Sunday, August 7, 2022

Flashback 2000: Gary offers a few things to make visit worthwhile

     When a writer you respect gores your ox, it stings. So as fun as my latest vivisection of John Kass was, it did decry the painful erosion of civil rights in the former newspaper columnist's new home state , judging Indiana severely for it. Several readers living there raised a finger and said, in effect, "Ouch." While the throttling of freedom in Hoosierland does deserve constant, full-throated condemnation — Friday they passed an almost complete ban on abortion — there's no need to tar the whole state completely with one broad brush. It does still contain people — a majority, actually — who would yet breathe the air of liberty, if only they could, and the state does contain several pleasant spots. Just last year we enjoyed lunch at a brewery in Hammond. And in 2000, prodded by a line in the New York Times about tourism in Gary, I actually visited that star-crossed city to take in the sights, such as they are. I offer it as a conciliatory gesture to my Indiana readers, and afterward give an update on some of the people and places encountered below.

GARY, Ind. — How deep is this town's image problem?
     Driving here, I worried about my suit. It was my good suit: Would the air in Gary somehow ruin it? Corrode the cloth, melt the fabric into a crusted, spotted motley? I had decided to risk it in the name of image.
     Driving east on the Chicago Skyway, past the groves of high tension electrical wires and the rolling brown industrial scrubland, I detected changes in the atmosphere — first hopsy, then acrid, a definite tang, a tickle at the back of the throat -- and wondered if I had made a mistake.
     I was on my way to visit the tourist sights of Gary, which will host the Miss U.S.A. Pageant for the next three years. The beleaguered city is giving Donald Trump $1.2 million to bring the spectacle here to spur economic development and introduce the nation to the attractions of Gary, which would be better known were it not for "years of brainwashing by the media about the negatives of the city," according to Spero Batistatos, the president of the Lake County visitors bureau.
     As a passionate foe of media brainwashing, I felt obligated to go to Gary and assess its potential as a tourist destination.
     I started my day at U.S. Steel's Gary Works, probably the most prominent institution in Gary. Having enjoyed corporate tours from Ben & Jerry's in Stowe, Vt., to the Tabasco sauce plant in New Iberia, La., I thought I'd touch base at the visitors center.
     "Ain't got nothing like that," said the guard and, after taking a moment to savor the grim Dickensian splendor of the Works, I wheeled the car around and headed down Broadway.
     I remembered Broadway as one of the most shocking and dismal urban tableaus I have ever seen — 40 blocks of empty abandonment.
     That hasn't changed — maybe a few more people about. I appreciated the historic display of shuttered 1950s-era stores, signs and typefaces, generally untouched by progress or economic development.
     The man from the Lake County Convention & Visitors Bureau had suggested I meet him at the Interstate Visitors Information Center, which isn't actually in Gary, but Hammond. By then, I had learned that those promoting Gary take a rather, umm, expansive view that defines the Gary Metropolitan Area as extending from Wilmette to Indianapolis.
     You can't miss the Center (I-80; 94 to Kennedy Avenue South). An odd building designed around themes; in giving nods to the farm and steel industries it looks like a cross between a jet engine and a grain silo.
     Inside is clean, airy and modern — it opened just in December — with an engaging exhibit of poster art in the main hall and a permanent John Dillinger Museum filled with displays that are both intelligent and downright cool: authentic weaponry, period outfits, a Hudson Terraplane 8 auto, plus interactive displays (go into a bank lobby, then recall from memory details of the crime in progress). I thought my trip amply rewarded just for the letterhead of the Indiana Reformatory, which showed a portrait of a bespectacled old lady and the motto: "There is no love like the good old love, the love that mother gave us." I'll bet that melted many a hardened criminal heart.
     I was met by Shawn Platt, an enthusiastic young man vaguely resembling Charlie Sheen, who was going to take me to a few of the sights.
     But first, lunch. There is only one good restaurant in Gary, judging from the people I asked — and I asked half a dozen — who one and all recommended The Miller Bakery Cafe on Lake Street — and Platt and I repaired there for a festive meal.
     Gary Sanders, the chef; owner, joined us, and when I said I was visiting Gary's tourist attractions, he actually laughed, said, "Really?" and shot Platt a bemused, eyebrow-arching look.
     We dined on crab cakes, cornbread custard, and avocado-lime chicken on a risotto cake — all quite good, at least according to my admittedly broad tastes. I asked Sanders what he thought was the prime tourist attraction actually in Gary, and he sent us to the Aquatorium.
     The Aquatorium is the new name for the old Gary Bathing Beach changing house at Miller Beach. It sits right on the lake, a crumbling concrete structure with a certain aura of elegance: The concrete is formed to resemble Greek columns.
     "It's amazing in the summer how many people are on this beach," said Platt, as we walked among the deserted dunes. "It's just packed."
     There was a beautiful view I had never seen before — the skyline of Chicago, a distant gray toy city to the right, a wide gap, then the industrial sprawl of Hammond and Gary to the left. Quite pretty.
     "We don't claim to be a place where you could spend a week for a major vacation," said Platt, showing off the lobby of the Radisson, which isn't in Gary either, but has a waterfall. "Just a weekend getaway."
     That may be overstating the case. But I could see, when the weather gets warm, a person with either an unusual interest in Dillinger or two children between the ages of 5 and 15 might enjoy replicating my day — an hour at the Dillinger Museum, lunch at the Miller Bakery Cafe (they'll give the kiddies spaghetti for $6, and you New Zealand rack of lamb for $14) then a quick visit to the beach, which was deserted and lovely, with eerie, weed-topped dunes and a certain desolate beauty.
             — Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 5, 2000.

