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Can Chicago artists salvage Gary, Indiana?

A pair of cultural development projects, driven by artists Jan Tichy and Theaster Gates, look to reactivate one of the rust belt's rustiest cities.


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With permission from the city of Gary, Chicago artist Jan Tichy rummages through an abandoned tile and carpet store. - RUTH LOPEZ
  • Ruth Lopez
  • With permission from the city of Gary, Chicago artist Jan Tichy rummages through an abandoned tile and carpet store.

A few years ago, Jan Tichy was invited by the art department at Indiana University Northwest in Gary to create a site-specific work. Tichy, an assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago known largely for his video projections that intersect with architecture, was shown several sites, including Gary's abandoned and moldering Union Station. Tichy was intrigued by the possibilities but ultimately felt that the idea didn't make sense. "The last thing this city needs," he recalls thinking, "is a projection."

Anyone passing through Gary would agree. The city's well-documented woes are no different from many other postindustrial cities: blighted infrastructure, dwindling population, an unemployment rate twice the national average. In 1906, when U.S. Steel Corporation founded Gary, the city grew rapidly, peaking in the 1960s at about 178,000 residents. The current population is a little more than 78,000.

A blue speck in a red state, Gary doesn't get a lot of love from Indiana in the way of funding. As a corporate citizen, U.S. Steel Corporation mostly keeps its distance, other than supporting the minor-league baseball team by paying for its stadium's naming rights. But there are two bright spots on the horizon: a pair of cultural development projects, driven by Chicago artists, under way in downtown Gary—the Heat Light Water Project, led by Tichy, and ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen, led by Theaster Gates. Both have goals to help activate Gary, and both have different approaches and resources.

ArtHouse, a space for culinary training, arts programs, and a cafe, will hit the ground running this fall with a $1 million grant from the Bloomberg Public Art Challenge, awarded in June, and a $650,000 donation from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. HLWP, a proposed arts center in a landmark building, has been more of a grassroots effort; Tichy and company need to raise a lot of money but have been steadily building a presence in the community, offering arts workshops and maintaining a regular presence one day a week in a Gary Park District field house.

Tichy hopes the cultural project he's leading can begin operating out of Gary's massive Heat, Light & Water Building by next spring. - RUTH LOPEZ
  • Ruth Lopez
  • Tichy hopes the cultural project he's leading can begin operating out of Gary's massive Heat, Light & Water Building by next spring.

During a tour of Gary with Tichy in August, he instructed me to turn my car down an alley where an overgrowth of brush and weeds swept against one side of the car. We came upon the back of a tile and carpet store that's missing a door along with a chunk of wall. Hundreds of boxes of ceramic tiles were strewn about the dim and damp cavernous building along with trashed shelving and displays. The city had given Tichy permission to enter, with care, and take any materials he needed. Since we didn't bring dust masks, the visit was short. Tichy was on a mission to get more of a particular shape of tile and somehow, in a massive pile of mildewy rubble, he found a sheet of what he needed and let out a joyous yelp. Tichy would use the tiles to make embossed prints as part of a fund-raiser for the HLWP. Later he would show me how the scalloped edges of the tile referenced waves—a feature present in heat, light, and water.

It wasn't until Tichy turned down the invitation to create a light projection in one of Gary's downtown ruins that he thought much about the city. He began mulling over an alternative plan that could have more potential benefit for Gary itself. "It would have been a nice piece," he says of the projection, "but it wouldn't have been a community project." Last year, Tichy started reaching out to various city departments, historic preservationists, and other Gary residents. He was struck by the fact that about a third of the town could be facing demolition. The city was then in the process of completing an 18-month property inventory with the help of the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago. Students, residents, and city officials walked or drove down each and every street, filling out a mobile app form designed to note data the city needed: the condition of the property, whether it was occupied.

"It made me think about what you actually can do with all these buildings," Tichy says. In discussions with residents, city workers, and officials, the need for permanent space for projects, artist studios, classes, and events became clear. "As artists and educators, we have ways to help," Tichy says. Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and her administration were open to Tichy's proposals for the reuse of vacant buildings; if the artist wanted to target a property, it seemed, he had the city's blessing.

