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A museum would underscore prominence of Gary, Indiana

A toxic combination of ignorance and hatred has been at the core of criticism of and contempt for the city of Gary and its residents for far too long. Unfortunately, way too many Garyites have bought into the incessant negative rhetoric of outside critics, internal cynics and vitriolic media.

We went from being called “The City of the Century” to being assigned the dubious distinction of “Sin City” in the middle of the 1900s. The same ‘white flight’ that plagued urban communities throughout the United States hit Gary with the force of a meteor as the complexion of the political landscape changed radically.

Then came the most devastating, the collapse of steel industry jobs in Northwest Indiana. The outcome was predictable in a place called The Steel City, once the largest producer of steel in the world. The number of local mill workers fell from 32,000 to just over 7,000, a loss of 25,000 jobs.

There was the precipitous population plummet from nearly 180,000 people at the city’s economic zenith to 69,093 according to the 2020 U.S. Census. Perhaps the bane of those responsible for commerce and industry in Gary was failure to develop ample self-supporting ancillary businesses during the heyday of steel revenue.

For example, it is amazing that Gary still has 11 miles of undeveloped waterfront with beaches shoring Lake Michigan. The possibilities were endless. The failure to develop boat harbors, cruise boats, recreational and entertainment venues on the lake, waterfront restaurants, marine sales and repair, beachfront hotels, just to cite a few, were missed opportunities.

The ancient, sprawling complex of U.S. Steel Gary Works poured 331 million tons of steel by 1980, more than any Pittsburgh mill, exceeding any output in Manchester or the Ruhr, topping production in the entire country of Japan. Then U.S. Steel President William R. Roesch insisted a strong rebound for Gary mills saying:

“Gary is our biggest plant and has to weigh heavily in our future. It has to be our number one plant for flat road products. We wanted to become a quality supplier to the automotive industry.”

But those promises made during the 75th year of the industry on which the city was built were never fulfilled. The road back for Gary is difficult and complicated because there are so many invested in the demise of a majority Black city. 

Much of the antipathy and apathy regarding the fate of Gary is rooted in pervasive racism.

Apologists of every ilk anxiously direct the blame on lackluster Gary leadership and the nonchalance of citizens. Wow, there is a measure of internal responsibility to be sure, but there are far more instances of aggressive, sometimes desperate, outreach to business and industry to invest in Gary with far too few significant returns.

Some major corporate decision makers simply refuse to associate their brand with Gary. Even when investor dollars are put on the table to entice outside industry with substantial tax breaks and incentives, the response is weak; despite access to rail, waterway, interstate highway and air transportation, clearly, factors that have little to do with business factor negatively.

But if you thought this message was designed to be a litany of lamentation of what once was or even what could’ve been, you will be wrong. These reflections were merely designed to paint a picture of what Gary folks have had to overcome in order to achieve levels of greatness in virtually every field of human endeavor.

Gary residents have done far more than survived, they have thrived. Any place you go around the country or around the world, it does not take long to encounter the impact of individuals whose roots were firmly planted in Gary. Next week, I will identify a handful of them and plead the case for a Gary museum, to forever enshrine their achievements and inspire Gary youth.

Gary deserves and needs a museum, not only to celebrate accomplishments and to salute achievers, but to set the records straight in terms of our history and the impact of one of the most important cities in the USA to the nation and world. 

Just because it hasn’t been done to this point doesn’t mean that it can’t happen or isn’t necessary. Gary has to preserve its true legacy for future generations.

CIRCLE CITY CONNECTION by Vernon A. Williams is a series of essays on myriad topics that include social issues, human interest, entertainment and profiles of difference-makers who are forging change in a constantly evolving society. Williams is a 40-year veteran journalist based in Indianapolis, IN – commonly referred to as The Circle City. Send comments or questions to: [email protected].

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