By Erick Johnson, Gary Crusader
The first two tour stops were from Gary’s past. One was an opulent, neo-classical building that survived hard times. The other one was a massive art-deco style structure that has been rotting for decades.
There was also heavy interest in the smiles and afros of five famous Black brothers who are immortalized on a massive mural that towers over Broadway. Sixty years ago, no artists would have been allowed to paint the Jackson Five in downtown Gary where segregation was the law of the land and whites were the majority in the city. Fast forward to May 27th.
The city’s past collided with the present to create an enlightening, but sometimes awkward walking tour through downtown.
The tour began at the Gary State Bank before guests strolled past the Jackson Five mural on Broadway. They then ventured one block south to Gary’s old Post Office building. From there, tour participants walked across Broadway to visit the City Methodist Church Building and proceeded next door to the former Hotel Gary, which is now a senior living and retirement home.
Later, the group headed north to the Robert D. Rucker Lake County Courthouse. From there, the tourists visited the old Union Train Station before stopping at Gateway Park and the city’s oldest structure, the Gary Land Company Building. The final stop was the Gary City Hall Municipal Building.
That same day, another tour took place at 1pm. Two additional tours are scheduled for 10am and 1pm on July 15. Like Saturday, all tours are fully booked.
Saturday’s tour was the first one; it was a tour of Gary from two eras—one was white, the other Black.
The past was about Gary’s ascent as Indiana’s second largest city, while it discriminated against Blacks. Today, Gary is about poverty and a defiance to return Gary to the city it once was. The city’s beleaguered downtown was once compared to Chicago’s bustling Michigan Avenue.
With several projects in the works, city officials hope the walking tour will get more people to come downtown. Out of 40 people touring downtown on Saturday, only four were Black. Two were journalists, covering the event for the Gary Crusader and a radio station.
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson’s communication director, La-Losa Burns, was on the sidewalk near the Genesis Center greeting tour participants.
Sam Salvesen, a volunteer with AmeriCorps VISTA—a national service program designed to alleviate poverty—was one of two tour guides that morning.
The tour began at the Gary State Bank, 504 Broadway. The bank was the only financial institution in Gary that was not shut down during the Great Depression. Wilbert W. Gasser was the bank’s president. He rejected many loans, cut interest rates on savings accounts and limited the amount a client could withdraw.
The Gary State Bank’s largest client was U.S. Steel, which issued its payroll checks through the bank. During that time, it was nearly impossible for Blacks in Gary to obtain mortgages from white banks.
On the way to the old shuttered Gary Post Office, the group stopped to take pictures of the Jackson Five mural on a vacant building at 500 Broadway.
Last November, the city commissioned artist Felix “Flex” Maldonado and his assistant, Omar “OMS” Marin. to paint the mural.
While the tourists were allowed inside the Post Office building, they were kept out of the City Methodist Church for safety reasons.
Opened in 1926 at nine stories, it was considered the finest church in Gary—one that did not allow Blacks to worship alongside the city’s most influential and affluent members.
Salvesen stated that Rev. William G. Seaman wanted an integrated congregation, but the church disagreed and pushed him out three years after the church was built for $1 million.
After “white flight” in the 1970s, the congregation dwindled to 300. Salvesen said with rising maintenance costs, the church had the option of sharing the building with an African-American congregation, but the church closed in 1975. The building has been empty since. Time and neglect have taken their toll on the property. The roof has collapsed and overgrown trees and weeds are part of the interior.
“It’s a really sad history, but we’re proud to say there is a future for this building,” Salvesen said. “Recently, the department of redevelopment was [named] a Knight Foundation finalist, which means out of 4,500 applications; we’re one of the 144 chosen for the next round. They will be announcing that in June. We’re trying to turn this into a ruin’s garden.”
At the former Hotel Gary, guests marveled at the ballroom’s ornate ceiling. Now a senior living facility and headquarters of the Gary Housing Authority, the building was built in 1927 for $2.5 million. The hotel had 400 rooms. Savelsen said the hotel closed in 1975. He also noted that the hotel would have been demolished had it not been for Mayor Richard G. Hatcher, who scraped up the money to preserve the building and convert it into a senior living residence.
At the Gary Land Company building, the oldest structure in the city, four members of the Gary Historical Society and Culture were dressed in clothes dating back to 1910.
The late Black historian, Dharathula “Dolly” Millender, and her Gary Historical Society and Culture led the way in getting the building on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
“You can’t really neglect old, old buildings,” Millender said. “The Gary Land Company is like our redevelopment commission because they mapped out our whole city.”
City Hall was the last stop on the tour. Guests viewed the historic Common Council meeting room and roamed hallways of the building and viewed the gallery of photos of every Gary mayor who has held office since the city was incorporated in 1906.
“We want to invite people to come downtown, even the people who live in Gary,” Salvesen said. “We’re really trying to alter the narrative and show that Gary is a wonderful place to be.”