     Spero Batistatos was with the Lake County visitors bureau for more than 30 years before being let go in 2021. He's now studying for a master's degree and teaching at the White Lodging School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Purdue University Northwest. Shawn Platt left the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority shortly after this story ran, did communications for Bank of America and Fifth Third Bank, and is now chief of staff & chief communication officer at Continuum Ventures in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Gary Sanders closed the Miller Bakery Cafe in 2010; it was reopened by new owners in 2013 and closed again in 2019. Sanders died in 2020 at age 53.

The Aquatorium marked its centennial in 2021.


  1. I go through Gary a couple of times a year. The poverty is right out there, far worse than even the worst parts of Chicago. Abandoned buildings galore & are never torn down. Even in Downtown Gary, like something out of a 1950s sci-fi movie, where they've all left town, because the aliens have landed & are taking over. The only new construction is the minor league ballpark, the Steel Yard, just east of Downtown & the new South Shore Line Station that's part of that. Lots of abandoned factories, homes that are falling apart. Even the Miller area, once the most prosperous part of town looks awful.
    This is a city that's never coming back, decades of disinvestment have destroyed it. I'm sure that part of the reason is the rest of Indiana is so racist, they just don't care, as I always remember that 100 years ago, the KKK ran Indiana, with an iron glove, under those pointed hats!

    1. I've detoured through Gary when here were back-ups or wrecks on the Indiana Toll Road. I've lived in Cleveland for thirty years, and I've spent a lot of time with friends and relatives in Detroit. Gary makes both of them look pretty damn good.

      The Indiana Klan was the biggest and strongest organization of its kind in the entire country, and virtually owned the state. At the height of its power (early to mid-20s) the Klan had over 250,000 members, which was over 30% of state's white male population. The highest concentration was in cities in the central part of the state, including Indianapolis, which was almost completely controlled by the Klan. Election to public office was impossible without their support. Street fights occurred in Indianapolis between the Klan members and minority groups. Statewide, estimates of native white male Indiana Klan membership ranged from 27 to 40% [Wikipedia].

      With more than 50,000 dues-paying members in Indianapolis alone, the Klan had access to tens of millions of dollars. Some of it helped the poor, but millions went toward bribing public officials, paying off enemies, purchasing weapons, and contributing to political campaigns. Indiana's governor had strong ties to the Klan and went on trial for bribery. He was acquitted. But the Grand Dragon was convicted of rape and murder, served thirty years, and was then banned from the state for life.

      There is so much more heinousness that can be learned about the history of Indiana's Klan. This link is a good place to start:

  2. I have some very good memories of Gary. When I was a kid and my grandmother lived under the skyway on 95th, we'd drive to Gary so she could stock up on cheaper cigarettes and gas. We'd stop at White Castle too. In my 20s I spent some time with musicians in Gary, notably a guy who had rooms filled with vinyl and an excellent sound system to play them. Somehow I felt a pang of "oh good" to learn I'm in the Gary Metropolitan Area, here in Wilmette.

  3. I also feel motivated to get there to see the Chicago skyline view.


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