To say, that Gary, Ind., has seen better days is a laughable understatement. In an elegy for the city, James Howard Kunstler compared it to post-evacuation Chernobyl. Horror and action filmmakers have taken advantage of Gary’s abandoned cityscape, but the town lacks a single movie theater to show the films, which include Transformers and the Nightmare on Elm Street remake. The History Channel even featured Gary in Life After People, a series in which scientists and engineers imagine the built world sans human life. Violent crime has decreased in Gary since it was dubbed the Murder Capital of the U.S., but it still hovers above the national average.
How did this happen? Founded in 1906 by the United States Steel Corporation, Gary experienced a huge population crash when the steel industry shuttered, shrank, and moved overseas. In 2010, the town’s population was at 40 percent of its ’50s height of 200,000.
Last November, the city elected Indiana’s first African American female mayor, Karen Freeman-Wilson. On Jan. 2, the mayor sat down in a city hall that has a vacant hotel as a next-door neighbor and set about trying to deal with the city’s decades-long problems and budget shortfalls.
“It’s the sense that you might be able to do something about a community that you love and support,” a political science professor told Atlantic Cities. “With a city like Gary or Detroit, yes, things are so bad, you’re likely to succeed. The bar is set very low.”
Freeman-Wilson set the bar high with her pick to run the newly configured sustainability department, however. At 28, Lauren Riga has been a delegate for United Nations conferences, including the 2010 climate meeting in Cancun. In her free time, she runs a radio program on sustainability and teaches sustainability courses for the MBA program at Valparaiso University.
Gary has been called the ghost of America’s future -- as budgets dry up and jobs ship overseas, there are fears that more and more of our towns will look like the ruined backdrop of Life After People. Riga hopes that instead of Gary being a harbinger of post-industrial doom, it can show the rest of the country how to reimagine an industrial city green.
The latest episode of Knope and Change, our series about women who are leading the green cities revolution, features an edited conversation with Riga about the future of Gary.
Q. In a recent interview, your mayor said the problems facing Gary are “almost exhausting to describe.” Doesn’t the city have bigger issues than sustainability to think about?