GARY, Ind. ― Ida Sain had no idea what was making all the noise. Her neighborhood was usually quiet. Over the years, more than half of the people on her block had moved or passed away, leaving vacant homes and unkempt lots in their wake. But on a mid-September morning, the low rumble of a diesel engine and staccato notes of snapping wood broke the calm.
Sain, 75, went to the backyard of her squat yellow house to investigate. Contractors were using a giant excavator to tear down 11 empty homes one street over.
“They just showed up,” the longtime homeowner said. “I didn’t like it. They could have let us know.”
It’s not that Sain was against demolishing the eyesores. But realizing you’re an afterthought in the city where you’ve spent your entire life is a grim lesson.
Sain’s neighborhood is symptomatic of the decadeslong death spiral that’s swallowed large swaths of Gary, Indiana, a city anchored by a major steel mill whose workforce has been slashed over the past 40 years, from more than 20,000 to roughly 3,800. As residents have fled to the suburbs or other areas with more opportunity, the city has been left with too much land and not enough jobs.
A community with unoccupied homes isn’t unusual ― indeed, having some vacancies is considered healthy ― but in Gary, perched on the shores of Lake Michigan around 25 miles from Chicago, abandoned houses define the landscape. As many as 1 in 4 existing housing units is vacant, and many more have been bulldozed.
Sain and her remaining neighbors ― many of them elderly African-Americans like her ― have watched Gary’s “hyper-vacancy” problem spread like a cancer across their once-booming town, consuming entire neighborhoods. Gary’s population has plummeted nearly 60 percent since its peak a half-century ago. Today an estimated 76,000 residents are spread across an area the size of San Francisco.
Property values have plunged so precipitously in some areas that homeowners have simply walked away, leaving the city tangled in a web of unknown property ownership and unpaid debts that now hinders redevelopment.
It’s not just property prices that are being undermined. Gary’s vacant homes, which emanate outward from the city’s core, poke thousands of small holes in the community’s social fabric. Front porches have disappeared behind walls of overgrown trees and weeds, unkempt lawns choke off sidewalks, and piles of illegally dumped garbage sprout overnight. Vacant houses can also be havens for crime: A serial killer arrested in 2014 left at least six women’s bodies in empty homes.
The situation has become so desperate that the Indiana National Guard was called in over the past two summers to help demolish homes. Local authorities are trying to turn things around, but decades of such efforts have been unable to keep up with the rate of population loss. The lack of progress has left residents wondering how much longer they can cope.
In the Marshalltown Terrace neighborhood, sisters Elaine Motley and Sarah Taylor maintain eight properties. The pair, wearing matching red shirts emblazoned with their neighborhood’s name one recent afternoon, said they still spend seven or eight hours each day clearing weeds, mowing lawns and picking up trash.
“It’s getting a little hard,” admitted Taylor, 74, adding that she’s had triple-bypass surgery. “We just need help.”
The families of many of Gary’s current residents, including Sain, came north during the Great Migration of the last century, when millions of African-Americans left the rural regions of the South. Her parents moved to the city from Mississippi around 1940. As factories nationwide revved up for the war effort, her father quickly found a job at U.S. Steel’s sprawling Gary Works plant. Within a few years, he bought a house in the Midtown neighborhood. At the time, discriminatory measures prevented black people from living anywhere else in the city.
Today, more than 80 percent of Gary’s residents are African-American ― a stark racial makeover since the time of Sain’s childhood, when white people made up more than 60 percent of the population in Gary and still more in the suburbs.
“When I was a kid, they didn’t even want to serve you in restaurants out there [in surrounding towns],” Sain said. “Blacks just really never went out there.”
Gary itself was hardly a portrait of racial harmony, yet Sain’s family enjoyed a comfortable life. Back then, the bustling downtown would even attract shoppers from Chicago. “We had everything you wanted,” she said. “It was here.”
Following in her father’s footsteps, Sain landed a job driving trucks at the mill before eventually settling into office work. As a single mother in 1972, she bought her three-bedroom home in the mostly white Glen Park area, where she still lives today. It was an ideal neighborhood to raise her daughter, Marviyann Brown, but the signs of economic collapse had already begun.
It started as a trickle of upper- and middle-class whites leaving. They took advantage of federally backed home mortgages to buy newer, larger houses in the suburbs connected to downtown by a burgeoning highway system. Many black families were denied such federal aid and were explicitly not welcomed in the suburbs by real estate firms and community groups. After Gary came under black political leadership in the late 1960s, this out-migration exploded into full-on white flight, with major stores and businesses also moving outside city limits.
To Brown, it was clear that certain kids in the neighborhood were moving away while others weren’t ― or, to be more precise, couldn’t. Brown’s family stayed while her best friend, Julie, a white girl who lived nearby, left with her family. “I always wondered what happened to her,” Brown said.
Thousands of similar stories played out as U.S. Steel modernized its factory and shed jobs. The company is still the city’s largest taxpayer and a crucial source of employment for locals, but much of its workforce lives outside Gary. Expensive one-off development projects ― a convention center, casinos, a baseball stadium ― have failed to make up for the loss of steady high-wage jobs.
