Saturday, June 27, 2009



June 26, 2009
GARY, Ind.

With block upon block of crumbling houses, abandoned stores, and churches and theaters left to rot like ancient ruins, this old industrial city can easily seem like a ghost town of vanquished dreams.

Michael JacksonSteel City, so nicknamed in its heyday when all the smokestacks were pumping, lost its big shoulders a long time ago, replaced with a slump from the weight of rampant poverty and a forlorn economic scene.

Visions of renaissance have come and gone. But if there is anything left that brings a twinkle to this town’s eye, it is the pride its people have felt over the decades knowing that Gary produced Michael Jackson, a little boy born on the lowly west side who, at the height of his pop music career, was the brightest star in the world.

Although he might not have always known it, Mr. Jackson took Gary, a place so much in need of a spectacular fantasy ride, along on his journey. And in the years before his death Thursday at the age of 50, he had made it a point to visit the old neighborhood — perhaps not enough to satisfy everyone, but with a sincerity that many said they cherished as the highlight of their lives.

“He came my junior year and performed on the same stage where I was standing — amazing!” Belle Dean, 23, a flight attendant, reminisced Thursday night at a vigil outside the old Jackson home. “Michael Jackson to us, he gives us hope that we can be someone. Most people who look at Gary think there’s nothing good coming out of Gary. Well, there are everyday people doing amazing things. Michael was one of those people, and he’s a fine example of how an ordinary person can do something extraordinary.”

Built as a company town by U.S. Steel in 1906, Gary had a promising start as a destination on the shores of Lake Michigan in northwest Indiana, only 25 miles from downtown Chicago. The remnants of great buildings along the main boulevard, Broadway, hint at a past of some grandeur and cultural richness.

Old-timers remember theaters and clubs, and a vibrant social scene in church basements, at neighborhood socials and in high school gyms that was particularly appealing to poor black families who had migrated from the South to work in the mills in the 1940s and ’50s.

Doris Darrington, 77, can still picture the singing. “There were a lot of talented kids,” Ms. Darrington said. “All they did was sing. Everybody wanted to perform.”

It was into this world that Mr. Jackson’s father, Joseph Jackson, a steelworker, pushed his family to excel, with young Michael, born in 1958, as the lead singer of the group of five siblings known first as the Jackson Brothers, and later as the Jackson Five.

They won a talent show at the neighborhood high school, and then at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and their fame spread like wildfire. A singing and dancing sensation, they were signed by Motown Records in 1968.

But as the Jacksons’ personal fortunes took off, Gary began a rather rapid decline like so many places that fell on hard times in the 1960s. Richard G. Hatcher, one of the nation’s first black mayors of a major city, won election and white flight swept through. Given global shifts in the steel industry, jobs that the city was built to accommodate started to disappear, leaving whole communities adrift.

Time has not eased the pain. Recently, things have only gotten worse. The share of people living below the poverty line in the city, of about 97,700, grew to 33.2 percent in 2007 from 25.8 percent in 2000, according to estimates by the American Community Survey of the Census Bureau.

The current recession has done nothing to help, bringing rampant layoffs and cuts to city services. Yet there are pockets of resilience that defy expectations.

Even though her house is in the shadow of a blown-out apartment building on a street with as many vacant, overgrown lots as occupied houses, Ms. Darrington, for instance, tends an immaculate garden. Ms. Dean, the flight attendant, glows as she talks about sitting in the same classrooms where the older Jackson brothers attended school before the family moved away for a life on the road.

Tracell Britton, 17, said he decided to go to college — and received a baseball scholarship — after one of Mr. Jackson’s brothers, Tito, gave a speech at his high school about the importance of higher education.

“It meant a lot to us,” Mr. Britton said. “That they could be so successful coming from the same place we come from.”

But was there something particular about Gary that the Jacksons took with them? Something particular to the place that made them great? Thomas Neal Jr., a lifelong Gary resident, thinks so.

“Joe Jackson believed you had to go get what you want to succeed,” Mr. Neal, 41, said. “That determination, that striving, was part of the Gary work ethic. Nobody came here unless they wanted to work.”

By chance, the Jackson family lived on Jackson Street, named for President Andrew Jackson. The modest house at 2300 still stands, a small clapboard monument to big dreams.

“For a couple of years, this was the murder capital of America,” said Mr. Neal, who worked in rail car manufacturing until the local plant closed a few weeks ago. “But we could also claim to be home to the King of Pop. And that always gave us something positive to feel good about.”