As an amateur historian and Gary resident nearly all of my life, I have grown beyond disappointed with the seemingly deliberate attempt by the City of Gary to ignore our historic structures. Too often, we have seen vintage properties fall prey to extreme neglect, which leads to the city slating said buildings for demolition.
The dismantling of historic buildings goes back nearly half a century. No other city or town in the Region allows for such blatant neglect. While other communities might not have preserved many of their historic buildings themselves, at least some attempt at historic preservation is permitted.
These attempts have actively saved some structures for future generations, especially in their downtown districts. Cities like Crown Point and Valparaiso have, for now, found a way to keep their historic downtown districts up while including historic preservation. In addition, the blending of vintage and modern-day designs have allowed these towns to have fascinating atmospheres — which has led to economic success in most cases.
To my knowledge, I have never heard of Gary spending any significant amount of money to help directly preserve any famous historic structure anywhere in town. As a result, places such as the Palace Theater, the East 6th Avenue Post Office building, Gary City Methodist Church and others have been closed since the early 1970s.
No noted building has ever been mothballed, brought up to code, or made habitable on a fundamental level. Who knows the amount of asbestos, lead or other toxic materials that still speckle these dwellings. Instead of treating these buildings as insusceptible museum pieces, the city left them to rot in place. Unfortunately, they get seen as valuable only in how quickly the city can write contracts to destroy them.
The failure of numerous administrations to keep up these buildings is embarrassing, especially with most owned by the city. Perhaps purposeful neglect is a part of some half-baked plan to bring back downtown — a strategy whose energies need to get used elsewhere.
Gary has played a significant role in minimizing local entrepreneurial development downtown. Yet, I struggle to understand what it is they want to accomplish. The Gary Redevelopment Commission’s private real estate conglomerate, MaiaCo, is still a mysterious entity whose goals are vague.
According to the Times, MaiaCo was mentioned last in 2020 as keeping “certain Gary parcels” off the county tax sale rolls. However, the purpose or plans for these parcels, wherever they may be, have not been made public. Additionally, it is unknown what role MaiaCo has played in the absence of historic preservation efforts.
'Failure of leadership'
Gary allowing Indiana American Water to demolish our beautiful water tower at 650 Madison St. in 2020 resulted from a failure of leadership. The loss included a lack of foresight and imagination from multiple administrations that — once again — goes back decades. Ultimately the final decision landed upon the desk of our current mayoral administration, who dropped the ball.
Gary does have a historical preservation society, which according to its website, has been in operation since 1976, founded by the late Dharathula “Dolly” Millender. She was one of Gary’s most premier historians. However, according to a digital newspaper archive search, it has not been active in print since 2013. Unfortunately, it seems the society has downsized in its significance. Perhaps they are powerless against the gung-ho plans of the city.
“Too much has been lost in the city of Gary over the past few decades,” wrote Jerry Davich, author of ‘Lost Gary, Indiana,’ a book released in 2015. He says that too many buildings are “too far gone for preservation efforts” with others “on the verge of oblivion.”
The Palace Theater is one such building that’s been teetering on the edge of death. Only chance has kept the decrepit structure from falling into itself for all these years. Its remaining stance is a testament to sturdy construction techniques of the past and no thanks to conservation efforts.
I wonder if our neighborhoods can take matters into their own hands. If each community had independent historic preservation initiatives, I wonder what could get accomplished? What level of advocacy intensity could successfully bring each of these neighborhoods the resources they need to thrive right now?
The full implication of the lack of preservation is challenging to assess. At this rate, the only sure thing is the increase in demolition projects in the future, with little to nothing of significance to replace what is lost. Current downtown projects include cookie-cutter construction placements that probably reach minimal regulatory requirements.
Of course, I’m just a pleb. Every day, there are decisions made in the city government that we will never hear about or have input. So I only report what I see and experience. Mayor Jerome Prince recently wrote a column in two local newspapers. He described what we do as being akin to “Monday morning armchair quarterbacks who have all the answers after the fact and who can point out everything they would’ve done, even if they’ve never stepped onto the playing field.” A run-on sentence for the ages.
When a mayor talks to residents that way, it’s right to worry. We must hold our leaders accountable. We have to ask questions, even if the answers seem obvious.
We can’t slack up on vigilance because one claims to be doing this thing or the next. We live amongst filth, rot and decay. Those of us who care will never be satisfied with that. I can be a Monday morning armchair quarterback, for we can bring the issues down to a level where most can understand and participate.
Korry Shepard is an amateur Gary historian and runs the Gary Historical Collective group on Facebook. The opinions are the writer's.