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Once a bustling retail mecca that’s suffered from decades of population decline and neglect, downtown Gary is filled with boarded-up storefronts, weed-ridden properties and crumbling buildings.

But a splash of color over the summer months has transformed the heart of the Steel City into a more vibrant, welcoming place.

Artist Lauren Pacheco’s #PaintGary project has brought in artists to paint massive murals on 25 unoccupied and largely uncared-for structures downtown.

Bright murals line Broadway, liven up the underpass under the Indiana Toll Road, and even loom at the top of the parking garage behind the old Gary State Bank tower.

By the end of 2019, artists from across Northwest Indiana, the greater Chicago metro area and the world will have painted 60 murals on city-owned buildings across downtown and in every neighborhood in the city.

It’s one of a number of efforts to harness the arts to revitalize a struggling old industrial city that’s been afflicted by blight and crime.

Arts groups working to this end include the Decay Devils' art park at Union Station; the Calumet Artist Residency’s Gary Poetry Project that covered abandoned buildings with spray-painted verse crafted by city residents; The Legacy Foundation’s public art projects like a mural of pioneering Mayor Richard Hatcher; a new sculpture one can sit on at the downtown bus stop; and Felix “Flex” Maldanado’s eye-catching mural of the Jackson 5 on a four-story building.

Alliance with IU Northwest

Pacheco, an arts administrator from Chicago who’s now the director of Arts Programming and Engagement at Indiana University Northwest, tapped artists she’s worked with previously to brighten Gary with color.

The muralists have included Mosher, Tanner Woodford, JC Rivera, Cody Hudson, Tom Billings and Juan Angel Chavez.

A professional photographer has recorded all their work, as the city eventually may raze at least some of the buildings that now serve as very public canvases.

“It’s local artists as well as from Chicago, out of town and out of country,” Pacheco said.

“The community has overwhelmingly been supportive. Some of the mural content, like it or hate it, has at least sparked conversations about art and artists that otherwise wouldn’t be taking place. We all have our own aesthetics and taste. People might love a piece and have an intellectual conversation. It might spark their imagination.”

Residents have stopped to thank artists, give them bottles of water, chat with them about their pieces, and snap pictures of their work. Motorists even pulled off the Toll Road to see artists paint the new piece, "Who's Lovin' You?" that is next to the towering Jackson 5 mural on Broadway.

“We want people to take to the streets, and walk and experience the art from a street level,” she said.

#PaintGary artists painted multiple murals along the train track and under the Indiana Toll Road to make the walk more inviting to pedestrians downtown and people getting off the South Shore Line station.

"We've worked hand in hand with Lauren Pacheco, and support each other," Decay Devils President Tyrell Anderson said.

"We take different approaches to eliminate blight, but the #PaintGary movement has enhanced the city. Art is subjective, and some people don't like every piece, but it brings the conversation to life of what you'd like to see in the city."

Responses yea and nay

The #PaintGary project has gotten a wide range of responses, said Sam Love, head of the Gary’s Arts and Culture Committee.

“To some, they’re an overdue and colorful change to the landscape,” he said.

“To some, they’re unrelatable and unwelcome as a portent of undesirable change. Though I would hope the latter would go stand before the 'Black Workers in Steel' mural. It’s awesome.”

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said the initiative benefited the city by giving new life vacant structures.

“I think it’s a great positive for our downtown area,” she said.

“We have abandoned buildings, and it’s good to do something with them. It speaks to our willingness to embrace art in our development and place-making. We believe we have a great venue downtown and have some great art in the city, like the new mural in the downtown library.”

The project has gained a lot of momentum on social media, racking up more than 10,000 followers on Instagram. Pacheco hopes it will draw more visitors to Gary, whether they go to see a few murals or seek out all of them.

“People think of Gary as a hyperviolent, weaponized place, in terms of black and brown,” Pacheco said.

“We want people to think of the city in terms of the massive Jackson 5 mural, the old Union Station that’s been repurposed, and the Art Deco post office.

"We want people to think of beautiful spaces and art projects instead of violence and poverty. Some people see Gary as a crumbling city of unsalvagable buildings. We need to change the perspectives of Gary; we need to change the narrative of the city.”

Pacheco hopes her two-year mural project will blossom into something longer-term and more sustainable.

“We want a conversation throughout the city of Gary about municipal ways to sustain a public art program in the city,” she said.

“We not only want to preserve this work, at least archivally and online or in print, but (also) foster more public art-making. We’ve been working and tirelessly volunteering our time to share arts programming around the city, in our churches, libraries, and community, but we need to figure out a way to sustain it for the public.”

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.