By Erick Johnson, Gary Crusader
The walls came tumbling down. In three days, what was once an eyesore to a neighborhood in Glen Park was no more.
For Gary residents, years of complaints and frustrations came to an end Friday, June 9, when a backhoe began tearing down the vacant and dilapidated East Side Fresh Meat and Produce grocery store at 901 E. 49th Avenue. For many, it was a rare experience to see a commercial building demolished in a city that has demolished hundreds of vacant homes.
Long vacant, the structure had become a safety hazard over the years as parts of the building collapsed, including the roof. Residents complained about the dilapidated building, but the city did not have the money to demolish it.
After the complaints and public outcry increased, the neighborhood’s councilwoman, LaVetta Sparks-Wade, and Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson called Lake County Commissioner Kyle Allen for help. After several approvals by the county’s redevelopment department and the county commissioners, Allen came through with all of the $23,800 that was needed to tear down the vacant store.
Allen said the county had received $10 million in local income tax money, most of which was already earmarked for infrastructure projects, but $2.5 million of that money was still available.
After securing the funds, the city’s director of demolition, Cedric Kuykendal, coordinated the store’s demolition within three weeks.
With the partially demolished building as a backdrop, Freeman-Wilson held a press conference praising the quick turnaround from Kuykendal, but many applauded Lake County for paying for the project.
“It’s really the power of collaboration,” Freeman-Wilson said. “But it came together because as city officials and county officials, we were willing to sit down, to work together to collaborate and to determine how this would work on behalf of the community. There are commercial buildings around the city and we know that the county can’t go around tearing down every one. But this motivates us to do even more.”
LaVetta Sparks-Wade said she used to shop at the store before it closed 15 to 16 years ago.
“It’s been an eyesore and it has also been an extreme hazard for children. Because of the calls from the community, I gave a call to our county councilman because the city did not have the funds to bring down the commercial site. Councilman Washington responded immediately and 45 days later, this building is coming down.”
With the help of Federal Hardship funds, Gary has torn down 352 such buildings in two years. Those funds do not cover commercial buildings, many of which dot Broadway and other business districts. Boarded up and vandalized with graffiti, they contribute to urban blight and damage residents’ home property values. In 2014, the city demolished the old Sheraton Hotel, which was torn down in 2014 after years of delays.
Residents say they had grown tired of vacant blighted storefronts. Lake County Commissioner Allen said, “It’s always good to do something for my hometown. Tearing down an eyesore such as this is positive and bodes well for the city.”