GARY — The Gary Housing Authority has been tearing down 14 largely vacant buildings in downtown Gary in a demolition spree that's clearing away the crumbling remnants of the city's glory days.
The agency is razing many structures between the 500 and 700 blocks of Broadway downtown, where people once flocked to grand department stores that have largely faded into memory.
Many of the buildings targeted for demolition along the three-block stretch in Gary's once-thriving commercial heart were deemed beyond repair with collapsed roofs, rotting interiors and smashed windows. Some were boarded up, covered in graffiti and falling apart.
The hope is that clearing away the blight will help spark a renaissance.
"It opens up a wealth of opportunities for the city of Gary," Gary Chamber of Commerce President Chuck Hughes said. "There is an enthusiasm about the future of Gary."
Construction workers have been tearing down empty storefronts from across the street from the Genesis Towers just north of Sixth Avenue to the hollowed-out husk of the three-story Minas Furniture Store just north of the Loft Adiq Ultra Lounge and south of Seventh Avenue.
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Buildings coming down include the former Golden Chop Suey restaurant, the Sox building, the Cormorant building, the Jackson's building, the landmark four-story Jackson 5 mural by artists Felix "Flex" Maldonado and the building at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Broadway with the colorful "Gary loves the arts" and "Do You Believe in the Magic City?" murals. A mural of the trailblazing Mayor Richard Hatcher commissioned by the Legacy Foundation was removed before the demolition began.
Julian Marsh, executive director of the Gary Housing Authority, said the sweeping demolition project had been in the works for years after his agency swapped the property with the city for the former Ivanhoe Gardens public housing site. The Gary Housing Authority will put out a call for developers nationally in a few weeks in the hopes of doing one or more mixed-used redevelopment projects like the Broadway Lofts now under construction that would combine market-rate housing with ground-floor retail.
"We're hoping to redevelop something new on Broadway," he said. "There's so much retail that's missing downtown, like restaurants, drug stores, dry cleaners, those types of businesses."
State of disrepair
People long flocked to shop in downtown Gary, especially at stores like Goldblatt’s, S.S. Kresge and Sears. But the commercial district has been in decline since the late 1960s as the result of deindustrialization, depopulation and the arrival of Southlake Mall in Hobart and other suburban shopping sites.
Many of the buildings slated to be torn down were in such a state of disrepair new businesses could not move in, with the steep cost of demolition serving as a deterrence to new investment. But the Gary Housing Authority razing the long-empty structures opens up more land for redevelopment.
"We's discovered while taking the buildings down that many were really in poor condition," Marsh said. "We want to clean up those sites and get them shovel-ready for developers."
The Gary Housing Authority plans to collaborate with the city and developers to bring in something new to that stretch of Broadway, ideally one large project that would bring more residents, service and amenities downtown in one fell swoop. Marsh said developers already have expressed some potential interest.
"Downtown and its proximity to transportation has people from Illinois salivating over the prospect of living, working and owning a business in a business-friendly state with the obvious tax advantages for starters," Hughes said. "Let’s not forget that downtown Gary is a straight shot and minutes away from our beautiful beach. When potential investors see space and not blight, their interest intensifies."
The $936,000 Broadway Corridor Demolition project is resulting in the most sweeping and dramatic changes to the physical landscape of Gary's long-underutilized and sometimes desolate downtown since a major fire in 1997. That blaze ravaged many long-standing structures like the Goldblatt's Department Store and the Gary Memorial Auditorium, the last remnants of which came down earlier this year to make room for the 38-unit Broadway Lofts mixed-use housing complex that's now under construction.
"The lack of preservation and financial support for years has created an environment where many buildings on Broadway are beyond repair," said Tyrell Anderson, president of the Decay Devils preservationist and urban explorer group that's working to preserve Union Station. "Although many people want to see them renovated, the harsh reality is that we aren't attracting anyone with funding to do so. We have to accept the current changes and make positive strides to preserve the buildings that remain."
Public art projects
Long unused for any commercial purpose, the Broadway storefronts in recent years had become canvasses for public art projects like Maldonado's celebrated portrait of Gary's own musical royalty — pop superstar Michael Jackson and the Jackson family — that he had first painted on a much smaller scale on a fence in Miller Beach. The Gary Poetry Project had covered many of the buildings now being reduced to piles of brick and rubble with verse penned by local residents at workshops held across the Steel City.
"The final purpose of these buildings was as a publishing format for local poetry," organizer Sam Love said. "I hope whatever eventually replaces them can be so multifaceted, or is at least more useful than another truck parking lot."
As the excavators move in, the Broadway Avenue demolitions will remove four murals commissioned by the Paint Gary initiative to brighten the city with public art. A piece by the street artist Clamo and a hand-painted mural by Heart & Bone Signs collective next to iconic Jackson 5 portrait already have been removed from public view.
Two additional murals — by Mexican artist Blasto and illustrator Danielle O’Malley — also will be removed as the work progresses.
But the artwork — done with the city's permission on long-vacant buildings downtown — always was meant to be fleeting, said Lauren Pacheco, artist, curator and founder of the Paint Gary initiative.
”I anticipated and was told by the city of Gary that some of these buildings were scheduled to come down," she said. "Artists were aware that some of their murals would be ephemeral and temporary. Paint Gary has two programming components: to create murals with a longer impact and permanence and taking blighted properties and beautify them in the interim.”
She hoped that over the past few years the public art got people to appreciate the city's historic architecture and storied past.
”It's always sad to see buildings come down, but from what I understand, the demolitions are part of a new renaissance. It is a tragedy that Gary has lost so many buildings and structures. Since the launch of Paint Gary in 2018, the Gary Public Schools Memorial Auditorium erected in 1927 and the 110-year-old Water Tower are no longer standing," she said.
"What I've tried to focus attention on are areas to be saved or highlighted. For example, two Paint Gary bookend murals by artists Nicolas Escalada and Erik Burke shine a light on the Edison houses, which are threatened by a similar future. These structures represent great historical and architectural significance.”
As the wrecking ball makes way for the promise of progress and a fresh start, Pacheco hopes there's still space for public art in the city.
”Through the generous goodwill and creative contributions Paint Gary has generated a lot of attention for the city of Gary," she said. "It is my opinion that our city should welcome and embrace the diversity of aesthetics and artists wanting to be helpful in taking part in this urban renaissance or city renewal. I’m incredibly thankful to each artist for their creative contribution and support of the Paint Gary project since its launch in 2018.”
Workers will need weeks to finish the demolition along Broadway and to clean up all the debris. The empty lots will be planted with grass until they are sold.
"Broadway will look a lot different when you drive by," Marsh said. "We're hoping this will have significant impact. We're removing the blight to keep the community clean and open it up for development. We're ready to start working to create something new there."
Gary Then and Now
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