“We know that, for Gary to survive, you have to start small and work your way out, and small is with the churches, with the temples, with the schools. People need to stay to keep things going.”
This is part 4 of a 5-part series, Chorus of Voices: Retelling Northwest Indiana History. Several of the original interviews were recorded in partnership with StoryCorps: www.storycorps.org
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Transcript for Impact Chorus
When drugs came through, all hell broke loose. But now, it hit our community first, and it hit us hard. We had our heads spinning, that’s how hard it hit us. And when we started crying for help: “‘kay, that’s your problem.” Nothing happened until it hit the white neighborhoods. That’s when the powers that be paid attention. That’s when safety became an issue.
When Gary had that outlier, that one year, when they had that vicious, ferocious gang violence, where there were 130 people murdered, or whatever, uh, and you get that designation as a murder capital, think that’s the only one of a couple years — maybe that year and the subsequent year — that Gary was ever labeled the murder capital. That’s been a distinction that’s been owned by New Orleans and other cities like that. But when you’re in a predominantly African American community, and that thing occurs, that moniker will stick. And it has.
People perceive Gary to be just, just downright murder capital, can’t live here, can’t do anything. You’re gonna always have the bad aspects wherever you go, whether it be Gary, Chicago, Indianapolis, South Bend. It’s the same everywhere. It’s just that the media locks onto us.
You go into Chicago, it’s so crowded, the traffic, the noise, you know… We have crime, they have crime, I don’t think — there is no place that doesn’t have crime of some nature, so you just have to take precautions. You lock your doors, you look around, you do what you have to do.
Here on Route 20 in Gary, which runs adjacent to the steel mills, the hospital, utility companies that are still here in Gary, when you get to three or four o’clock in the afternoon, there’s a traffic jam, a log jam of people leaving their jobs. If the place is that dangerous, you’re not coming under any circumstances. But you’re gonna work here. I am not making excuses for the ills that we have, because I don’t approve of it. I don’t care if it’s a black person or a white person. Right’s right; wrong is wrong. But I think it’s a bit unfair to come into Gary, receive paychecks, take money, feel no sense of danger — because they work all around the clock, midnights, four to twelves. But then you’re gonna go back and say, “It’s the worst place in the world.” There’s a double standard there.
I think the number one thing that has to be overcome is the fear of crime, the fear that coming to Gary, you know, you’ll die. [Laughs.] Even though Miller is not a high crime area, and it is the densest population in Gary, so there’s more people here than in any other of the neighborhoods, and it has the least amount of crime, and virtually no violent crime. But we are part of Gary, so the perception is you can’t go to Gary and be safe; you can’t go to Miller and be safe.
I think security becomes a primary concern: my house being secure, my family being secure, coming in and out, and who your neighbors are. Now, I know I have two neighbors across the street that are from Chicago, but they, they’ve been pretty cool. We’ve had some that weren’t so cool. Any time you see a bunch of young men sitting on the steps in the broad daylight, you know you might have a problem. Cause a young man need to be working or going to school or something.
There is a clear cost associated with making a decision to live in the inner city, with having to explain to your kid why certain things are happening in their community: why they are hearing gunshots, why they are apprehensive about going in at night. But when I weigh it all out, the benefits of living there, and the… the comfort that I have, really does out outweigh the costs.
Well, I think it’s a commitment to live in an area that has a lot of depression of jobs, of businesses, of schools, and to try and help turn it around. We know that, for Gary to survive, you have to start small and work your way out, and small is with the churches, with the temples, with the schools. People need to stay to keep things going.
I’m not saying that there aren’t legitimate reasons for people to leave Gary ‘cause I know why I left Gary, as a black person, having lived there my entire life. But it wasn’t entirely because of fear, it had nothing to do with anyone’s skin color. It was because I wanted a quality education for my child, and it wasn’t going to happen in a school where the teacher had to become the parent.
I’m not saying everyone can be an ‘A’ student, but everyone can do better, and that is the big problem, that there are so many people that their reality is: My mother isn’t doing well, her mother didn’t do well, so I probably won’t do well.
I started a mentoring program here for the boys, high school boys. First day I met them, first day we had the meeting, I asked them do they see themselves graduating, and a lot of ‘ems like, “No.” “Do you see yourself becoming 21?” A lot of ‘ems like, “No.” And I was like, “Why?” And they said, “Because… what is there for them to do? What is there… what is life?”
I remember saying to people that racism and bigotry could only hold back Gary so long. But that, that came out of an awareness that, economically, Gary was not prospering as one would think. Everything about where we sit suggests that Gary, and all of Lake County, but particularly Gary, because of the industry, should be a very prosperous city. It doesn’t make sense that we would have the poverty that we do. I thought, “Well, it does take time, you know, a generation needs to pass.” Twenty years maybe or whatever it’s going to take. Here, we sit forty years later, and honestly, it seems like we’ve taken more steps backwards than we have forward on balance in that forty years.
In the latter years, I think when some of the neighborhoods changed or whatever, I think some of the urban people that moved in some of these neighborhoods may have caused some problems, caused the other folks to want to move out. But I think if I had to give a principle cause, I would say racism. Not wanting to live, work, go to school with black folks.
The race issue is huge, and I don’t think we can really… Gary can get anywhere unless we can address the race issue nationally. People don’t want black people living next to them. I think we got a long way to go. It feels like the ‘60s again, you know, it feels like, um, I don’t know. We just haven’t made the progress we thought we made.