Gary Fights 'Murder Capital' Tag : Urban renewal: Indiana community once was a livable city; its people are struggling to make it so again.

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When your decaying hometown is known as the deadliest place in an increasingly dangerous nation, what do you say in its defense?

You can point to the past, to the nostalgic "Gary, Indiana, my home, sweet home" from "The Music Man." You can point to the future, and hopes that riverboat gambling will end two decades of socioeconomic free fall.

Or, as many longtime residents do, you can shrug your shoulders. No one denies that Gary has the highest murder rate in America.

"When they say somebody died and you go check it, there's a body there. That's real, so we're not in denial as a community," said Councilman Chuck Hughes, chairman of the City Council's Public Safety Committee.

"But it would be sort of a miscarriage of justice if people believed that this is a Roaring '20s, Wild, Wild West town without all of the other fine things that go on in other communities. It's just not true."

Gary once was a livable city, and its people are struggling to make it a livable city once again.

"It's home," said Sheryl Freeland-McGrady, a Gary native and special assistant to Gov. Evan Bayh. "And home is home, regardless of where it is."

Founded by U.S. Steel Corp. Chairman Elbert Gary in 1906, Gary was once a thriving city. Longtime residents remember crowds of shoppers along Broadway, and gridlocked traffic during shift changes at U.S. Steel.

The company, with its main gate just a few blocks from City Hall, once employed about 30,000 people. The region had 60,000 steel-making jobs at its peak, and related industries employed thousands more.

"The only guy in those days who didn't have a job was the guy who didn't want one," said Fire Chief Benjamin Perry, who once worked in the Gary mills.

But migration to the suburbs hurt in the 1960s and 1970s; the collapse of the steel industry was a civic disaster in the early 1980s.

Gone were jobs and businesses that buttressed the tax base and gave the community reason to feel good about itself. In their place came a drug war that took its desperate soldiers from the streets, and often left them there to die.

"I really think the entire problem is economics. Pure and simple," said Perry, a third-generation Gary resident. "People don't have any money, and they will do what's necessary to get on with their lives."

Gary now is the crumbling home to 119,125 people, down from a peak of about 188,000 in the early 1970s. Michael Jackson is the most famous of those who left, and he rarely associates himself with his hometown.

Today, U.S. Steel employs fewer than 7,000 people, and the region's mills employ about 31,000. Downtown Gary largely is a desolate strip of vacant, boarded-up buildings. There are no hotels--the vacant Sheraton looming over City Hall is a symbol of hard times--and the only major store is a K mart.

Gary's unemployment was 12.8% in December, the last month figures were available, compared to 6% nationally and 4.8% in Indiana.

"We are a community desperately in need of support," said Hughes.

The city had 110 homicides last year, 27 more than in 1992 and four more than its previous high in 1973. Although official FBI figures are not yet available, Gary officials readily acknowledge the city's 1993 murder rate of 91 per 100,000 residents probably was the highest in the country.

By comparison, Gary's rate was 55 per 100,000 when it last led the nation, in 1984. Washington topped the homicide list in 1992 with 75 per 100,000.

Mayor Thomas Barnes has asked President Clinton for 100 new police officers to bolster the current force of 220 officers and about 75 auxiliary officers.

"If you're talking about providing officers for cities in need, and Gary gets the distinction of being No. 1 (in homicides), who would be more deserving?" asked Hughes.

Not that Gary is depending on federal help. Residents are organizing block patrols and cleaning up their neighborhoods. The Main Street Organization is working to spruce up downtown, with one plan calling for local artists to paint murals over boarded-up storefronts.

"I think that there are enough people that are affected on a daily basis by the violence on the streets, that it's possible that they can make a difference," said Rebecca Bordt, criminology instructor at the University of Notre Dame.

Gary boosters point to its proximity to Chicago, the picturesque Lake Michigan shoreline in the cuddly Miller section, and the affordability of comfortable homes in Miller and the few other neighborhoods untouched by decay.

They are encouraged by plans to open the first Indiana riverboat casino this summer--one of two allowed in Gary by act of the Indiana Legislature.

Riverboat gambling, Barnes said, is "our best opportunity in 40 years to unlock the door to job creation and economic opportunity."

Revenue from the boats could boost the city budget by 50% or more, and the boats alone are expected to create more than 2,000 jobs. The city also is seeking land-based projects, including hotels, restaurants and entertainment such as theaters, golf courses and museums.

There's a shiny convention center and fitness center amid the downtown squalor. And the city plans to expand the airport--designated as a foreign enterprise zone--into a major cargo hub.

But what if new jobs and revenue do not stop the violence?

"Everybody seems to say it's opportunities, it's jobs, and that might in fact be the answer," Hughes said. "When we get these riverboats in and a larger segment of our population is employed, then we'll be in real danger if we don't see a significant decrease in crime."

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