From largest Midwest Methodist church to ruins to possible public garden

A prominent Methodist church in Gary, Indiana may not look promising now – no roof for the sanctuary, graffiti – but it could have a future as a unique public space:

Mario Longoni, an urban research manager for the Field Museum, took part in a workshop March 22 coordinated by the Gary Redevelopment Commission to get public suggestions on what should become of the building, which opened Oct. 3, 1926, and at its peak in 1952 was the largest Methodist congregation in the Midwestern U.S. with 3,185 parishioners, officials said.

It closed as a church on Oct. 5, 1975, with a congregation that had shrunk to 320 people.

A 1997 fire and vandals throughout the years have left the building in ruins. Yet Longoni suggested other industrial sites around the world that have been converted into public places, including one in Berlin where he said that redevelopers set aside a wall where graffiti is encouraged…

City officials have suggested the building could become an urban ruins garden, based off of the heavy layers of ivy that cover the outer walls during the summer months…

“It went from being the largest Methodist church in the Midwest to closing its doors within two decades,” he said. “It’s tied in with deindustrialization, urban decay and white flight, it’s the story of urban America.”

There are many churches in the United States, particularly those in Mainline denominations that have lost millions of members in recent decades, that could be utilized for similar functions. If religious congregations disappear or religious groups can no longer maintain the building (such as with some Catholic churches in Chicago), what will become of these structures that were once vibrant? One option is to let them be used for private development, particularly residences. See earlier posts here and here. But, this does not work as well in poorer neighborhoods where there is little demand for property.

Using an older church for public space could fulfill two important purposes. First, it can become a place for the community to gather. Well-maintained public spaces are in short supply in many communities. Of course, this requires money and/or effort from the municipality and neighbors. But, a more vibrant street life and community is a good payoff for putting some resources into a building that already exists. Second, while the church building would become a public space, it can help acknowledge the presence of the religious group in the neighborhood. Many older churches have a particular architecture that is hard to mistake with a commercial or civic structure. The church lives on in a way if the building is repurposed and can provide less-obvious spiritual meaning for future generations. Perhaps the ongoing presence and influence of the church building can be part of the larger cultural victory of mainline Protestants (an argument made by sociologist Jay Demerath) even if the congregation is no longer there.

Chicago area homebuilders, buyers expanding into cheaper Indiana

Some homebuilders and homebuyers are seeking out locations in northwest Indiana that are still within the Chicago region but offer lower costs:

Casting aside long commutes, higher home prices and often mind-boggling property taxes, some Illinois residents are branding themselves as Hoosiers, and more Chicago-area builders are thinking of expanding into Lake County, Ind., to capture that business. Their arrival will change a housing market dominated by local companies for generations and prompt municipalities to act to make sure the growth comes on their own terms.

Three years ago, the region caught the attention of D.R. Horton, the nation’s largest homebuilder by revenue, and it began buying lots in established subdivisions and building homes. Finding success, the Fort Worth, Texas-based company this spring is seeking the zoning necessary for it to move forward with a deal to acquire about 90 acres of former farmland on the east side of Interstate 65 in Crown Point for a 200-home subdivision…

Between 2007 and 2011, a net total of more than 5,600 people relocated from Cook County to Lake County, Ind., according to census figures. More than 55,000 residents of the northwest Indiana county worked in Cook County in 2012, according to state figures obtained by Metrostudy, a housing consulting firm.

Commuting may become easier in years to come. Last week, Illinois and Indiana signed an agreement regarding the development of a 47-mile toll road, the Illiana Expressway, that would connect I-65 near Lowell, Ind., to Interstate 55 near Wilmington.

A few quick thoughts:

1. As the article notes, this might require Illinois residents to rethink their stereotypes of Hoosiers. I enjoyed living in the South Bend area during graduate school but I do remember being struck by the number of people who drove pickup trucks and smoked when I first moved there.

2. There are certain areas of the Chicago region that still have plenty of room for growth: northwest Indiana as well as south and southwest of Chicago in Illinois (roughly between Plainfield and Chicago Heights).

3. This article focuses on areas further in Indiana like Crown Point. According to Google Maps, driving from Crown Point to State and Madison in Chicago is just over 47 miles. That is quite a trip.

4. How much does the presence of Gary affect the willingness of people to move to northwest Indiana? Despite efforts to revive Gary, it still has a negative reputation. Imagine Gary and the surrounding area were nicer suburbs – how many people might want to live that close to Chicago as well as be near the shores of Lake Michigan? Instead, there is a community known for industry, depopulation, and a poor quality of life.