Officials from the redevelopment department took Tichy on a tour through many abandoned city-owned structures, from the 1941 Indiana Bell building to the 1926 City Methodist Church that had become a destination for urban explorers. In cases where the property was privately owned, the city was poised to transfer ownership, but Tichy wasn't looking to own a building in Gary; he wanted to help create a space that the city would own and maintain. Most of the properties were in very bad shape and costly to rehabilitate. In order to make the right decision, he asked himself: "What is historically important enough so that the city will want to take the responsibility of ownership?"

When Tichy saw the Heat, Light & Water Building, a massive brick structure on Madison Street near the city center, he knew immediately he had found the spot. The building was designed in 1926 by George W. Maher & Son, the Chicago firm behind two of Gary's other architectural treasures, the Aquatorium and the Marquette Park Pavilion in the Miller Beach community. Not only did the building meet Tichy's criteria—a landmark considered by historic preservationists to be one of Gary's most endangered, and in relatively stable shape—the name was kismet. For Tichy, it captured the essence of Gary residents' need for basic services. A vast number of streetlights in the city, for example, are inoperable. The city depends on property taxes to maintain the streets and pay for policing, trash removal, and other necessities—and yet, according to a WBEZ report from 2011, Gary was able to collect taxes from only one in three property owners.

In considering how to use light to help the public in a more meaningful way than a temporary installation, Tichy invited Chicago artists David Allan Rueter and Marissa Lee Benedict to join HLWP to plan an inaugural project called Gary Streetlights. The artists will work with Gary residents, beginning in the neighborhood adjacent to Washington Park on the south side, where none of the streetlights on the perimeter of the park are functioning. The goal is to make custom streetlights that residents can control and that will provide light in public spaces where it's needed most.

Last November, HLWP kicked off its programming with a three-month radio workshop in collaboration with the Indiana University Northwest arts department and Radius, an experimental radio broadcast platform based in Chicago and led by artist Austen Brown, who teaches radio at IUN, and Alyssa Moxley, a sound artist based in Chicago. Participants built radio transmitters and created a live broadcast from inside the abandoned Indiana Bell building. This summer Brown and fellow artist Sadie Woods led another radio workshop.

Kyle Terry, a policy fellow in Gary's Department of Redevelopment, signed on with HLWP when his stint in the department ended. Terry, who received a master's degree from the urban planning program at University of Illinois at Chicago this year, feels Tichy's project is important not only because it will bring people together, but because it can inspire other business-minded people to take a chance on Gary. While art wasn't an area of study for Terry, he knew he could help with "the building side."

Tichy also teamed with curator Jeffreen Hayes, who helped refine the vision for the project and is providing administrative support through her Chicago-based organization Bridge/arts. Hayes and Tichy set out to find ways to meet as wide a range of Gary citizens as possible so that they could plan workshops that would interest residents. "We've been able to figure it out by listening, by going to Gary and talking to stakeholders as well as surveying the landscape and realizing there were infrastructure needs," Hayes says.

HLWP has applied for grants and held a modest but ultimately unsuccessful Indiegogo campaign earlier in the summer, and it's clear that raising funds will continue to be a priority, though the group has yet to determine roughly how much it will cost to get the building operational. Tichy, who is represented by Richard Gray Gallery, also contributed to the project proceeds from a video piece he created in 2011 on Cabrini Green. "People will say, believe it or not, that all the problems [in Gary] came when Cabrini-Green closed," Tichy says. He says he's heard many Gary natives express the sentiment that a wave of displaced public housing residents has significantly contributed to the city's crime and general stagnancy. While Tichy thinks that's absurd, he says he's pleased that something good is coming directly from Cabrini to Gary.

Tichy hopes HLWP can begin operating out of the Heat, Light & Water Building by next spring. Until then the project has been using the field house at Borman Park near downtown as its headquarters. Tichy met with officials in the Gary Parks Department, who told him they were in dire need of any sort of programming he could offer. They had plenty of buildings but no funds to operate them or provide classes of any kind. In addition to photography and radio workshops, HLWP held several community meetings so that residents could tell them what kinds of workshops they wanted to see offered.

One of the people who came to the meeting was Kianna Reed, a recent graduate of Merrillville High School. The Gary native expressed an interest in fashion and sewing and said she wanted to see Gary become more of a place for youth. "There is nothing to do here, honestly," Reed told me. "I would like for people to want to come to Gary because there is something there and to not be afraid." Asked what she loves most about Gary, Reed said, "Recently I have been loving the fact that I have been networking with people [through HLWP] who are interested in the same things I am . . . . As a city it is not as bad as the media makes it seem."

