IT WAS once known as “The Magic City” and home to the biggest steelworks in the world, employing thousands of workers.
Today, Gary’s population is around 69,000, almost a third of what it was at its peak in 1960, when 178,000 people lived in this city on the edge of Chicago.
At least 20 per cent of all buildings in the city are believed to be abandoned, while over a third have some degree of rot.
Across the city – which gave the world Michael Jackson – stunning buildings lie in a state of disrepair, testaments to Gary’s former glory.
The story of Gary’s decline is one that has been repeated across the so-called “Rust Belt”, a swathe of the northern and midwestern United States that once powered the world.
But in few other places has the fall in fortune been so dramatic than in the place once dubbed The City of the Century.
Like so many other US cities, Gary emerged almost overnight from the swamp in the early 20th century.
It was founded in 1906 on the southern shore of Lake Michigan 28 miles from Chicago, taking its name from Elbert Henry Gary, founding chairman of the United States Steel Corporation.
The steel works were by far the largest employer in Gary, and thousands were drawn there from across the country.
However, for many hopeful immigrants, they found that the streets of Gary weren’t paved with gold as they’d hoped.
Instead, they ended up living in cramped barracks if they were lucky, tents or shacks if they weren’t.
Pubs and bars thrived, and by the 1910s, there was a remarkable one tavern for every 88 Gary residents.
By the 1920s, some 16,000 workers were sweating away daily in the 12 hot and dirty blast furnaces at the country’s largest steel plant.
Between 1920 and 1940, Gary’s population doubled.
At first, the city was mostly made up of Eastern European immigrants, but it started to attract more black workers from the south as part of the Great Migration.
Among those was Michael Jackson’s dad Joe Jackson, who raised his nine children in a small house in Gary.
But the city’s racial tensions rose from the end of the Second World War, and in the 1960s, Gary’s population fell for the first time in its history as it experienced “White Flight”.
“When the jobs left, the whites could move, and they did. But we blacks didn’t have a choice,” 78-year-old Walter Bell told The Guardian in 2017.
This became a full-blown exodus in 1967 when one of the nation’s first African-American mayors, Richard Hatcher, was voted in.
White people fleeing for the suburbs also coincided with a decline in fortunes for the steel industry.
We used to be the murder capital of the US, but there is hardly anybody left to kill
In 1969, US steel production hit an all-time high, with 32,000 employed by the works.
But a lack of innovation, and cheaper steel-making alternatives overseas, sent the industry into a tailspin.
In 1971, the first layoffs were announced, with tens of thousands of steelworkers losing their jobs in the following decades.
“We had expected some layoffs but now it seems like this thing is going to be a lot rougher than we had expected,” local union chief Andrew White told The New York Times at the time.
By 2005, only 7,000 people were employed in the Gary works, while the city had lost almost 80,000 inhabitants in the space of 35 years.
As the jobs left, businesses closed and crime rose. In 1994, the city was dubbed “Murder Capital USA” by the Chicago Tribune.
But with so many people leaving the city, even the murder rate has now fallen.
As one Gary resident put it: “We used to be the murder capital of the US, but there is hardly anybody left to kill. We used to be the drug capital of the US, but for that you need money, and there aren’t jobs or things to steal here.”
Today, about 36 per cent of Gary’s residents live in poverty.
Among Gary’s many stunning ruined buildings is the striking City Methodist Church, an enormous limestone structure standing on the corner of Broadway and 5th Avenue.
In 2019, All That’s Interesting reported that the abandoned church was now covered in graffiti and weeds, acquiring the nickname “God’s Forsaken House”.
City leaders have tried to reverse the decline in population and find new forms of job creation to replace the steelworks.
In 2019, authorities announced they would be selling a number of houses in the city for just $1, or 83p.
Called the Dollar House Program, the scheme selected homeowners through a lottery system, although not everyone could apply.
In order to be eligible, prospective owners had to rehabilitate the home within one year, occupy it for a minimum of five years, and have a minimum annual income of around $35,000 (£28,800).
Promoting the scheme, Lakia Manley from Gary’s Community Development Division said: “This would allow the person to get a property for a dollar, put their own sweat equity into the home by doing the necessary rehab work to bring the property up to code and live in the property for five years before they can do anything as far as rent or sell the property.”
Business Insider, which named Gary “the most miserable city in the US” in 2019, reported that the scheme had received hundreds of applicants, but many didn’t realise that the $1 homes were “fixer-uppers” in need of extensive repairs.
The city also hosts an annual tribute to its most famous son Michael Jackson, while authorities have looked to tap into their urban blight as a source of income from Hollywood.
Gary has served as a filming location for a number of big-budget blockbusters, including “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” and the remake of “A Nightmare on Elm Street”.
And many believe that despite its troubled recent history, Gary will be able to turn its fortunes around.
Meg Roman, who runs Gary’s Miller Beach Arts & Creative District, told Curbed: “People have a thought about what Gary is, but they’re always pleasantly surprised.
“When you hear Gary, you think steel mills and industry. But you have to come here and open your eyes to see there are more things.”
The city also offers historical preservation tours through its ruined buildings, highlighting Gary’s once-glamorous architecture.
Gary’s Mayor Jerome Prince was elected in 2019. In his inaugural address, as quoted by ABC7 Chicago, he was realistic about the challenges facing him.
“You have to roll up your sleeves to do everything humanly possible to correct, that is what I am prepared to do, and that is what I am asking you to join me in doing,” he said.
And talking about the people of Gary, he added: “In many ways, they have been convinced that they can’t succeed, it is our responsibility to turn that narrative, and to show them that we support them and that by trying and with a little effort and commitment and dedication they too can succeed.”