RICH JAMES: Merrillville wants to preserve disappearing history

2013-12-08T00:00:00Z RICH JAMES: Merrillville wants to preserve disappearing historyBy Rich James nwitimes.com
December 08, 2013 12:00 am  • 

I was there when Merrillville incorporated in 1971 and have been a casual observer since.

Veteran State Trooper Les Sheridan was the town’s first police chief and had his hands full when he took a dozen green kids by the hand and turned them into a police department.

That was 42 years ago. Never have I seen a town undergo such drastic change in such a short time.

That in part is why I had to chuckle a week ago when the Town Council announced the formation of a Historic Preservation Commission.

I wondered just what they were going to preserve.

I guess you can say Merrillville never had a heart. It is a town without an identity.

Maybe it never had a chance.

There never has been a downtown Merrillville as you will find in Schererville, Griffith, Highland, Lowell and other region towns.

Merrillville’s only identity, really, is that it is known as the town that grew up when Gary started down.

Merrillville is a cluster of subdivisions that developers threw up as whites fled from Gary. The irony is Merrillville incorporated to prevent Gary from expanding to the south. It happened anyway, a couple of times at that.

Merrillville was little more than a crossroads off two lightly traveled roads — Broadway and U.S. 30 — at the time of incorporation.

The town elected its first town council of seven members on a nonpartisan basis.

They were well-meaning folks who didn’t know much about planning, and it quickly showed. The town became a myriad of strip malls and access roads.

In the mid-1970s, Southlake Mall arose from a cornfield and gave Merrillville a new identity even though it wasn’t part of the town.

About the same time, billionaire Dean White opened the Holiday Star Theater that gave the town a bit of identity.

The subdivisions continued to mushroom as the flight from Gary heightened.

And then the unthinkable happened. Those who had become part of the town early on picked up and left again.

At the same time, the black flight from Gary became as real as was the white flight three decades before.

And all the while, Merrillville still lacked an identity. And Hobart snatched up Southlake Mall.

At the time the Historic Preservation Commission was announced, Clerk-Treasurer Eugene Guernsey said it should have been done 20 years ago. Maybe even 30 or 40 years back.

They are talking about a historic district from Mississippi Street to Van Buren along 73rd Avenue. That’s where some of the early settlers lived.

But many of the early homes are gone. The Old Mill is shuttered.

And the first school, which housed town government after incorporation, is now a museum.

I guess it all begs the question of how to preserve what’s no longer there.

Rich James has been writing about state and local government and politics for more than 30 years. Email him at rjames@219.com. The opinions are the writer’s.

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