This past spring, Tichy began showing up every Monday at the Borman Park field house ready to offer a photography workshop. Maurice Walker, who works in the Gary Parks Department, didn't know about HLWP until he went to unlock the door to the pavilion for Tichy. The 30-year-old had been an amateur photographer for years, snapping shots of Gary's many abandoned buildings. "It was pure happenstance," says Walker, who ended up coming to the workshop and bringing a friend. Tichy was going to gear the workshop toward kids, but adults started showing up instead. "It touches me, because I live in the area, I was born in the area," Walker says of HLWP. "It is kind of crazy how you can go from a chance meeting to something where you meet highly creative people and you are just involved in something bigger than yourself. I have been doing photography for years—and always alone—and now I have met four or five photographers. It has been equal parts socially gratifying and intellectually satisfying to be a part of this group," he says. "The ideas of this project give me hope."

He lives about five minutes from the park in the same house he grew up in, and his block of mostly older folks is stable. "On my particular street there wasn't much turnover . . . the turnover is more in my generation, people going away or going to jail or unfortunately losing their jobs and homes," he says. "So my street is an outlier. In Gary, each area is its own sovereign nation—what happens in one area might not apply in others."

In early September, after a meeting with the HLWP photo club at the pavilion in Borman Park, Tichy met with the organizers of a karate school who also use the space. Because of issues related to the power grid, there were no lights in the parking lot and parents were too scared to bring their kids to evening classes. Tichy says he's collaborating with the artists behind the Gary Streetlights proposal to figure out, before the end of fall, how to illuminate the building. Or as Tichy describes it: "Working with light for public purposes."

ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen's building is adjacent to U.S. Steel Yard, home of the Gary SouthShore RailCats baseball team. - COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO ARTS + PUBLIC LIFE
  • Courtesy University of Chicago Arts + Public Life
  • ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen's building is adjacent to U.S. Steel Yard, home of the Gary SouthShore RailCats baseball team.

ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen, led by artist and urban planner Theaster Gates, who is also director of the University of Chicago's Arts + Public Life initiative, will transform an underused space in downtown Gary into a culinary training center and cafe. It's currently home to Mama Pearl's BBQ on Fifth Avenue, the primary east-west artery of the city, across from U.S. Steel Yard ballpark. The project is a welcome idea, not least because the dining options in the area are limited to a McDonald's and a takeout Chinese joint; residents will also have more chance to acquire valuable job skills.

The Harris School of Public Policy at the U. of C. has been involved in the endeavor from the beginning. Carol Brown, the director of the Richard M. Daley Fellowship program, says that the school launched a partnership with the city of Gary in the fall of 2012, when former Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley joined the university as a visiting scholar. "It was designed to give students at the Harris School firsthand experience on urban policy and to work with a mayor on real-world policy challenges," Brown says.

As part of finding solutions to revitalization challenges facing Gary, students undertook a property survey in 2013 helping the city to gather data it desperately needed—the number and condition of abandoned properties. The survey took 18 months to complete, and the idea for a culinary incubator came from work the students did in 2014. When the Harris School learned that Gates was applying to the Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge, it reached out and they decided to join forces.

Bloomberg had invited proposals for "mayors to collaborate with artists and arts organizations to develop innovative projects that engage residents and attract visitors," as the foundation's website states. Bloomberg awarded the ArtHouse project $1 million in June. Gates had received $650,000 for the project from the Knight Foundation's Cities Challenge earlier in March via his Rebuild Foundation, the organization behind the Stony Island Arts Bank that opened this month. The project will be run out of Place Lab at the U. of C., a think tank for creative redevelopment that Gates designed and that the Knight Foundation also funded with $3.5 million in May 2014. The Harris School will devise a business model that ArtHouse will use, taking into account ideas for emerging food businesses.

The choice of the building for ArtHouse, 15,000 square feet of ugly, seemed odd at first. Jack Eskin, deputy director of the Gary Redevelopment Commission, says that the city and Gates's team examined the inventory last year and considered the buildings with historic value and the cost-benefit of rehabbing them. The space they settled on, a concrete and composite stone block building from the 1990s, came with a full commercial kitchen. Gates and his team decided to focus resources on programming rather than bringing back to life something like the old Gary Post Office, a tempting but extremely dilapidated gem.

