News & Politics » Neighborhood News

Now comes Miller's time: An island of integration and natural beauty in Gary, Indiana

These Parts--Gary, IN


1 comment

"Come look," said Jack Jaffe, a retired businessman and photography buff. Through the large windows of his lakefront home in Indiana, through the trees and past the dunes, a fiery orange sun could be seen sliding into Lake Michigan. "Do you see such things in Chicago?" he asked.

"Before dinner this evening," his wife, Bobby, said, "we drove out to the west beach and spent 45 minutes bird-watching. It's one of our other pleasures here."

"Here" is the Miller section of Gary, a community on the lake on the easternmost side of town, tucked between the USX Corporation's steel plant and the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Too often Chicagoans associate Gary with urban blight, but Miller tends to belie the stereotype. Crime and abandoned buildings exist in Miller, to be sure, but it has gained a reputation as Gary's island of integration and progressive attitudes. And it has beaches, lovely wilderness sanctuaries, and brilliant sunsets.

"It's quiet and peaceful in this part of town," says Sandra Host, president of the tenants' council at Duneland Village, a Miller public-housing project. "I try to take my kids down to the beach as much as I can, where we catch the lake breezes." Locals say those breezes normally blow at such an angle as to keep Miller relatively free of pollution.

Miller sprang up in the late 1800s as a settlement for railroad workers, many of whom were Norwegian. The community incorporated as a town in 1907, and a dozen years later it was annexed by Gary.

Miller's dunes were always an attraction. In 1896 Octave Chanute, the French engineer for whom the downstate Illinois air base is named, performed glider experiments off the dunes that helped the Wright brothers achieve the first successful powered flight seven years later. Early Chicago-based movie companies substituted the dunes for the Sahara in their epics.

Many Chicagoans built summer cottages in Miller. Wealthier residents built some landmark homes, including one designed by Prairie school disciples George Fred and William Keck, a stone structure with non-opening windows and side louvers for ventilation. In the late 50s Nelson Algren, displaced from his city apartment when the Kennedy Expressway was being built, settled into a Miller cottage for a few years. He would hike the dunes or take his rowboat out onto the lagoon in Miller's Marquette Park. He spent part of one summer there romancing French author Simone de Beauvoir, according to Algren's longtime friend Dave Peltz, a construction contractor.

But for many years Miller was not only rustic but racist. Blacks didn't live in Miller, and they couldn't use the beaches. In 1949 a small band of white and black Gary residents marched to Miller in an attempt to have the blacks among them put their toes in the water. At Marquette Park a white mob armed with clubs and pipes greeted the marchers, and only three of them sampled the lake. Unpleasant beach incidents continued for four more years.

"In the old days you couldn't come out here for any reason, except if you were doing day work," comments Lucille Washington, principal of Nobel School in Miller. In 1964 television writer Stanley Greenberg moved to the east coast and sold the first Miller house to a black family. He and his family received vicious physical threats and were ostracized by their neighbors.

Three years later Richard Hatcher ran for mayor on a pro-civil-rights and antipollution ticket--and excited the fears of whites. After he assumed office, whites drained out of Gary's neighborhoods. At first, few whites fled Miller. In part that was because the area had developed a liberal core of residents, among them the Jaffes, who had backed Hatcher early on. After he was elected, many liberal Jews moved there from Gary's west side--attracted in part by the Reform Temple Israel, whose rabbi, Carl Miller, took a positive stance on integration and exerted moral influence over his congregants.

But gradually whites of all faiths moved out. "Some people left because they were sure every trouble was going to happen," says Bobby Jaffe. "With others, one incident--a burglary, say--would be blown up out of proportion, and they would go. Some people held out on principle, but then they felt their family or their children's futures were involved, and they just didn't want to be part of an experiment."

Housing prices fell sharply. By the early 70s you could buy a prime lakefront house for no more than $40,000, says local realtor Gene Ayers. In 1974 Ron Cohen, a history professor at Indiana University Northwest, purchased a cottage off the water for $11,000. "Why, in most places you can't pick up a doghouse for that amount of money," says Cohen, laughing.

But there were anchors keeping residents in place. Political ideology played a role for many. "I have just always been committed to living in an integrated community," asserts Fred Stern, an English professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has lived in Miller since 1960. The churches stayed put, including the stalwart Temple Israel, although there was some talk of the synagogue moving after the number of members dropped by half. "Then there was the lake," says Cohen. "Some of us just weren't going to leave that lake."

In 1971 a bunch of locals formed the Miller Citizens Corporation (MCC) after a developer wanted to mine the dunes and sell the sand. Over time, the MCC has kept in the lead on environmental issues. Greg Reising, an MCC stalwart then serving in the state legislature, spearheaded a successful drive to extend the National Lakeshore into undeveloped parts of Miller. Two years ago everybody delighted in the opening of the Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education, a lakeshore outpost on Lake Street.

But the MCC also tackled social causes. In the 70s, under MCC pressure, the Gary city council enacted a ban on for-sale signs. A few years ago an MCC subcommittee on the public schools took on poor busing and the lack of textbooks. Another committee is now monitoring how the courts deal with the burglaries and car thefts that bedevil the neighborhood.

As downtown Gary died, tavern owners started to move their bars elsewhere, and go-go clubs started to pop up along U.S. Route 20 on the southern edge of Miller. The Miller burghers were horrified and soon established the Miller Liquor Coalition, which has been engaged in a long-term fight to curtail liquor licenses near U.S. 20.

All the pro-Miller activity calmed anxious residents, and the white flight stopped. Since the mid-70s Miller has remained racially stable; the 1980 census showed it to be 52 percent black and 44 percent white, though those who live there say the percentage of whites is a tad higher now. (According to the latest estimates, Gary as a whole is 68 percent black, 24 percent white, and 7 percent Hispanic.

Miller still has its social divisions, but they now reflect class more than race. For instance, when Sandra Host of the Duneland Village housing project was asked if she was well acquainted with a Miller white, she stopped to think. "Well," she finally replied, "when I go to the drugstore, the pharmacist is white. I wouldn't know about the white home owners and such."

Yet the home-owner-heavy MCC has only slightly more white than black members. "We certainly intend to represent a cross section of the population," insists Cecil Johnson, who is black and who is MCC's vice president as well as chief electrical foreman for the Gary schools. The MCC's annual Valentine Day dance is about as mixed a social event as any in the Chicago area. And if you walk the aisles of Ralph's, the Miller grocery store, you'd swear you were in Hyde Park.

However, the Miller schools still fail to evidence much integration; all have predominantly black student bodies. The best school academically is Nobel, a brick facility with two separate playgrounds nestled into the dunes in east Miller. The school runs only through the sixth grade, after which the kids move to a nearby junior high. On Indiana's standardized tests in reading and math, Nobel sixth-graders perform a year and sometimes two years ahead of national norms. Yet in spite of the obvious quality of the teaching, Nobel's student population is only 5 percent white.

Principal Lucille Washington, who taught at Nobel when it was heavily Jewish, rues the lack of white kids at her school. But she thinks the district just doesn't have many white children of school age anymore. "If those children were out there, we'd see them," she figures.

In fact, there are many whites in Miller who have simply chosen alternatives. Some of their offspring go to parochial schools or the nearby Montessori school, or the Hebrew Academy of Northwest Indiana, which is actually located over the Illinois border in Lansing. Gary runs a couple of magnet schools, which also attract these youngsters. Then there are the families who pay tuition to ship their kids to the school system in adjoining Portage. Two grandchildren of Jim Stump, an insurance man and longtime Miller leader, left Nobel this year for Portage. "There were very few whites in the classes [at Nobel], and it was a rough situation," he explains.

"White people are choosing to send their kids out, and I wish they wouldn't," remarks Maureen Swanson, a white mother who has three children at Nobel. "Too often these people don't know anything about Nobel. They've never been there--they just judge it by the number of blacks they see walking down the street. The kids at Nobel are pretty middle-class, and the teachers are good and concerned. They let you know whenever there is a problem."

The thought that white families might balk at sending their kids to Nobel because they would be a small minority disturbs Lucille Washington. "I would hate to think that in this day and age people are stuck in that 1950-ish attitude," she says. "It's just hard for me to imagine such small-mindedness."

Yet in other areas, Miller is undergoing a resurgence. There's a renewed interest in living in Miller's dunes, and home prices, stagnant for so long, have been bounding upward. Places on the water, all of which are set back on an apron of dune, now range in price from $150,000 to $275,000, according to realtor Gene Ayers. (Houses in Miller still sell for 30 percent less than those in nearby Chesterton.) The sale of a cottage near the water, in such disrepair that Ayers is not sure it's salvageable, is pending--at $89,000.

Lately Ayers's buyers have included quite a few Chicagoans, including refugees from Hyde Park and a few city dwellers who only want to summer in Miller. "You have to remember how close you are to Chicago," says Ayers enthusiastically. "Forty-five minutes down the skyway, and you're at the Fine Arts Theatre."

The seedy commercial strips are still problematic, although some predict a renaissance is at hand. A Walgreens may soon grace the foot of Lake Street, the main business drag. Farther down the thoroughfare a young couple has just converted an old bakery into an upscale cafe that serves pasta and fish.

The city of Gary plans to upgrade the Lake Street boat launch and may install a 1,200-slip marina on vacant USX property to the west. If built, the marina would be the largest such facility in the Chicago area, according to Gary planning director Taghi Arshami. Meanwhile, U.S. Representative Peter Visclosky, on the advice of environmentalists, is making noises about including more of Miller in the National Lakeshore area.

Temple Israel has even witnessed a growth spurt. Some 25 new families have joined the synagogue in the last 18 months, following the arrival of a new rabbi, Stanley Halpern. The temple's religious school--down to five students at one point--now enrolls 30 kids, two-thirds of them under eight years old. "People are surprised to hear not only that we are located in Gary," says Rabbi Halpern, "but that we're growing and flourishing." In addition, Halpern is intent on reenergizing a black-Jewish discussion group convened by the temple.

In the end, Millerites swear by their locale. "People from Chicago tend to look down on us as hicks," says Cecil Johnson, "but I wouldn't trade Miller for anything. Chicagoans have moved onto my block, and they seem to mellow after they've been here a while--they grow more neighborly. People in Chicago don't speak to each other. Out here, we have a lot more relaxed atmosphere."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.


Showing 1-1 of 1


Add a comment