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City’s history, economic vitality chart course of residents’ health

Fellowship Story Showcase

City’s history, economic vitality chart course of residents’ health

Picture of Mark Taylor
Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The health of a city’s residents is inextricably linked to its economic vitality, according to historians, and the business and political leaders of Gary.

They said the high rates of chronic disease and infant mortality plaguing Gary did not occur in a vacuum, but resulted from 40 years of urban decline, generations of poverty and high unemployment, a lack of access to health care providers, poor lifestyle choices, historic racism and an evolution in American manufacturing that collectively have decimated industrial urban America.

The city slogan once read: “Gary, City of the Century.” And for decades, that motto reflected reality. Gary, founded by U.S. Steel in 1906 and named after its attorney and founding chairman Elbert Gary, grew from a few small settlements along Lake Michigan into Indiana’s second largest city with a population of nearly 180,000.

“We were a driving, prosperous community,” said Roy Pratt, 71, a retired Gary school teacher who has served on the City Council for 28 years. “Then we went through a stretch of mistakes, some of which were out of our control.”

James Lane, professor emeritus of history and co-director of Calumet Region Archives at Indiana University Northwest, said discrimination against blacks dates to the city’s origins.

“Blacks were denied services both at Methodist and St. Mary’s Hospital (which closed in the 1990s) for decades,” Lane pointed out. He said for the first 60 years of the city’s history, blacks were also confined to living in the Midtown neighborhood, which was overcrowded and contained unsafe, dilapidated housing.

“The city’s proximity to pollution from the steel mills affected not just blacks, but other poor people forced to live near the mill and breathe in the fumes, leading to higher rates of asthma, respiratory illnesses, cancer and other diseases,” Lane said.

Gary also hosted many industries headquartered elsewhere. So when the city faced crises, there were no corporate benefactors like Coca-Cola in Atlanta to offer help, Lane said.

Gary saw major manufacturing employers the Budd Co. and American Bridge, as well as other steel producers and fabricators, shrink, close or move, losing thousands of good-paying union jobs with benefits that included family health insurance. It also lost a significant portion of its tax base as well, restricting the money available for city services, police and schools.

With a population nearly 85 percent African-American in the 2000 census, Gary has the highest percentage black population of any Indiana metropolis.

Drug trade behind many problems

Pratt said poorly conceived federal programs failed to produce additional jobs. “That’s when we saw the real exodus of capital, and the crime rate went up from that,” he said. “The drug problem started and has ruined the city of Gary. It’s the major reason we’re the murder capital of America. More than 90 percent of murders are based on the drug trade.”

Former Mayor Richard Hatcher, who now teaches at Indiana University Northwest, said multiple factors contributed to Gary’s economic and social decline. Hatcher said an Indiana law making it possible for police and fire employees to live outside of the city particularly hurt.

“That did two things to us,” he recalled. “It took our neighborhood role models out of the city. When they finished their shifts, those police and firemen commuted to their homes in suburban communities. Now more than half live outside the city. That did such great harm to the city, because additionally, we were exporting millions of dollars in salaries and payroll every two weeks outside of the city to other communities, money that would have been spent here. It was almost like participating in our own execution.”

Hatcher said federal mortgage loan financing changes also made moving and building homes in undeveloped areas easier, contributing to urban migration. “Historically, American cities have been dynamic. One ethnic group would move in, get their feet on the ground and move out and another ethnic group would move in behind them. That’s how it worked in America until African-Americans began to increase in numbers in cities. They were not allowed to move out. In the case of African-Americans, that wheel stopped turning and the government’s willingness to support those cities declined once African-American populations had grown. It produced the riots of the 1960s and left many of these communities almost devastated.”

Despite the city’s hardships, Pratt remains optimistic. He said when Gary’s airport is fully developed it will generate jobs and revenue. And if the city is able to secure a land-based casino that will not only attract visitors and revenue, but could make the city, with its undeveloped lakefront, a tourism destination.

“This city can turn around,” Pratt predicted. “I think it’s going to soar.”