GARY | Lonnie Mitchell can look out her kitchen window and see the massive, decaying building that was once Emerson High School, Gary's first school, built in 1908; she can see straight into a classroom where gang graffiti decorates the walls and blackboards.
The Gary Community School Corp. has 21 abandoned school buildings, some of them boarded up and rotting away in their neighborhoods. Residents want to see the buildings repurposed or torn down. They want to see a rebirth that will give new life to each neighborhood and attract people to Gary. And they want to be able to walk past the buildings at night and not fear for their safety or lives.
Earlier this month, Connita L. Richardson, 17, of Chicago, was found strangled to death inside Emerson.
Mitchell and other church members were stunned to learn of the dead body. However, some said vandals and gang members enter the building regularly as if they have keys. They said they sometimes see people or hear noises in the building and call the police.
"One time, there were some teenagers outside playing," she said.
"One of them had a gun. He would shoot up in the air and pretend like he was going to shoot one of them. I called the police. They asked me what the kids were wearing and if I could describe them. They never came."
When Mitchell looks around, she still can see what used to be a thriving neighborhood where children would play jump rope, ride their bicycles or play basketball. Mitchell said there used to be a laundromat and a neighborhood grocery store at 7th Avenue and Virginia Street. In fact, she said, there were three small grocers in the area where residents could walk and pick up a loaf of bread or a dozen eggs.
"My two oldest children graduated from Emerson," she said. "My daughter graduated the year it closed, and my son graduated the year before that. I used to love going to the graduations. It was such a beautiful building. It looks terrible now."
Mitchell, known as Mother Mitchell at Progressive Community Church where she has been a member for more than 40 years, said she hates to see the way the school and community look now, overrun with boarded-up and empty houses. Her church, at 656 Carolina St., is across the street from Emerson.
Neighbors said there are some blocks where only one or two houses are occupied. Mitchell said the owner of one house on the block lost it because of an inability to pay the taxes on it. "The son was still staying in the house, without power or water. He just moved out a few months ago," she said.
Big vision, small resources
Mitchell said church members, volunteers and other area churches worked together July 18 to clean up around Emerson and began mowing around the school to make it look better. She said they also cleaned up a park at 8th Avenue and Mississippi Street, as well as around the church grounds.
Curtis Whittaker, who used to live a couple doors from Mitchell, grew up attending the church and now is its pastor. Though he graduated from Horace Mann High School, he also grew up attending basketball and football games at Emerson.
"This school holds so many memories and so much history. Emerson was the first high school built in Gary in 1908," he said.
Whittaker has asked the school board if the church can buy the building, but he said the offer made about three years ago was much lower than what the school district had hoped to get for it.
Whittaker envisions a community center at the school, or perhaps having the building razed and creating an urban farm, similar to what he is doing with land south of the church. The church bought both buildings south of the church. It has had one building torn down to create the garden, and is still working on getting the money to demolish a corner building.
"Part of our mission is to revitalize the neighborhood," he said.
"I see things differently. I see things through faith. When we look out across the street, we're praying that the blight is eliminated. We're praying the weeds are removed. We're praying that the historical value of Emerson as the first high school in Gary is preserved. It may mean tearing down the structure but finding a way to preserve the history of that building."
Residents still hope, work for better neighborhoods
Emerson-area resident Janice Davis is also a member of Progressive Community Church and works with other members to clean up around the church and schools.
"There are too many abandoned houses in the neighborhood. We are terrified to walk past the school at night," she said. "There are few street lights in the area. Some of the teen girls have been staying inside since they heard about the girl found at Emerson."
Hector Mays, who lives just a couple of blocks from the shuttered Melton Elementary School, said he would love to see Melton converted into a community center, a shelter for homeless people or a nursing home.
He said he attended Melton, the former Bailey Middle School and graduated from Lew Wallace. Mays said he is working hard to hang on to his home where he lives with his brother. He said he is disabled following a shooting a few years ago where he lost his leg and now wears a prosthetic leg.
"It's a shame that so many schools have closed in Gary," he said Monday while outside picking up garbage that had blown from the garbage can.
"There used to be a walking path that you could use to get to Melton, but you can't do that now because the grass and shrubbery are so overgrown. There is a hole in the building. I bet people go inside through there," he said.
Ambridge area resident Julian Bey envisions a community center or an arboretum at the shuttered Ambridge Elementary School.
"This school used to be a magnet for this community and it was a beautiful neighborhood," he said. "We have been doing everything we can to keep the drug dealers away and out of the building.
"I've seen some of the closed schools and you can tell that there's been years of neglect. We're confident we have a mayor (Karen Freeman-Wilson) who is doing the best that she can. Some of the neighborhoods have seen better days, but there is still a lot of promise here. I am of the opinion that Gary is of good stock, and we're going to see better days again," Bey said.