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Gary City Methodist Church could become country's largest ruins garden

Water and debris cover the floor in this Times file photo of the old City Methodist Church in Gary.

GARY — Three projects designed to enhance the Steel City and create more public spaces are finalists in the Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s third annual Knight Cities Challenge.

Those projects — Ballpark Plaza Idea, the Gary Ruins Garden Project and In Love in Gary, Indiana — are among 144 finalists from 26 communities nationwide vying for their share of up to $5 million. The Knight Foundation chose the Gary projects from a pool of more than 4,500 applicants. The challenge asked entrants to answer the question “What’s your best idea to make cities succeed?”

Winners of the challenge grant will be announced later this year.

“The finalists use creativity and inventiveness to tackle community challenges and realize new opportunities, proposing ideas that are unique to their city, but also hold lessons and inspiration for civic innovators across the country,” said George Abbott, Knight Foundation director for community and national initiatives.

Ballpark Plaza Idea began with the late Kenneth Parr, a longtime advocate of urban agriculture and community activism in the downtown Emerson neighborhood, said Brenda Scott-Henry, director of Gary's Department of Environmental and Green Urbanism Affairs. Parr died in December.

The vacant lot at 321 E. Fifth Ave. sits across from the U.S. Steel Yard baseball stadium. It is currently a paved surface and a brownfield site because an auto body shop once occupied the lot.

A farmers market, an urban garden, a bicycling program and a bus shelter were among the features Parr envisioned, Scott-Henry said. Although a limited space, she said, the area could become an area “where people could just gather.” Discussions continue with representatives of the ball field and the Downtown Emerson Spotlight Team about what type of programming would ultimately be at this site.

The long-abandoned and deteriorating Methodist Church at 6th Avenue and Washington Street could gradually be transformed into a public space complete with a garden and an open air place where residents and visitors can gather if the Gary Ruins Garden Project wins the grant money.

The church’s Gothic architecture hearkens back to abbeys in England where ruin gardens dot the landscape, said Jack Eskin, deputy director of redevelopment in the Gary Department of Planning, Zoning & Redevelopment.

Eskin pointed to the light that comes in through the church’s windows and open roof as ideal for a garden. However, he cautioned that no one should go into the church now.

“What we need to do is invest in an engineering study and preliminary structural integrity study,” said Eskin about how grant funds would be used. “We are reinvesting in the property.”

Submitted by Dana Crawford of SmithGroup JJR, the “In Love in Gary, Indiana” project would expand economic opportunity in Gary, and change the city’s narrative, by establishing the city as a creative and cost-effective urban wedding destination, according to a press release.

Last year, a Gary project won almost $400,000 in total, demonstrating the strength of the city’s civic pride and talents. Steel City Salvage is using the funds to establish a reuse facility that will reclaim building materials, such as lumber, from vacant homes in Gary to contribute to economic growth.

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