GARY, Ind. — On one side of the Indiana Toll Road lies the hulking U.S. Steel industrial complex whose founder, Elbert H. Gary, gave the city of Gary his name, and generations of residents their jobs.
On the other side lies one of the bleakest urban landscapes in the country, blighted by abandoned buildings and empty lots, like the weed-strewn field next to the public library downtown, which is set to close as a budget-cutting move.
On Saturday, Karen Freeman-Wilson, 51, will become mayor of Gary, her hometown, where she was elected in November after two earlier bids.
She is Indiana’s first African-American female mayor, and previously served as the state’s attorney general. “In many ways, I feel like Dorothy from Oz – there’s no place like home,” she says.
Freeman-Wilson, who holds undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard University, will be officially inaugurated at a ceremony on Jan. 7. She sees an opportunity to help a city plagued by a high crime rate, burgeoning poverty and low property values.
“I know about the good things and the good places. It’s irresponsible to know about the good, to know about the potential, and not do anything about it,” Freeman-Wilson says.
She is the latest to join a group of high profile African-American mayors, such as Dave Bing in Detroit, Cory Booker in Newark and Michael Nutter in Philadelphia, tackling challenges that many see as daunting, if next to impossible.
Their appeal lies in loyalty and pragmatism. “It’s the sense that you might be able to do something about a community that you love and support,” says Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
“With a city like Gary or Detroit, yes, things are so bad, you’re likely to succeed. The bar is set very low,” he says.
Like Bing, whose city’s half-century decline mirrors that of the automobile industry, Freeman-Wilson inherits a city long dependent on its single biggest employer, U.S. Steel, where her father worked.
While U.S. Steel still employs 6,000, that’s a far cry from the 50,000 people who once worked there, and the loss of those jobs is reflected in the boarded up homes and empty streets that spread across town.
At its peak in the 1950s, Gary’s population topped 200,000, only to plunge in subsequent decades to about 80,000 in 2010.
Freeman-Wilson says she wants to heal the sometimes tense relationship between employer and town. “Certainly, they have a responsibility to our city, but we have a responsibility to be a good partner,” she says.
To hold up its end, willing to start with “small victories,” like better lighting, pothole free streets and repaired sidewalks.
But beyond that, Freeman-Wilson speaks of making Gary a cleaner city, not only in appearance, but also in the way it deals with residents, who frequently complain they cannot reach anyone at city hall.
“You should be able to get through without being transferred five times,” Freeman-Wilson says.
But her ambitions go beyond the mundane. She wants to increase service at Gary’s under-served airport, which sits adjacent to Interstate 90; land a major hotel for downtown and spur broader economic development activities.
Freeman-Wilson has collected a series of advisers ranging from Newark’s former business administrator, Bo Kemp, who headed her transition team, to Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr., a Gary native who is now a law professor at Harvard.
Booker also has given her advice. “You really have to understand the difference between campaigning and governing,” Freeman-Wilson says he told her. “You have to understand your constituency and communicate with them.”
That does not appear difficult for Freeman-Wilson, who, despite her firm Ivy League credentials, seems firmly grounded in Gary.
And if she ever forgets, she may well be reminded of her roots by the dozens of aunts, uncles, cousins and childhood friends whom she encounters on a daily basis.
Along with her new job, her biggest priorities are her ailing mother, who lives with her family, and helping her 17-year-old daughter Jordan choose a college (finalists on her list include Columbia, Howard, and Emory).
Although interview and speaking requests have begun to flow in, Freeman-Wilson says she plans to hunker down after her inauguration. “I have to dig in early on, and that is not going to lend itself to speaking around the country.”
But she may have a secret weapon in her city’s proximity to Chicago, says Simpson.
As with Newark, which can draw talent and goodwill from New York, Gary can seek support from Chicago, whose mayor, Rahm Emanuel, has shown in his first seven months that he is willing to pursue new paths.
“I’m not sure Gary has ever thought about that or taken advantage of it,” Simpson says, of its proximity to Chicago. But “we compete as a region, and Chicago is the global capital of the Midwest. I can see the possibility for a lot of development.”
At this early stage, Freeman-Wilson says she has no illusions. After all, it took her three tries to get this far. Says the new mayor: “I know this is a honeymoon, and the honeymoon will end.”