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GARY | The wreckage of 21 brick behemoths pockmark struggling Gary neighborhoods, providing sanctuary for crime and urban decay.

At one time, these former public schools were the nucleus of thriving sections of the city, nearby residents and former students recalled.

But that's a bygone era. Now, vast swaths of school property are overrun with weeds, and the shuttered buildings, some in visible decline, display the territorial tags of gang graffiti.

A Times investigation of every shuttered Gary school revealed at least two that are openly accessible to gang activity and other crime. A host of others sit moldering with broken windows, overgrown lots and in some cases crumbling exteriors.

Earlier this month, Connita L. Richardson, 17, of Chicago, was found strangled to death inside the former Emerson School at 716 E. 7th Ave.

And at least two residents living near shuttered schools told Times reporters last week they carry firearms for their own protection when walking near the buildings.

The Gary Community School Corp. still operates 16 open schools in this economically beleaguered city, and it struggles to keep up with those. The state's Distressed Unit Appeals Board is intervening, providing the names of possible financial consultants to help the school district deal with $23.7 million in debt.

Meanwhile, the 21 shuttered school buildings represent a cycle of blight that can be difficult to break, urban planning experts said.

Population loss in struggling cities like Gary leads to decay and abandoned homes, an official with Chicago's Metropolitan Planning Council said.

That loss in residents means a decline in students in those neighborhood schools, which in turn leads to closed and abandoned school buildings that further exacerbate an already bad situation.

From a development standpoint, it's a self-perpetuating roadblock to progress.

But to the residents living in the affected neighborhoods, the city's plethora of closed schools are just additional reminders of the deterioration surrounding them in their daily lives.

Urban eyesores

The shattered windows of Gary's former Emerson School for Visual and Performing Arts provide gaping entryways for the elements, both natural and criminal.

The lessons of teachers once scrawled in chalk on blackboards at this former north side high school have been replaced with gang graffiti visible from the street.

Gary's former Spaulding Elementary School shares the same block as Emerson — and a similar fate. Multiple ground-level and second-story windows are completely missing, leaving the building's interior open to bad weather or anyone who wants to enter.

About five miles west of Emerson and Spaulding schools, Melba and Enoch Johnson live across the street from Brunswick Elementary School, now a partially boarded building surrounded by knee-high grass at 5701 W. 7th Ave.

"Closed and abandoned buildings make the neighborhood not look safe," Melba Johnson said. "They just found that girl inside of Emerson.

"Look at the way they cut that grass. It's just half done. Look behind the fence. That's where the playground used to be. You don't know what's back there now."

Farther south in the city, the former Lew Wallace High School, 415 W. 45th Ave., has only been closed for a year. But weeds have already overtaken its sidewalks, some windows are broken and a brick wall on the building's west end is crumbling.

It's a far cry from the alma mater Johnathan Williams, 35, remembers. Williams graduated from Lew Wallace in 2001 and still lives in the neighborhood.

"It's the school you go to, so you love it because it's home," Williams said, acknowledging that gang and criminal activity plagued the neighborhood surrounding the school even when Lew Wallace was open.

But even with that criminal activity, Williams said, "The school was good for the neighborhood, because it kept the neighborhood in check. Because you knew at the end of the day, the school was here, so you had to keep up appearances.

"When a school shuts down, part of a community shuts down," Williams said.

Last Tuesday, Williams exercised around the rubber-coated track of Lew Wallace, still trying to make use of the former school's grounds.

He said he wishes the building could find a new purpose in the community.

Conundrum of decay

But repurposing shuttered, disintegrating school buildings can be far easier said than done, an official with the Chicago-based urban-planning think tank Metropolitan Planning Council said.

It becomes a conundrum of decay in blighted city neighborhoods that once relied on public schools as a major anchor, said Marisa Novara, the Metropolitan Planning Council's director of housing and community development.

It starts with loss of population, Novara said. And Gary is a poster child for government buildings and resources that were built up around a larger population that have declined steeply beginning in the late 1960s.

Between 2000 and 2010 alone, Gary lost the title of Northwest Indiana's most populated city. Its population fell to 80,294 in 2010 from 102,746 in 2000, U.S. Census data show.

That's a decline of 22,452 residents, or about a 22 percent decline in a decade.

That level of population loss often leads to blighted and abandoned homes in neighborhoods, Novara said. It also means schools affected by such a population shift no longer have the students to sustain all facilities.

The complexity of the problem lies in how to stop the downward spiral, Novara said.

Timothy Davis, 50, said he remembers when the population loss began. Davis said he's a lifetime resident of the neighborhood surrounding Lew Wallace. He graduated from the now-closed high school in 1984, and he still lives with his mother in the neighborhood.

"My mother called it white flight," said Davis, acknowledging the term isn't the most politically correct, anymore.

"Now look at what's left," he said, motioning to several abandoned homes near Lew Wallace.

"Look at the windows," Davis said, referring to the former school. "It's not boarded-up because the city wants to board it up. It's boarded-up because they (vandals) keep breaking in."

One resident walking near Lew Wallace Tuesday said he carries a gun in his waistband because of the criminal threat throughout the neighborhood.

The signs of decay in Gary neighborhoods containing closed schools are stark.

Nearly every home along the west side of what used to be Lew Wallace High School is abandoned. Emerson, where 17-year-old Richardson's body was discovered, and Spaulding are surrounded by abandoned homes as well.

The blight that led to school closures also makes it difficult to attract potential buyers or developers for closed school properties, Novara said.

"The very nature of what makes the schools close down to begin with, also makes it that much harder to redevelop the school properties," Novara said. "Demand is often very low for these properties.

"And in the realm of real estate, the longer properties like this sit, the harder it is to move them. It's certainly a complex cycle."

Lost memories

Beyond the impact of abandoned schools on potential development and property value is the psychological effect on the residents who remain in those neighborhoods, Gary's Dorothy Stewart said.

Stewart lives near both Horace Mann High School and Vohr Elementary School, both among the 21 closed Gary school buildings.

"I've lived in this area for more than 40 years," Stewart said. "When I first moved to Gary, it was beautiful. Look at all of the decay and ruin. It's deplorable.

"If they are going to close the building, the least they can do is keep it up."

Some residents place the blame for blighted buildings directly on school officials, but George Clark said everyone in the affected neighborhoods bears some responsibility for looking after the facilities, even if they're closed.

"People don't care about the neighborhoods. They don't teach their kid that if you're eating a candy bar and finish it, don't toss the paper out the window; put it in your pocket until you get home," said Clark, who lives near Gary's shuttered Ambridge Elementary School, 370 Rutledge St.

Though Clark and other neighbors try to clean and groom the former school grounds from time to time, it's hard to keep up with a magnet for graffiti and vandalism, he said.

"There were some kids coming down the street the other day, and they broke a bottle and were just going to leave it there ... We try to keep our property up. We don't know who did the graffiti. It had to be done either very early in the morning or late at night because we didn't see anyone. That's only in the last two or three months.

"We don't have as many little kids in the neighborhood as we used to. We raised our kids and prepared them to go other places. There's nothing here for them."

The Times reporter Carmen McCollum contributed to this article.


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Marc Chase is a veteran investigative reporter, columnist and editor of more than two decades. He currently leads The Times news staff as local news editor. He can be reached at 219-933-3327.