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Opinion: Gary Mayor Asks Daley For Advice

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Karen Freeman-Wilson, who was elected mayor of Gary, Ind., last year, is finding the job so overwhelming she’s turning to former Mayor Richard M. Daley for help, The New York Times reports.

    In recent decades, a downtown shopping district has been largely boarded over and neighborhoods are dotted with shuttered homes. “You can come to Gary and you can see the problems, but you don’t really understand the nature of the multifaceted problems until someone really brings you in,” [Freeman-Wilson] said.

    So, months ago, Mayor Freeman-Wilson called Mr. Daley, 30 miles away along the edge of Lake Michigan. His mayor-to-mayor advice, in Ms. Freeman-Wilson’s memory: think outside the box and remember that change will not come overnight.

    Along the way, graduate students began examining Gary’s abandoned buildings, studying its budget, assessing an airport. University officials this week will announce a new fund, to be housed at the University of Chicago, to support the students’ work on Gary. Outside donors are being sought.

    “Gary has really been forgotten for 15 years,” Mr. Daley, who left office in 2011 and is now of counsel to the Chicago law firm Katten Muchin Rosenman as well as a distinguished senior fellow at the Harris School, said in an interview. “We should really not forget any part of America.”

    Here’s some advice Daley can give Freeman-Wilson: Get rid of U.S. Steel. In the early 1980s, Chicago lost three major steel mills -- Republic, Wisconsin and U.S. Steel South Works. At the time, many Chicagoans thought the city would become a Rust Belt casualty, like Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo -- or Gary.

    “Chicago’s basic problem is that it is losing industries, stores and jobs,” the Tribune wrote in a series entitled “City on the Brink.” “Because of this, it is losing tax money. Because of this, it won’t be able to support itself, to pay for the services of a going city. And because of this, it will lose more industries, stores, jobs and taxes. The cycle here been going on for 30 years. There is no reason to think it will reverse when the present recession ends. According to available evidence and many experts, there is no reason to think it will ever turn around.”    

    Chicago responded to the loss of its industrial base by becoming a global financial and cultural center. Meanwhile, Indiana kept its steel mills. They were newer than Chicago’s, and Indiana’s looser labor and environmental laws were attractive to the steel industry. Gary’s problem is, the presence of the mill makes the city unlivable. On days when the wind blows south off Lake Michigan, clouds of battle smoke sweep through downtown, carrying an odoriferous industrial stench. The mill occupies all the lakefront land. It pays good wages, but that means the people who work there can afford to live someplace more pleasant than Gary.

    If U.S. Steel disappeared, it would hurt the economy of Northwest Indiana as a whole, but it would probably help Gary. The city could build condos on the lake, and start selling itself as an inexpensive commuter suburb of Chicago, easily accessible on the South Shore Line.

    As long as Gary remains an industrial colony, it can never follow Chicago’s example.