"The building challenges us designwise. It really asks us to think differently," says Isis Ferguson, program manager at Place Lab and part of the ArtHouse project leadership. "How do you make something that looks uninteresting appealing?"

A request for proposals is slated to go out this month to designers and architects as part of an open call. They will design lights, cafe furnishings, and signage for the interior and exterior of the building; there will also be a call to artists to create two public works at ArtHouse. Recently Ferguson and the team met with the current owners of the space, the proprietors of Mama Pearl's, to learn from them "what works and what doesn't work in the building," she says. For instance, if the city adds a crosswalk directly in front of the building, it will make it easier for people to head over after a ballgame.

In June, ArtHouse hosted a community dinner at the site for partners from Chicago and Gary. In a video documenting the evening, Gates and Freeman-Wilson spoke about the cooking classes and other plans for the community kitchen. The mayor said she wants to see ArtHouse become a project that celebrates art and promotes entrepreneurship. Gates encouraged the mayor to see the city's turnaround as a series of "developable moments"—beginning with Gary's abandoned Union Station, for example, by fixing the skylights in the main room. The train station would become a ruin usable as a special-events space. The mayor seemed to like the idea.

"We want to celebrate what is already here," Freeman-Wilson said. It's a refreshing attitude for Gary. The previous administration's redevelopment director had put forward a resolution to demolish the Heat, Light & Water Building, citing its repairs as "beyond the scope of the City's finances."

Eskin, the Gary Redevelopment Commission deputy director, says that the city has been working very closely with the Harris School and Gate's team to get ArtHouse going. "Place Lab are the specialists in this sort of enterprise and programming, so we are leaning on them heavily for guidance in this collaboration. To say that the market for development is not particularly active is an understatement," he says. "If both of these prove to be successful," Eskin says of ArtHouse and HLWP, "we should only be so lucky."

As a culinary incubator and cafe, ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen will provide job training and serve food in an area with limited dining options. - COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO ARTS + PUBLIC LIFE
  • Courtesy University of Chicago Arts + Public Life
  • As a culinary incubator and cafe, ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen will provide job training and serve food in an area with limited dining options.

Driving around Gary with Joseph van Dyk, the Gary director of planning and redevelopment, is to be made aware of issues on nearly every street. But Van Dyk also sees one possibility after another. He worked as an intern for the city of Gary while he was in the urban planning master's program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He received his degree in 2011, and when Freeman-Wilson took office later that year, she offered Van Dyk the full-time gig.

Along for the ride around Gary back in August was Jocelyn Hare, a graduate of the Harris School and currently a fellow in Freeman-Wilson's office, where she consults on policy. Hare came up with the idea of the property survey for Gary and did the research to find the right system—a mobile app that allowed volunteers to enter notes—consulting with Detroit urban planners who had done a similar data collection of that city's vacant properties. Hare said that during the survey she turned down streets that were covered by overgrown weeds."What is on the map [often] isn't there," Hare said.

Gary received $6.6 million from the state's Hardest Hit Fund in 2014 to clear the blight. The city started with the Sheraton Hotel downtown and has since demolished 290 buildings. But with demolitions of houses and smaller buildings costing upwards of $15,000, the city needs to think strategically about which buildings to take down. From the survey of 58,000 real estate parcels, the city found approximately 10,000 vacant buildings, of which 1,500 are considered to be in dangerous condition—meaning they could collapse—and another 1,200 from which scrappers have removed all the copper pipes, leaving them so trashed it's unlikely they can be saved. "Blight removal really makes a difference," van Dyk said, adding that it helps set a positive tone for residents who have given up.

When we drove along the railroad tracks that cross downtown Gary, van Dyk talked about the dark fiber-optic cable that runs through the city beneath the tracks that someday will support a data center. "It won't bring a ton of jobs," he said, but a building would be occupied, and that's a good thing for the downtown area. "The value in having a national tenant is that a flag goes up that this is a good place to invest." Next Gary will tackle the zoning laws that van Dyk says are too restrictive and were created "for an entirely different city than we have now."

Gary is surrounded by natural beauty, albeit much of it contaminated from recent and historic industry. We visited an abandoned baseball field where students from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University planted a tree farm as part of a soil remediation project last year. Rows and rows of saplings were visible amid tons of weeds. "We have an awesome ecosystem with unique areas of biodiversity," said Van Dyk. One of those is a 30-acre property in the city, a black oak savanna that is part of a globally rare dune and swale topography that the Shirley Heinze Land Trust cleaned up and continues to manage. Gary will need more help from conservationists, as much of the surrounding land and water is polluted.

