By Vernon A. Williams
There is a chasm wider than the Grand Canyon dividing distorted outside perceptions of the “baby boomer” era growing up in Gary, Indiana. The endearing reality is that sweet memories sustain the test of time for those most familiar with what it was really like being raised in the place once dubbed “City of the Century.”
Long before suburban shopping malls, there were bustling downtowns. Gary sidewalks from 4th Avenue to the tracks just beyond Sears five blocks away, were packed with holiday shoppers in every direction, on both sides of the street. All ages. All races.
Families navigated pedestrian walkways toting shopping bags from Rothschilds, H. Gordon, Penneys, Sears, Comays, Goldblatts, Tom Olesker’s, Fields, Kresge’s, Hurwich and Hallers, Robert Hall, Busch Jewelers, Thom McAn, and Woolworth’s – just to name a few.
Colorful light poles were decorated from the bottom to the top with winding, colorful affectations of the season as Christmas lights were strung across the city’s main thoroughfare, pole to pole. Store Santas pricked the imagination of beaming youth and the music of the season permeated the air – inside and out, of retail establishments.
If families chose, they could drive to a variety of stores and outlets in the Village Shopping Center, Tri-City Plaza, Shopper’s World or any of the myriad stores lining Broadway and the side streets of Glen Park, Midtown, Tolleston or Miller.
The Christmas season was much more than shopping. For children it was sledding, snowball fights, snowmen and making a few extra bucks shoveling after the storms.
The highlight for many was the Holiday Tournament – originally at Memorial Auditorium – drawing eight high schools together for the most intense hoops competition this side of the Final Four. The greatest rivalry was between perennial powerhouse, the Gary Roosevelt Panthers, and the always talented Froebel Blue Devils. Last- second shot endings of some of those games became legend.
In subsequent years Gary Tolleston, Emerson, Lew Wallace and the newest school in town at the time – West Side – had their periods of dominance. As a city, Gary lived up to the reputation of Indiana being the basketball capital of the nation and Gary the hardwood mecca of Indiana.
Winter break was time to skate at Barber’s Playhouse, bowl at Ambassador Lanes, catch a show at Claymans, club on 11th Avenue from the Glass Cage to Mr. Lucky’s with the Blue Room and Zodiac in between; or venture out to Byrd’s Pub, the Park East, Roberts, the Cage, the Millionaire’s Club, Dena’s Pub, Johnston’s or others.
For those dancing to a different drummer, churches throughout the city featured pageantry and special programs for the tiniest parishioner to proclaim in song or poem recognition of the ‘reason for the season.’ And if you didn’t get to church on time Christmas day, you could forget about finding a seat in the pews.
Some Christmases found steel workers’ children filling Memorial Auditorium for an incredible free toy giveaway. And rosy-cheeked carolers in Gary donned colorful suits of 18th Century England with tails and matching top hats as they thrilled businesses, hospitals, restaurants, and schools with their perfect harmony during their rendition of classics.
It’s true that Gary was known as the hub of steel manufacturing in the United States, so even in its heyday the impression from afar may not be warm and fuzzy for those who don’t know better, those whose optics are driven by bad press and unsympathetic imagination, those who prefer the stereotype.
A greater truth is the fact that wonderful families exuded incredible spirits more characteristic of the real Gary than the image of molten steel being poured beneath the puffing smoke stacks of the mills that lined the Lake Michigan shore. Growing up in Gary left an indelible impression on the hearts of residents, past and present.
Gary citizens have always been tough but caring, savvy but sensitive, often limited in material wealth but boundless in resourcefulness, seldom properly acknowledged but unshakeable in confidence of self-worth. There is a reason that so many former Gary residents go to many places around the country and the world and do so well.
Whether a Gary resident’s “hood” was called Delaney, or Ivanhoe, or Tarrytown, or Glen Park, or Aetna, or Froebel district, or Horace Mann, or Emerson district, or Marshalltown, or Miller, or Midtown, or the East Side or West – the common denominator was that we share the common bond of forever being G.I. strong!
Somehow that spirit comes to mind more succinctly during this season. Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, and Happy Holidays G.I. – Forever Home!
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.Will- iams is a 40-year veteran journalist based in Indianapolis, IN – commonly referred to as The Circle City. Send comments or questions to: [email protected].