Skip to comments.Indiana City's Bad Luck Takes Another Spin
Posted on 11/30/2003 8:01:51 AM PST by sarcasm
ARY, Ind., Nov. 26 This city, with its sputtering smokestacks that line Lake Michigan and its shuttered, boarded, barred downtown, has tried everything to save itself a theme park, a beauty pageant, murals, baseball, basketball, gambling.
Then this summer, the city's most famous son came home for the first time in forever, stopping by his childhood house, which was not that much bigger than the black limousine he rode up in.
He had an idea to help his struggling hometown build a performing arts center, where actors, dancers and musicians would draw paying crowds and where students would perfect their arts a Juilliard, he told city officials, in Indiana. And when the city's lawyer asked what he had in mind, a skyscraping building or a broad, sprawling campus, he gave the best answer both.
Perhaps this, at last, could help save downtown Gary: The Michael J. Jackson Performing Arts Center.
Just five months later, though, the plans appear murky. Representatives for the city and for Mr. Jackson say they remain fully committed to the notion of a center, but people who live here say they know that Mr. Jackson may be too busy fending off criminal charges to worry about resuscitating Gary.
Truth is, even before Mr. Jackson's legal troubles, many here did not really expect that the center would ever be built. In Gary, where so many plans have come along, it is hard to stake much on another revival plan.
"Oh sure, it'd be nice," said Christine Equihua, who has spent all of her 40 years in this city and who says she loves it dearly, despite the crime and unemployment, for the reason other people adore other places it is where she is from.
"A performance center would be real nice," Ms. Equihua went on. "But not in Gary. It won't happen in Gary. Stuff like that never does."
Along Broadway, the wide, main thoroughfare through downtown, artists have painted murals on the boards that cover abandoned storefronts just one in the long list of ways Gary has tried to spruce up its sagging image. In paint, Gary can be what it wishes it were.
Across the front of a former furniture store is a scene that might have come from a gleaming showroom: a couch, a stool, a table with a chess game. The boards on an old jewelry shop show long jewel cases and a giant diamond ring. And painted on the shuttered Palace Theater is a scene from some elegant memory: a ticket seller in a bow tie and a crowd of customers, some in slinky gowns, milling in a lobby.
Across the street on a recent afternoon, Clarence Ford surveyed the place and thought back four decades, when he watched cowboy movies and cartoons at the Palace and bought ice cream from vendors who wandered the plush rows.
"People just didn't know how to live together, though," Mr. Ford said. Created as a steel mill city in 1906, Gary fell on hard times in the 1960's. Richard G. Hatcher, one of the nation's first black mayors of a major city, won election and white flight swept Gary. The mill jobs shrunk.
"To me, this isn't really a downtown anymore at all," Mr. Ford said. "For a downtown, you have to have stores."
If stores would not come, city leaders lately have tried new measures to bring Gary back: casino gambling, a Continental Basketball Association team called the Steelheads, and a minor league baseball team called the RailCats, who played last spring in a new $45 million stadium downtown, United States Steel Yard.
Though some doubters have scoffed at the price of the stadium, claiming that the cash might have been better spent on more police protection, drug abuse treatment or job-training programs, Mayor Scott L. King said the baseball team lured 140,000 people to Gary last season, and that the basketball team would likely attract 100,000 this winter.
"It's a difficult economic puzzle, but we're starting to see some positive results," Mayor King said. "It used to be that people would laugh at you or worse if you said you were going to downtown Gary on a Friday night."
The city also brought the Miss USA pageant here, for a time anyway. Though a huge banner for the 2002 pageant is still on the side of a boarded-up Sheraton Hotel, down the street from City Hall, the pageant is gone. Gary passed on being host for another year after Mayor King decided that the bill was too high.
Still, Mayor King said, the attention the city received in the two pageant years had given Gary, which has long struggled with a high homicide rate, a more positive image.
"People were hearing the name Gary without the phrase `ax murderer' behind it," he said.
Mayor King said he had been pondering the notion of a performing arts center since taking office, but the notion was jump-started by Mr. Jackson's decision to put his name, energy and fund-raising abilities behind it.
In June, Mr. Jackson returned to Gary for the first time in decades. He had lived here until he was 11. As the Jackson 5 took off, the family left the steel city.
Mr. Jackson has a complicated relationship with his hometown. He is a legend, whose image is even on the murals on the boarded-up stores downtown. But he has angered some by seeming to confirm all the cruel things outsiders say about the place. "A lot of people say he got big and turned his back on Gary," said Donte Whittington, who lives here.
All seemed forgiven, though, when he returned in June and rode to City Hall, where Mayor King presented him with a key to the city and they announced their mutual plans for downtown. Though a memorandum of understanding for the Michael J. Jackson Performing Arts Center was signed, plans were still in an early phase. There was no price tag, no opening date.
The idea, said Jewell Harris Jr., a lawyer from Gary who has represented the city in the meetings since the June announcement, was that the city would supply the land and Mr. Jackson would help raise the money, through his name and celebrity connections. It was unclear whether Mr. Jackson, whose financial situation is shaky, might also supply some money of his own.
"He was so excited about this project," said Mr. Harris, who met with Mr. Jackson four months ago in Miami as the two parties began preparing to establish a foundation to oversee the plans. "He wanted the school part of it to rival any school in the country. I knew that he was serious when he said he even would want to come teach a class from time to time."
Last week, a spokesman for Mr. Jackson said that he was now concerned with defending himself against accusations that he molested a 12-year-old boy, but that there was no reason to suspect that the Gary project would not proceed, once "other things kind of get taken care of."
"He is committed to Gary, and he is committed to the performing arts center," the spokesman, Stuart Backerman, said. "His name and his involvement would be the basis for raising the funds."
City leaders, meanwhile, said they hoped Mr. Jackson would stick with the project, but that its future did not depend on him alone. "This idea has been a vision for the city even before Michael Jackson," said LaLosa Burns, the spokeswoman for Mayor King, "and it will be something that the city will continue to pursue."
Perhaps, but not everyone believes that this grand vision will ever actually be realized.
Janine P. Bray, 51, lives in a small, neat home with an American flag out front, just across the way from the simple one-story house where Mr. Jackson once lived.
The notion of a big arts center is sweet, Ms. Bray said, but she smiles politely and laughs a bit when asked whether she believes it will happen. "No, no, he's spending too much for his legal protection to worry about us so much," she said.
Ms. Bray has seen her share of plans for Gary come and go.
In the mid-1990's, there was another mayor and another idea: a $2 billion rock 'n' roll amusement park with a Jackson family museum, a hotel, stores and Mr. Jackson's modest childhood home at the center of it all. When a new administration came into power, though, a dispute emerged over the plans, and the notion was left behind.
you "conservative bigot...", all they need is a few billion $$$ of taxpayer money;
n world class leadership in the likeness of winnie, nelson, n robert;
to bring this "white suppressed" city into the family of the world community...
you are exactly right. they just never get it.
they keep doin' the same things over n over,
n they expect a different result.
That's a pretty good description of me.