but remains part of the city. It makes Miller Beach the city’s highlight — quaint, clean and free of abandoned storefronts. Better still, though downtown Gary handed over its shoreline to U.S. Steel, Miller Beach has maintained its Lake Michigan shore.

The jewel of that shore is Marquette Park, 241 acres of walking trails, lagoons, sand dunes, an indigenous oak savanna and 1.4 miles of beach where the air is clean and sweet. Just don’t look in either direction — then you’ll see factories miles down the coast belching who knows what into the air.

A $28 million renovation has added landscaping and walking paths, but the most impressive piece of revitalization is the two-story beachfront Aquatorium. Back in Gary’s steelmaking boom years, the Aquatorium served as the changing rooms for beachgoers. In a familiar Gary story, it fell into disuse and disrepair and sat boarded up between 1971 and 1991. A volunteer committee has spent the past 23 years rehabbing the Aquatorium, which was a graffiti-strewn pile of rubble 20 years ago and now hosts more than 200 events per year.

The Aquatorium’s second floor is its real prize. Open to the public every day of the year — the first floor is open by appointment only — it offers stunning, quiet views of a lovely, churning Lake Michigan.

12:30 p.m. A city still waiting for its thud is, not surprisingly, light on good restaurants. But there are a few, like Miller Bakery Cafe (555 S. Lake St.). The cafe also has a very Gary-like history.

On a Wednesday afternoon, I skipped the dining room’s white tablecloths to take a seat at the U-shaped metal bar, where a couple from nearby Whiting shared a bottle of white wine on half-price wine day. I ordered the ham-chicken-blue cheese meatballs smothered in a mustard sauce (decadent comfort food) and expertly prepared seared ahi tuna salad (yes, in Gary).

2 p.m. The Jackson house (2300 Jackson St. — a coincidence; it’s part of a series of streets named for U.S. presidents) sits in the heart of a residential neighborhood that has small white-sided house after small white-sided house.

Visitors scrawl their best wishes to Michael on a slab of white-painted plywood attached to the gate.

3 p.m. If a building can be abandoned — a school, a church, an office complex, a hotel, a grocery store, an apartment building, a gas station — it has been abandoned in Gary. By the city’s own estimate, as many as 15,000 of its buildings have been deserted.

Among the most eye-opening elements of the city’s ruin is how seamlessly it blends into everyday life. Such was the case at one of the city’s most notable relics, City Methodist Church (577 Washington St.), where parents waited in idling cars to pick up their kids from the charter school across the street as I arrived.

City Methodist gets the most attention from urban spelunkers, but travel down nearly any street in Gary, and what is left behind is stunning. It includes an old office building down Washington Street where nearly every window and door is blown out, weeds grow as tall as the third-floor roof, and disquieting graffiti advertises a name and phone number for buying heroin.

5:30 p.m. It was time for better things. Much better things: beer.

The craft beer revolution came late to Gary, but it came in December, when Drew Fox opened 18th Street Brewery.

Why open a brewery in Gary when Chicago is just over the border?

"Every great city deserves a brewery, and I want to be part of the revitalization process," Fox said.

Which begged an obvious question: Is Gary a great city?

"If you look at the history, it once was, and I think it’s getting there again," Fox said. "We’ve still got a long way to go. It’s a blue-collar town and always will be. But Gary deserves an opportunity for rebirth like any other city."

7 p.m. There are two ways to wind down a summer evening here: Watch the sun set over the beach or watch baseball. I opted for baseball, as the Gary SouthShore Railcats hosted the Sioux City Explorers at U.S. Steel Yard in a matchup from the American Association independent baseball league.

On a misty evening, the crowd was spare enough to hear nearly every bit of chatter on the field, including the bullpen pitchers mocking their own players for miscues in the field.

Since being founded in 2002, the Gary Railcats have sent two players to the major leagues.

As the players filed off toward the clubhouse and the grounds crew spread across the field, an unsurprising song filled the stadium: "ABC" by the Jackson 5. You take your victories where you can get them.


Associated Press