GARY | Gary's Miller neighborhood never suffered the same degree of decline and blight as the rest of the city, quite possibly because of all that spectacular Lake Michigan beachfront.
But things looked dire just five years ago when the iconic Miller Bakery Cafe closed.
The restaurant was a regional draw, a place you dressed up for on a date night. Chicagoans even came to dine there. The fine dining restaurant, known for its steaks, seafood and cocktails, was the pride of the free-spirited beachfront neighborhood on Gary's eastern end.
Concerned residents decided something had to be done. They scoured around for ideas for urban revitalization, and found the arts worked. So they formed the Miller Beach Arts and Creative District in 2011 to lure people in with gallery exhibits, murals and a popular farmers market every Sunday between May and September.
The closing of the Miller Bakery Cafe, which has since reopened under new management, galvanized efforts in Miller to spur more economic development, which have lured in 10 new businesses and brought vitality back to the main commercial drag on Lake Street.
"It was a big hole on Lake Street," said Miller Beach Arts and Creative District President Karren Lee, who's lived in the neighborhood since 1966. "It was becoming a ghost town."
Big changes have taken place since. The Miller Beach Arts and Creative District opened the 6,000-square-foot Marshall J. Gardner Center for the Arts gallery in an old pharmacy storefront, staged regular cultural events and commissioned bright murals throughout the neighborhood. The Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority funded a $28 million preservation project at Marquette Park, where the lagoon was restored and a festival space was added. And 18th Street Brewery, which makes acclaimed craft beer that's sold as far away as Denmark, drew flocks of young people, including many from Chicago.
Momentum is ongoing. A Hyde Park restaurant has expressed interest in a location in the neighborhood, and a coffee shop may come soon, Lee said. People have started to use words like renaissance.
Hundreds of thousands of visitors are expected to visit the beachfront neighborhood this weekend, when the Gary Air Show returns after a two-year hiatus. Miller Beach Arts and Creative District Executive Director Meg Roman hopes visitors take the time to stop at restaurants and shops, check out the bright murals along Lake Street and pop in the gallery, where a new exhibit on saving the Dunes opens Friday.
"Ideally people would go to the beach during the Air Show, which is from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and stay in town and spend the evening on Lake Street," Roman said. "We hope people are going to stop and dine at all the restaurants. Miller Bakery Cafe, Miller Pizza Station, and the brewery should all do quite nicely."
Many new dining options have cropped up, including the Caribbean-themed 444 Grill, Carmella's Cafe and the Miller Vintage Kitchen. New shops include the chic boutique Indie Indie Bang Bang, Summer Colony Living and Adell's Beach Boutique. Adell's Boutique owner Mary Ann Torian, who grew up in Miller, just opened the new women's boutique at 567 S. Lake St. in May. Her store sells fashions, home decor, shoes, accessories and purses.
The Miller Beach Arts and Creative District was created to bring such stores back to the neighborhood, so residents don't have to visit neighboring towns to do all their shopping, Roman said.
Volunteers initially ran the Miller Beach Arts and Creative District until it got so big it had to hire Roman, who grew up in the neighborhood, to oversee it last year. The group drew in out-of-towners by staging pop-up galleries and a wide range of events at the Marshall J. Gardner Center for the Arts, including documentary screenings, a blues concert and Tibetan monks, who will return to create another sand mandala this year. They have First Fridays where all the galleries and stores stay open later, so there's more of a lively scene on the street. A newly formed Nelson Algren Society plans to celebrate the life and work of the National Book Award-winning author, who owned a beach cottage in the neighborhood.
"There's been a significant increase in new people coming to the community and people who moved away rediscovering Miller," Roman said.
Despite uncooperative weather, more than 1,000 people turned out to the recent Lake Effekt graffiti expo. The Jackson 5 mural artist Felix Maldonado painted next to the Miller Bakery Cafe on Lake Street during the event has since been a huge draw.
"Every day people are taking pictures of it," Roman said. "It's created quite a buzz."
Graduate students from the Art Institute of Chicago, the Illinois Institute of Technology and the University of Illinois-Chicago have all recently visited Miller to study historic restoration, urban planning and architecture. Artists from Chicago have dropped by, including to film a video.
Community leaders are optimistic momentum will continue in Miller. A $20,000 Knight Cities Challenge grant is being used to survey residents for revitalization ideas. The city of Gary hopes to redevelop the South Shore Line station in a way that would encourage more development.
More and more people are seeing that Miller is becoming a vibrant place again, Lee said.
"There's all the restaurants and the public art from the graffiti artists," she said. "They're doing fashion shoots in front of the artwork, and taking pictures of the Michael Jackson mural every day. The beach is a big draw with one of the best views of Chicago. The park has bike paths. There are plenty of physical activities and cultural things in the neighborhood. There's shopping. It's becoming well-rounded."