It’s probably a good thing I didn’t Google “is Gary, Indiana safe?” before I paid a visit. I knew that the city had fallen on hard times, but I didn’t know all of the details of its dangerous reputation. And because I didn’t know, I drove down from Chicago to take a look around. I explored some neighborhoods and even got out of my car and walked around for a while. I survived without any problems, but I can’t guarantee that you will have the same experience.
Gary, Indiana is just a 30-mile drive from Chicago. From the Windy City, take Interstate 90 (the Chicago Skyway) east (which is really south at this point). Interstate 94 is another option. Gary is sandwiched in between I-90 and I-94 on the north and south, and Interstate 65 also cuts through the city as it heads south to Indianapolis.
If you’re looking for Michael Jackson’s boyhood home, take Broadway south through downtown, then turn right (west) on 23rd Avenue. The Jacksons’ family home is on the corner of 23rd and Jackson Street.
Let’s start with the most compelling reason to venture off the interstates into Gary: to see the boyhood home of the King of Pop, Michael Jackson.
It’s a small home with a small yard, noticeably in better shape than everything else around it. Despite being (arguably) Gary’s biggest claim to fame, it’s not exactly an overwhelming sight. But it is interesting to think of all those Jackson kids living inside this tiny home, as one of the greatest pop-music families in history took shape.
Since the Michael Jackson boyhood home is on the corner of a narrow block, you can drive around and see it from three sides. The windows seem to be permanently shuttered, and a fence protects it from trouble.
I didn’t get out of my car here, because there were other people around, and the neighborhood felt pretty sketchy. But it didn’t matter, there isn’t anything to see here that you can’t see from your car. It’s a tiny house surrounded by a fence. And that’s about it.
Exploring Gary, Indiana
With the Michael Jackson boyhood home off my list, I decided to wander around the rest of Gary and see if I could find anything of interest. As a photographer, I’m always drawn to abandoned places and untouched relics from the past. Gary appeared to be full of them. But this wasn’t a ghost town. And it probably wasn’t a great idea to get out of the car with an expensive camera and wander around for a while. But, I did it anyway.
Gary’s downtown is a mess. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a place where almost every single building is not only abandoned, but is actively crumbling. Even some murals on the plywood-covered windows couldn’t distract from what was happening everywhere – total economic devastation.
Gary was formed in 1906 by US Steel. As you’ll see when you get off Interstate 90, the steel mills occupy the lakefront property on the north side of the highway. The town boomed until the 1960’s and 70’s, when foreign competition cut into domestic steel production, and massive layoffs began. Gary already had a large African-American population, and when the economy took a downturn, more affluent people left, leaving Gary with an 84% black population (as of 2000).
While it used to be the economic center of the region, now sunlight streams through the partially-collapsed buildings along Broadway.
There are a few buildings that are still intact, including the Genesis Towers (which you can see down the block), a senior living high-rise.
You have to use extra caution when driving around Gary, because many of the traffic lights don’t work. It’s one of the most obvious signs of a town in total economic collapse. They can’t even afford to keep the traffic signals working. Some intersections have been switched to flashing red 4-way stops, but at some crossroads, that doesn’t even work. They’ve simply turned off the lights, and put up stop signs. However, I’ve read that some people don’t even stop at intersections, for fear of being carjacked.
After walking around downtown for a few minutes, I was struck by one other observation. There is glass and trash everywhere. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a functioning city that doesn’t at least try to clean things up a bit. And when I noticed so many people — obviously unemployed — just hanging around, the thought occurred to me, why wouldn’t somebody grab a broom and start sweeping? There must be very little pride left in this city.
Gary Public Schools Memorial Auditorium
As I left downtown, I found one other interesting place to explore. This is the Gary Public Schools Memorial Auditorium (on 7th Avenue, just east of Broadway). Built in 1927, it once welcomed talent like Frank Sinatra and the Jackson Five. It was shuttered in 1972, and a fire did some damage in 1997.
At some point, the fence around the building had collapsed, so I let myself in. The old building was truly remarkable, but definitely unstable. I only took a step or two inside, because I could see places where the floor had already collapsed. Portions of the stairs had also collapsed, and I didn’t like the idea of falling into the basement with no way back up. But, just peeking in through the door, I could see what I presume was once the lobby, with an old pink piano in the middle. Even the piano looked defunct, but I imagine it would have been something to hear its music echoing through the old walls.
My visit to Gary occurred in early March, 2020 (just a few weeks before the Coronavirus lockdowns began). I’ve read that, just a few months later, in August, 2020, the Gary Public Schools Memorial Auditorium was demolished. I’ve also read that the demolition crews were instructed to try to save some of the building’s most distinctive architectural features, to later display them, or even to use them in future construction. I suppose the auditorium’s demolition was inevitable. It was far too deteriorated to save — especially in a town that can’t even afford to keep its traffic lights working. But it’s still a heart-sinking loss for a community that has already lost so much.
The Bottom Line
So, I got out of my car and walked around Gary, Indiana. Was that a good idea? Maybe. I’m glad I got to see, and understand just a little about, this city. But, it probably was one of the more risky places I’ve explored. I’d strongly recommend against visiting after dark, based on some of the stories I’ve read.
Here’s a look at the drive around Gary, Indiana: