A City Built on Steel Tries to Reverse Its Decline

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Gary, Ind., was once a symbol of American innovation. The home of U.S. Steel’s largest mill, Gary churned out the product that built America’s bridges, tunnels and skyscrapers. The city reaped the rewards, with a prosperous downtown and vibrant neighborhoods.

Gary’s smokestacks are still prominent along Lake Michigan’s sandy shore, starkly juxtaposed between the eroding dunes and Chicago’s towering silhouette to the northwest. But now they represent a city looking for a fresh start.

More than 10,000 buildings sit abandoned, and the population of 180,000 in the 1960s has dropped by more than half. Poverty, crime and an ignoble moniker — “Scary Gary” — deter private investors and prospective homeowners.

As U.S. Steel stands at a crossroads — a planned acquisition would put it under foreign control — so does the city that was named for the company’s founder and helped build its empire. A new mayor and planned revitalization projects have rekindled hope that Gary can forge an economic future beyond steel, the kind of renaissance that many industrial cities in the Midwest have managed.

In theory, the potential is there. Gary sits in the country’s third-largest metropolitan area, astride major railroad crossings and next to a shipping port. A national park, Indiana Dunes, is a popular destination for park-loving tourists and curious drivers.

“We have the recipe for success,” said Eddie Melton, the newly elected mayor. “We have to change the narrative and make it clear to the world that Gary is open to business.”

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