How a Gary Resident Reignited my Love of Gary History
When I think of Gary, Indiana, I recall roller skating at Screaming Wheels in Miller, Polish sausages at the Village in Glen Park, Vacation Bible School at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Tolleston with donuts at Art’s Bakery afterwards, swimming at the Boys’ Club on 5th Avenue, Saturday afternoons at the Kennedy Branch of the Gary Public Library, the annual Ghoulish Get Down at Emerson VPA along with their Broadway-worthy spring productions (thanks to Emerson alum, Mark Spencer, for keeping those alive with the West Side Theatre Guild!), and more. Though some of those places no longer exist, I don’t lament that they are gone. It saddens me when former Gary residents– or folks who’ve never lived here at all– craft tales of woe about what the city once was with no mention of the positives happening now.
But that isn’t always the case.
I thought to resurrect my Gary blog by celebrating the efforts of Joslyn Kelly, proprietor of J’s Breakfast Club, 3669 Broadway in Gary, (https://jsbreakfastclubgary.com/), who, in a remarkably short amount of time, organized “This is Gary,” a celebration of the Steel City. The weeklong celebration ran from June 22-26, 2022 and included a day of service, Heritage Tour, Youth Empowerment Day, Celebration Day Gala at the Hard Rock Casino, and a Gospel Explosion.
For Kelly, This Is Gary was to be a “celebration of past and present and the unlimited ability to capture the history of Gary.” She created Victory Way, an effort to revitalize the area leading toward the gateway into the city. According to the Victory Way website, its purpose is to start the “transformation of the current narrative of our city Gary, Indiana to work toward changing the aesthetic of this gateway by inspiring positivity through love!” In addition to the This Is Gary event, commemorative bricks for the future Victory Way, engraved locks (to represent the transformation of the “heart” of the city, and Victory Way shirts are on sale at https://thisisgaryvw.com/ along with more information about this exciting effort.
Since I’ve used the history of Gary as fodder for my fiction, I attended Heritage Day on Friday, June 24, 2022. Participants were taken on chartered bus tours to different parts of Gary to learn about the history of the neighborhood. I chose the Miller and Glen Park tours since most of my research and fiction are centered around Tolleston and Midtown.
The Miller tour was led by Samuel Love, editor of the book The Gary Anthology (https://beltpublishing.com/products/the-gary-anthology) who resides in the Miller section of Gary. During this tour, he gave lots of information about the ecology of the dunes. I’d learned that the beach-side dunes are younger that the dunes seen in areas like Aetna or Ridge Road (the hills in these areas were built on dunes). We passed by the original Wabash Train Station (pictured above), original Miller Town Hall, and the beach (of course). We rode past the Aquatorium, where the eastern part of the building is dedicated to the Tuskegee Airmen and the west side of the building is dedicated to Octave Chanute, the father of flight who predated the Wright Brothers and tested out his flying machines in the Indiana Dunes. I especially appreciated that Love didn’t omit Native Americans from his presentation.
From the Glen Park presentation led by my old work colleague, Todd McCain, I learned that Gilroy Stadium was built in 1959, the same time as Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Gilroy, though a one-sided field, cost more to build than Lambeau and that was due to embezzlement by the Gary mayor at the time. According to McCain, the stolen funds were used to build Andrean High School (imagine my shock as a c/o ’93 59er!)
Changing the narrative of Gary, Indiana is what is needed to move the city forward and realize its potential. Positive actions like This Is Gary and Victory Way show the region that my city isn’t all violence, poverty, and rundown buildings. There is more to the story… much more. And while other books and documentaries focus on what was and what could have been, it appears it’s up those of us still here, still fascinated, curious, and loving what Gary was and CAN be, to help this jewel rise again from the sand dunes. Visionaries like Joslyn Kelly are needed to actively make the Steel City shine once again.