“The United States Redrawn as Fifty States with Equal Populations” leads to interesting names in the Chicago area

Here is a fun map/solution/art project regarding reforming the American electoral college: have all the states have equal populations.

electorally reformed US map

Here is the methodology for the map:

The map began with an algorithm that grouped counties based on proximity, urban area, and commuting patterns. The algorithm was seeded with the fifty largest cities. After that, manual changes took into account compact shapes, equal populations, metro areas divided by state lines, and drainage basins. In certain areas, divisions are based on census tract lines.

The District of Columbia is included into the state of Washington, with the Mall, major monuments and Federal buildings set off as the seat of the federal government.

The capitals of the states are existing states capitals where possible, otherwise large or central cities have been chosen. The suggested names of the new states are taken mainly from geographical features:

  • mountain ranges or peaks, or caves – Adirondack, Allegheny, Blue Ridge, Chinati, Mammoth, Mesabi, Ozark, Pocono, Rainier, Shasta, Shenandoah and Shiprock
  • rivers – Atchafalaya, Menominee, Maumee, Nodaway, Sangamon, Scioto, Susquehanna, Trinity and Willimantic
  • historical or ecological regions – Big Thicket, Firelands and Tidewater
  • bays, capes, lakes and aquifers – Casco, Tampa Bay, Canaveral, Mendocino, Ogallala, Salt Lake and Throgs Neck
  • songs – Gary, Muskogee and Temecula
  • cities – Atlanta, Chicago, Columbia, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Washington
  • plants – Tule and Yerba Buena
  • people – King and Orange

The words used for names for the name are drawn from many languages, including many American Indian languages.

Interesting naming conventions. However, I don’t understand what is going on in the Chicago area. While it makes sense to name Chicago and some of the nearby suburbs “Chicago” (though I’m guessing a number of these suburbs would not want to be lumped in with Chicago), why in the world would the new state made up of the outer regions of the current Chicago area be called Gary? I’m sure people would ask why an industrial boomtown now ghost town (it isn’t quite this bad yet this is the sort of reputation Gary has), an exemplar par excellence of the Rust Belt, would lend its name to a full state. Gary has a bad reputation (which other suburbs, particularly the wealthier ones, would not want to be associated with), it is not the largest city in the area (Milwaukee, Rockford, Joliet are larger), it is located on the eastern side of the new state so isn’t exactly central, and Joliet is the named capital.

It is also interesting to see the New York and Los Angeles metropolitan regions are also split up. However, they don’t appear to be quite split on the lines of concentric rings like the Chicago area.

Mayor Daley, U. of Chicago students “adopting” Gary

Former Chicago Mayor Daley and students from the University of Chicago have teamed up to help Gary, Indiana:

With guidance from Daley and Freeman-Wilson, University of Chicago graduate students are trying to figure out what to do with Gary’s abandoned buildings and how to promote greater use of technology to help the city accomplish more with less, among other projects.

The hope is that the students will go on to help other cities after graduation. If successful, the U. of C.-Gary partnership could be replicated in other industrial towns grappling with decline…

Last quarter’s class was divided into three project teams. One team is cataloging Gary’s abandoned buildings, which are magnets for crime and eyesores that further depress surrounding property values. Another is trying to recruit pro bono legal and consulting services for the city. And a third is trying to craft a strategy to clean up front stoops and empty lots one block at a time. This quarter’s class also is tackling untapped funding opportunities and economic development…

In Gary, Daley is applying things he learned as Chicago’s mayor. One example is helping Gary residents take advantage of the earned income tax credit, a tax benefit for the working poor that many don’t know exists. Taking the credit puts money back in people’s pockets, which prompts spending, which boosts the economy.

This sounds like a good project for graduate students who could get hands-on experience. In terms of helping the entire city of Gary, I’m more skeptical. If done well, someone like Mayor Daley and the prestigious University of Chicago can help connect Gary to people who are experts in certain areas (providing social capital) and also monetary capital. But, as the article notes, plenty of outsiders have tried to help Gary before…

Another question that comes to my mind is how Chicago and Gary are connected and whether a stronger partnership between the two cities could help. Gary is an industrial suburb that helped provide some of the materials that helped make Chicago great and also provided a port away from the city. But, such conversations would then have to include talk about things like shared infrastructure and perhaps the Gary Airport (does Chicago want this kind of competition?). Gary is part of the Chicago region and a metropolitan focus could help a lot here.

I’ve noted the work of Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson before.

Ambitious new plans for Gary, Indiana

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?