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The city of Gary, Indiana has stood as a symbol of the decline of the Rust Belt. The former steel town is battered and depopulated. Well, now its mayor is looking for ways to rebuild Gary and she reached across state lines to ask a neighbor for help, Richard M. Daley, the former and longest serving mayor of Chicago.
NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Gary, Indiana is about 30 miles southeast of its big city neighbor, Chicago. It's a steel mill town that's seen much better days. Add on a bright sunny day, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson is walking a neighborhood looking for dumpsites and abandoned homes.
MAYOR KAREN FREEMAN-WILSON: Hi, how are you?
CHERYL NELSON: Good. Good.
CORLEY: She stops to chat with Cheryl Nelson, a long time Gary resident unloading groceries from her car. Nelson lives across the street from a gutted house.
FREEMAN-WILSON: I know there was a fire and this one here.
NELSON: Right, I see.
FREEMAN-WILSON: How long ago?
NELSON: About last year may be or November.
FREEMAN-WILSON: You do know are the people that went?
NELSON: Hmm-hmm, no.
CORLEY: Gary used to be called the Magic City but that was long ago, before the decline of the U.S. steel industry, before the massive white flight of the late '60s and '70s. Over the years, the city's population plummeted from a high of 180,000 to now about 80,000, with a third living below the poverty line. There have been attempts to reinvigorate this city in the past, efforts that have fallen flat.
Freeman-Wilson has been on the job for about a year and a half.
FREEMAN-WILSON: I don't think that anyone who runs really gets the full understanding of the magnitude of the problem, until you get here.
CORLEY: The mayor says the main challenge she faces in a city plagued by vacant and abandoned buildings is growing the city's tax base.
FREEMAN-WILSON: Everyday, people come to me: When are you going to pave my street? You know, I could talk about why we don't have the money and how our property taxes are capped and how our property base has been reduced. But who wants to hear about that?
CORLEY: Freeman-Wilson says her job is just to remedy the problem. So the Harvard-educated, former Indiana attorney general sought out other urban mayors for advice: Cory Booker of Newark and former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. He served six terms in office and now he has an interest in his neighbor to the east.
RICHARD M. DALEY: My grandfather was a sheet metal worker. And every time we drove through Gary, he would stop and say: I built that. He did the sheet metal work on top of the old City Hall.
CORLEY: Daley says too often small Rust Belt cities like Gary are overlooked when it comes to getting federal aid. So the former big city mayor sets out to use his connections, introducing Freeman-Wilson to Chicagoans who now work at the White House.
DALEY: We had a meeting with Valerie Jarrett and we hope to get at least $10 million out of the federal government. If they can find it for Afghanistan, they can find it for the world, sure they can find it for this little city that's really been forgotten.
CORLEY: Beyond working to open doors in Washington, though, Daley has used his position as a senior fellow at the University of Chicago to structure a program where graduate students come up with ideas and provide the manpower for Gary-related projects.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And you remember Jocelyn, ma'am?
FREEMAN-WILSON: Yes, I know Jocelyn. Hey, Jocelyn.
JOCELYN HARE: Hey, how are you? Good to see you again.
FREEMAN-WILSON: How are you today?
CORLEY: Jocelyn Hare is one of the students at the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy that's a part of the project, and who's joining Mayor Freeman-Wilson in her car.
HARE: There are about seven projects I think at the time that we started out with, so they needed students to research the issues from abandoned buildings to airport expansion to urban farming, stuff like that. And I've been involved since the beginning on the abandoned buildings, specifically.
CORLEY: About 10 survey teams this day use applications on Smartphones and tablets, as they determine whether a building is occupied, in good shape, abandoned, boarded up or a burnout.
HARE: Mayor, if you undo the ones on all the right side. And I'll do the ones on the left side.
CORLEY: They grade each building: one in good shape is in A; the vacant ones in bad shape, an F. The mayor smiles as she looks at one home with a neatly trimmed lawn.
FREEMAN-WILSON: Oh, man. I'm going to give Ms. Patton an A, 'cause I used to play in that house.
FREEMAN-WILSON: And I know she takes good care of it.
CORLEY: But her smile fades when she gets out of the car to take a closer look on another street.
FREEMAN-WILSON: You know, this is where we're seeing some significant dumping. We've got some significant vacancies. You know, you've got a house that has been kept well next to a burnout.
CORLEY: The baseline data the student teams collect will help the city develop a comprehensive plan to deal with the many vacant buildings; whether it means demolishing or rehabbing them. Freeman-Wilson says this collaboration between Gary and Daley's students is a win-win.
FREEMAN-WILSON: This is a perfect incubator, perfect lab test, and that's what we have. So it really does provide a double opportunity for both us and the students here.
CORLEY: After about three hours, the neighborhood survey this day come to an end, as the teams gather at a restaurant. U of C student organizer Katie Buitrago says they collected information on 4600 parcels.
KATIE BUITRAGO: I think the most surprising parts for me were not only the extreme desolation that exists in some areas, but the fact that there are some vibrant areas. On the lakefront is a gorgeous park. There's some extremely high-value homes around there that are right on the beachfront.
CORLEY: Mayor Freeman-Wilson says having the work of the University of Chicago students, along with students from some Indiana universities, has been like having the world's best consultants at no cost to Gary taxpayers. She calls the mentorship of former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley invaluable. But Freeman-Wilson says she knows any turnaround of the post-industrial city she now leads will take more than a decade. So the mayor says she's taking a long-range view and is optimistic that Gary will be able to someday reclaim its title of the Magic City.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.