interior of the City United Methodist Church in
Gary, In., is shown on June 11, 2104.
wisdom says Gary is a city that time forgot — the worst,
ugliest, smelliest, most decrepit, dangerous city in the
Midwest, if not the nation.
here’s a piece of advice for your summer travel plans:
Spend a day in Gary. I did.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
$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.
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.
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.
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).
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
scrawl their best wishes to Michael on a slab of
white-painted plywood attached to the gate.
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.
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.
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.
p.m. It was time for better things. Much better things:
craft beer revolution came late to Gary, but it came in
December, when Drew Fox opened 18th Street Brewery.
open a brewery in Gary when Chicago is just over the
great city deserves a brewery, and I want to be part of
the revitalization process," Fox said.
begged an obvious question: Is Gary a great city?
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."
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
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
being founded in 2002, the Gary Railcats have sent two
players to the major leagues.
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.