$5M Knight Cities Challenge winners to be announced

Three Gary finalists watch with anticipation, and hope

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City Methodist Church

By Erick Johnson, Gary Crusader

The wait is almost over. Three talented Gary natives are on edge. They are among 4,500 individuals who on Tuesday, June 12 will learn if they are the newest recipients of the $5 million “Knights Cities Challenge,” an annual contest where applicants submit ideas to help turn around their cities.

In Gary, the anticipation is building as the three count down the days after submitting ambitious proposals that aim to give their city an economic boost.

Prospective winners are Gary Redevelopment Deputy Director Jack Eskin, Brenda Scott-Henry, director of Gary’s Department of Environmental and Green Urbanism Affairs and Dana Crawford of SmithGroup JJR (Scott-Henry submitted on behalf of Kenneth A. Pharr, who died last December).

Eskin submitted the proposal that would give the City Methodist Church a new life.

Called the “Gary Ruins Garden,” the Eskin proposal would turn the crumbling church relic into an open air space for weddings and a reception site. Built in 1929, City Methodist was once the gracious site of Gary’s well heeled before it was abandoned during the era of white flight. It closed in 1975 after the congregation refused to integrate with Blacks from another church. Today, the 93-year-old landmark is a symbol of neglect and sits abandoned on Sixth Street.

Another proposal, presented by Scott Henry, is called “Ballpark Plaza.” The idea is to turn a vacant lot across the street from the U.S. Steel Yard on 5th Avenue east of Broadway into an outdoor entertainment center and farmer’s market.

The third proposal, “In Love with Gary, Indiana,” would establish the city as a unique and inexpensive urban wedding destination. Submitted by Dana Crawford of SmithGroup JJR, the project aims to boost economic opportunities in Gary and change the city’s narrative.

For the second consecutive year, Detroit and Philadelphia top the list of finalists in the Knights Cities Challenge, with 21 and 20 proposals respectively. San Jose, California, represented with eight projects. Applicants from Charlotte, North Carolina produced 12 finalists, according to the foundation’s website. It’s unclear whether this is the first year that Gary has had a finalist or if this was the most the city has had in the competition’s three-year history.

Competition in the challenge is so intense that just being named a finalist is an honor in itself. The foundation received 4,500 applicants for 2017, surpassing the amount received in 2015, the competition’s inaugural year.

The history and mystique of City Methodist Church may just put Eskin’s “Gary Ruins Garden” proposal over the top. Renowned photographers and filmmakers are attracted to the grandiose and urban scenery. Built in 1925 when Gary was a bustling steel town, City Methodist Church’s congregation was comprised of the city’s predominately white, elite movers and shakers. Located just off Broadway at 577 Washington St., the traditional English Gothic, nine-story church was built by Rev. William G. Seaman, who said the structure would last forever. The building cost $1 million to build, nearly $14 million in today’s costs.

With an auditorium, basketball gym, offices, majestic fireplaces, ornate windows and fine masonry, City Methodist Church at the time was considered Gary’s finest place of worship. Because of segregation and Jim Crow laws, Blacks did not worship at City Methodist Church.

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