The city of Gary in Indiana, USA was once a prosperous steel town but overseas competition and restructuring of the industry led to population loss of 55% since its peak in the 1960s. Much of the city lies abandoned and it faces huge social problems such as poverty and ghettoization. It is estimated that a third of all properties in the city are unoccupied.
In 1906, the United States Steel Corporation founded the city of Gary just 25 miles (40 km) from downtown Chicago, Illinois. The Gary Works on the shore of Lake Michigan was the world’s largest steel mill and the city was built to serve it. The city was named after lawyer Elbert Henry Gary, the founding chairman of the United States Steel Corporation.
The city grew steadily, driven by the steel works. The steel strike of 1919 was centred on the city and on 4 October of that year, a riot broke out in downtown Gary between striking steel workers and those brought in to work in their place. Martial law was declared by Indiana governor James P. Goodrich and the army was called in to restore order.
Gary’s formative years saw an influx of immigrants, primarily from eastern European countries. In 1920, nearly 30% of the population was foreign-born and a further 30% had at least one foreign-born parent. There was a large influx of African-American migrants from the South during the Great Migration, as was the case in Detroit, Michigan which has also seen significant population decline in recent years.
In 1970, the Gary Works employed over 30,000 but by 1990, this was just 6,000. US Steel struggled to compete with overseas competition in the steel industry and with Gary so dependent on one industry, the decline was felt throughout the city. Attempts to shore up the economy by diversifying into other industries failed.
Gary was one of the first cities in America to have an African-American mayor when Richard G. Hatcher was elected in 1967. This was a turbulent period for the civil rights movement and with a population around 50% African-American, Gary was often home to racial tension and violence. Hatcher spoke alongside Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, and other historic proponents of the civil rights movement. He was instrumental in bringing the groundbreaking National Black Political Convention to Gary in 1972.
Prior to desegregation, 97% of Gary’s African-American population lived in the Midtown section just south of Downtown. It was a largely self-contained community as blacks were largely excluded from Downtown Gary. After Richard Hatcher became mayor, he set about a programme of urban renewal for Midtown and encouraged minorities to inhabit other areas of the city.
Midtown was home to one of America’s most infamous musical families, The Jacksons. Joseph and Katherine Jackson moved from East Chicago to Midtown in 1950 and lived in a two-bedroom house at 2300 Jackson Street. The Jackson 5 were the first group to debut with four consecutive number one hits on the Billboard Hot 100. Michael Jackson would later leave the group to become one of the biggest selling musical artists of all time. Janet Jackson also became an international star, selling over 100 million records.
By the year 2000, Gary had the highest percentage of African-Americans in any city of over 100,000 residents in the USA. 84% of the population was African-American. The population has continued to declined since then and is estimated at approximately 70,000 now. Like other Rust Belt cities, Gary has issues with unemployment, crime, social problems and decaying infrastructure.
Gary has effectively become a ghost town. Schools have been closed, stores have closed and houses have become derelict. It ranks second only to Detroit in percentage of population lost in the Rust Belt since the turn of the century.