The last stop of the tour was Miller Beach, where we drove through beautiful Marquette Park, the city's crown jewel. Even though it's only five miles from downtown Gary, the Miller Beach community feels like another world.

HLWP and ArtHouse bring a little vitality to the deserted city center, and officials believe these projects will be the beginning of a shifting tide in downtown Gary. When Freeman-Wilson took office, van Dyk said, the administration focused first on getting its house in order. Now it's in a position to take action.

"A lot of eyes are on us," van Dyk said as we drove back into downtown. "These are investments that have never been made before." He's confident they will all come to fruition. "We are going to be an example of how you can rebound and rebuild your city," he says, "and not an example how poorly things can go after deindustrialization."

Artist and photographer Michelle Litvin has been working on a series that explores "nature encroaching on the built environment" in Gary. - MICHELLE LITVIN
  • Michelle Litvin
  • Artist and photographer Michelle Litvin has been working on a series that explores "nature encroaching on the built environment" in Gary.

On a visit to Gary the following Sunday, sans van Dyk's constant, enthusiastic narration, the city's downtown feels hopeless. If I didn't know about the developing artist-led projects, or hadn't talked to so many committed public servants, the situation in Gary could seem downright bleak and intractable instead of daunting but doable.

A big reason for the inauspicious outlook: Gary has so few cultural assets. There was an attempt to turn an abandoned Frank Lloyd Wright house into an inn, but after countless financial obstacles and before it could be properly restored, it was destroyed by fire in 2006. (The Reader dismissed the effort in a 2002 article with a headline that says it all: "Wright House, Wrong Neighborhood.")

Michael Jackson's childhood home gets a steady stream of visitors despite a lack of signage from the Indiana Toll Road or on any of the streets leading to its location in midtown. An eight-foot-tall black granite monument, installed after Jackson's death in 2009, is engraved with a portrait of the singer and the website address of the memorial company in a font almost as big as the inscription "Never can say goodbye." A woman pulled up to snap a picture of the house before driving off in a car with Ohio plates.

In 2010, an art collaborative from Australia transformed an abandoned building in the central area of Gary into an edible garden and mural project in collaboration with the nonprofit Central District Organizing Project. The ReMake Estate mural on a painted abandoned house, showing Michael Jackson in a scene from The Wiz, is still there, but the garden is overgrown and unused. Sam Love, a teacher, activist, and artist who lives in Miller Beach, worked on the ReMake Estate project. At the time he was a member of the now defunct Mess Hall in Rogers Park. The artists used a grant from the Australia Council for the Arts to help pay a local artist and other residents to paint the mural and building. "Australia had money for Gary but the state of Indiana doesn't," Love says.

Love has been documenting Gary for 15 years—collecting oral histories and taking photographs. "It's an obsession for me," he says. His current project is a series of video interviews with residents who are growing their own food. He was also an intern at the Shirley Heinz Land Trust, a volunteer on Hare's parcel survey of Gary, and will be working with HLWP. He is one a number of Gary enthusiasts who make the monumental task of turning around the city seem possible.

For years Gary has attracted photographers, most of whom come to capture the ruins. Michelle Litvin, an artist and photojournalist who specializes in architectural photography, spoke of the undeniable appeal of the city’s abandoned buildings. "It's like every photographer's wet dream," says Litvin, who lives in Miller Beach. With Gary changing so dramatically with the decay giving way to impending demolitions, Litvin feels it's urgent to document the city. She started out working on a series of images that explored the edges of town, making a conscious effort to avoid, as she put it, the go-to eye candy of so-called "ruin porn." "I'm drawn to aspects of metropolitan Gary," she says. "The first is how nature is encroaching on the built environment—paradise is unpaving the parking lot."

No one who knows the challenges Gary faces—especially not enthusiasts such as Litvin and Love—claims that ArtHouse alone will be a panacea. But if it goes as planned, it can draw more development to downtown Gary, and with it more jobs and more hope. HLWP will succeed, as Tichy says, only if the residents of Gary truly want the space. It appears they do. This was demonstrated to Tichy and Hayes during their spate of community meetings. "What we learned is that there are artists in Gary," Hayes says, "but they don't feel there is a space for them to be."  v


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