Chicago recently profiled the new Harvard-graduate mayor of Gary, Indiana and her ambitious plans to turn the city around:
To improve Gary’s desperate financial situation, the mayor has put together a blockbuster plan that includes a land-based casino, improvements to the airport that could finally make it an attractive and viable field for commercial and cargo flights, a transportation and shipping facility next to the airstrip, and possibly a teaching hospital for the Gary branch of Indiana University. The price tag for all this? “It really is too early [to say],” she says, “but our current plan is that the dollars that will be leveraged from the land-based gaming will be invested in the airport and other parts of the industrial corridor.”
Her plan is hardly a slam dunk. Freeman-Wilson can’t make it happen without approval from state legislators, who in recent years have been cool to massive spending proposals for Gary—understandable given the mismanagement and corruption that have marked some previous efforts. And believe it or not, the Indiana legislature is in recess from March through mid-November in even years like this one. The soonest her bill could come up for vote, insiders say, is early 2013.
“Gary is Gary,” says Maurice Eisenstein, an outspoken professor of political and social sciences at Purdue University. “Nothing really changes.” While Eisenstein says he holds no personal animosity toward Freeman-Wilson, he sees her falling into the same trap as her predecessors—a sort of “brass ring” syndrome. “They don’t want to do the nitty-gritty, the day-to-day stuff, the difficult things. They want the brass ring: If we can just win the lottery, we’ll be back on top.”
“In the past we have gone for the home run, the economic development effort that would be the be all and end all,” Freeman-Wilson responds. “The difference about my solution is that I’m looking to build on existing assets. I don’t have to build a stadium. I don’t have to build an interstate. I don’t have to build a rail line. I don’t have to build an airport. I don’t have to build a lake or create our proximity to Chicago. These things already exist.”
The mayor is busy laying the groundwork for the vote on her bill. “She has spent a lot of time in Indianapolis, meeting with the right people,” says Ed Feigenbaum, a longtime observer of the political scene in northern Indiana and the publisher of Indiana Legislative Insight. “She’s got a lot of allies down there, people who want to see Gary succeed.”
Her admirers include not just fellow democrats but two conservative Republicans: Greg Zoeller, Indiana’s attorney general, and Luke Kenley, a state senator. “Karen is very bright, very direct, and very focused on where she thinks she’s going,” Kenley says. “She has a chance to do a lot of good for Gary.”
Freeman-Wilson isn’t focusing only on macro solutions, mind you. For example, she has issued a call for volunteerism, including an adopt-a-park program. That’s both an appeal to civic pride and a reality-check acknowledgment that while big-ticket changes are afoot, there’s little room in the budget for block-to-block cleanup. Gary’s citizens, she says, are going to have to do their part.
When I ask her about the “savior” talk, Freeman-Wilson doesn’t exactly look comfortable, but neither does she back down. “I know people are expecting a lot. I understand people need hope. But this is so not about me. I don’t have a magic bullet.” And then it appears again: the Smile. “But I do have vision,” she says.
There is some interesting stuff here about the decline of Gary and previous big plans that have failed. There are a few cities in the United States that tend to get attention for “failing.” For example, see this earlier post about shrinking cities and a list of “dying cities.” Detroit is one that has received a lot of attention in recent years. Cities like Cleveland, Flint, and Buffalo get some similar attention. Gary is another classic example: it was heavily dependent on the steel industry which tanked and the population dropped from a peak of just over 178,000 people in 1960 to just over 80,000 in 2010.
But this article suggests that Gary hasn’t failed just because of a lack of ideas. Rather, the ideas haven’t worked or the ideas weren’t any good in the first place. What would it really take to stabilize the city? Is it realistic to even think that the population might grow again? This makes me wonder if a team of urban sociologists could prove helpful here (a sociological version of a charrette?). If we put some of the best urban sociologists into a room and tell them to develop workable and sustainable ideas for the city, could they reverse the tide? Why should sociologists wait for the mayor of Gary to call – why not convene a one-day conference in Gary or Chicago and put a plan together?