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, who’s been in office since 2012, described the current mess as “disorderly departure.” She said her administration didn’t realize its true scale until it saw how often homeowners cited for code violations turned out to be dead or otherwise departed, with no one taking care of their properties.
The long exodus led property values to plummet. While the median home value nationwide has almost quadrupled in inflation-adjusted dollars since 1960, it has fallen nearly 60 percent in Gary over the same period.
A city parcel survey in 2014 finally tabulated the fallout: 25,000 empty lots and 6,500 vacant buildings, the vast majority of both in residential areas. Taken together, they accounted for about 55 percent of all properties citywide.
The hard truth is that Gary is just too broke to stabilize all the needy areas, leaving people like Sain ― those who don’t want to relocate or don’t have the money to move ― largely on their own. When Sain’s garage caught on fire about seven years ago (she suspected arson), her car burned to a crisp before the fire department arrived. Her complaints about trash dumped in surrounding lots have taken months for the city to resolve. And the streetlight in front of her house, which fell over three years ago, has yet to be replaced.
“They don’t give us nothing in the neighborhoods,” Sain said.
As diminished tax revenue and fiscal mismanagement have pushed Gary deeper into financial crisis, local officials grapple with which areas to target their meager public resources and which to just let fade away through homeowners’ deaths and departures. City officials euphemistically describe the latter process as “attrition” or “right-sizing.”
This strategy can be a touchy subject. “It makes sense until it’s your house,” said Freeman-Wilson. “Our play is clearing as much property as we can and showing people a blank canvas,” the mayor added.
Razing structures in Gary falls largely to Cedric Kuykendall, the city’s longtime demolitions coordinator. Weaving through mostly empty streets recently in a city-owned SUV, Kuykendall pointed out homes based on what they might cost to tear down and clean up: as little as $5,000 for wooden houses built on concrete slabs and as much as $25,000 for multi-story brick structures.
By Kuykendall’s count, there are about 1,200 buildings in the city so dilapidated that they qualify for emergency demolition, meaning he wouldn’t have to notify their owners before starting work. But resource constraints, even with the millions in federal funding that Gary has received in recent years, limit his department to demolishing anywhere between 70 and 300 structures a year.
Those left standing, he said, can become targets for arson.
“A lot of people think that if they set this house on fire, it’ll come down quicker,” he said. “It doesn’t work that way. I already got 1,200 in front of you... There’s a new burnout almost every day that you just don’t hear about.”
With the cleared land, Freeman-Wilson hopes to attract newcomers from Chicago looking for a cheaper place to live. Gary’s proximity to a global economic center gives it an advantage over many former manufacturing towns. But the great irony amid all the vacancy is that there are not enough modern housing options to attract outsiders.
Freeman-Wilson’s administration has unveiled a plan to acquire thousands of properties from current and former residents in the hope of bundling them together for new developers. There hasn’t been much progress yet. Speculative real estate investors have added another hurdle by purchasing hundreds of foreclosed properties or more at biannual tax auctions, then sometimes refusing to pay their own share of taxes while arguing for zoning changes or reduced property assessments.
In Ohio and Michigan, some local governments responding to similar problems have taken steps to limit foreclosures and started land banks that strategically acquire properties in the hope of packaging them for new projects. Other cities, like Baltimore, have tried to rehabilitate vacant houses before they drag down the surrounding neighborhood. Gary even launched a program letting residents purchase a house for one dollar under certain conditions, although its scope has been limited so far.
The vacancy problem is playing out across the Rust Belt, where a half-century of manufacturing decline in cities like Detroit, Cleveland and Youngstown, Ohio, has left huge numbers of empty homes. The growth in vacancy rates has been particularly staggering in places with fewer than 200,000 people, according to a May report by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.
Alan Mallach, author of the study, said that some communities have had marked success in fighting blight by converting depopulated areas into green space. But, he said, true redevelopment tends to be concentrated in small pockets, if it happens at all.
“If you have a neighborhood that’s hyper-vacant, none of these things are really likely to change its trajectory,” Mallach said. “But what is important is that they improve quality of life for the people living there.”
Churches and community groups in Gary have turned some of the empty lots into urban gardens and green space. On a recent Friday morning, dozens of senior citizens lined up to purchase watermelons, okra and other produce grown by the Progressive Community Church in the Emerson neighborhood. They paid little notice to the abandoned high school towering two stories over them across the street.
City agencies and nonprofits, meanwhile, focus redevelopment grants and planning know-how at areas with the best chance to increase population density, like the Miller neighborhood on the city’s north side, which has a small stretch of shops and restaurants in addition to sandy beaches within eyeshot of the Chicago skyline. Toward the south end of town, the campus of Indiana University Northwest draws thousands of students and workers each day.
For many other areas, it’s unclear whether attempts to improve residents’ quality of life are having an impact. Gary’s overstretched cleanup crews have only been able to close about a third of all formal complaints of blight, potholes, illegal dumping and downed trees that were filed this year, according to data shared with HuffPost. Most day-to-day upkeep falls to homeowners, who often organize into informal groups known as block clubs.
As for Sain, her front door looks out at several more vacant houses across the street that the city plans to eventually tear down as well. Should she ever want to move, she doesn’t know whether her home would sell for enough to make it worth her while.
“It’s not a beautiful neighborhood anymore,” she said.
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