A boarded-up house in Gary, one of thousands of blighted properties. Joe Raymond/AP

The mayor of Gary is determined to stop a tide of vacant, neglected buildings in her post-industrial city. Data-rich parcel mapping is the first step.

For more than three decades, the vacant Sheraton Hotel loomed over City Hall in Gary, Indiana, a billboard for the city's descent from Steel City glory into postindustrial blight.

Once the city's tallest building, it was hailed as "the gateway to the city's future" by former Mayor Richard Hatcher upon its opening in 1971. It went dark just 14 years later. Entering or passing by Gary on the highway, visitors could see straight through the gutted building, its skeleton a rebuke to the neoclassical dome of City Hall right next door.

The then-abandoned, now demolished Sheraton in 2001. (Reuters)

Until last October, that is, when current Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson delivered on a campaign promise to tear it down. Freeman-Wilson, a Gary native and Harvard-educated lawyer, became Indiana's first black, female mayor when she took office in 2012.

Critics dismissed the move, which received federal and state funds as well as city financing, as a mere public relations stunt. But demolishing the Sheraton could also be viewed as the opening salvo in Freeman-Wilson's larger war on blight—a campaign she says also addresses crime, economic development and, crucially, the city's image of itself.

"It's extremely important," Freeman-Wilson says. "There's a sense of pride that you have when you can say, 'My city looks good.'"

Even with the Sheraton Hotel gone, Gary still has a long way to go. The University of Chicago recently helped the city survey more than 58,000 parcels as part of a data-driven approach to tackling blight. Teams of students and Gary residents—including Freeman-Wilson—volunteered their Saturday afternoons to walk every street in the city, grading the condition of vacant and blighted properties, and making notes through a mobile app.

It could end up being a model for other shrinking post-industrial cities trying to make big plans with small budgets. "I think this provides an opportunity for Gary to lead the way," the mayor says, "as cities all over the country deal with this issue."

Freeman-Wilson "could not contain [her] excitement" last year when Gary got $6.6 million from the state's Hardest Hit program to knock down and fix up abandoned homes. But with an estimated one in five of Gary's buildings vacant, and more than one third of its properties blighted, that windfall falls far short.

Named for a founder of United States Steel Corp., Gary is what could be called a legacy city. The former company town flourished during America's post-war heyday, crashing spectacularly with the Indiana steel industry. It has lost more than half of its population since its peak of about 178,000 in 1960.

Today it's working to diversify its economy, Freeman-Wilson says, and struggling to provide for the citizens who still live there.

"People are maintaining pristine properties in the shadow of abandoned buildings," she says. "When I look at people who went to school here, who are working on their property, those are really legacy residents. And their work, their commitment, their investment has to be honored. That's really what this is about."

Last year the Obama administration added Gary to its Strong Cities, Strong Communities program, helping it leverage federal funds and improve its pitch to foundations. The Hardest Hit funds it snagged last year—almost half of Indiana's $15 million pot for blight reduction—could eventually demolish as many as 1,000 blighted structures. Compare that to the 30-45 properties the city's demolition coordinator, Cedric Kuykendall, had estimated he could knock down with his existing budget of just $300,000 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant program.

"We don't have a ton of resources," says Joe van Dyk, Gary's director of redevelopment, "so we have to be smart."

Detail from GaryMaps.com, with the most blighted properties shown in red.

Van Dyk says by the fall, the city hopes to "get [its] data house in order," synchronizing the new parcel-level database with information it already has at various city agencies, like the police and fire departments, and with development indicators such as business licenses and property tax payments. It will also overlay data from outside bodies like the U.S. National Park Service, which maintains the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore nearby.

Once the final data set is in place, the city will revise its 1950s-era land-use and zoning ordinances. That work could take until mid-2016.

The advanced data will help Gary perform triage with scarce funds for demolition. But the city could also find new opportunities—its mostly vacant West Side, for example, has wetlands that could provide ecological services like stormwater retention, van Dyk says. Tackling blight then becomes about much more.

"We can reimagine our land use in this city. Because blight is such a challenge, we can really look comprehensively through that prism," he says, "and not only ameliorate the issues of vacancy abandonment, but also facilitate growth in the most sustainable way."

That includes recycling building materials. Gary is working with the Chicago nonprofit Delta Institute, a sustainability consultant, to divert some of the demolition debris from area landfills—an environmental benefit, but also a possible source of revenue for local contractors and craftsmen. The city's still deciding how it will dole out the demolition work, but at least a portion is expected to go to local businesses. The Delta Institute's Eve Pytel is managing their work with Gary. She says they hope to train those doing the demolition how to "deconstruct" buildings and sift for "hidden treasures" like old-growth lumber and custom midcentury doorknobs.

Mayor Freeman-Wilson (Cooley's Video Productions/City of Gary)

Freeman-Wilson's ability to bring in far-flung consultants and federal funds will play a key role in her bid for reelection later this year. Critics say she's focused on blight reduction at the expense of police and firefighters, who haven't had a raise since 2007. Freeman-Wilson counters that blight reduction is part of an overall strategy for breaking the cycle of disinvestment and depopulation in Gary.

She concedes that work has so far been in fits and starts, listing the city's past efforts at piecemeal demolition and code enforcement, and even a program to sell homes for a dollar to buyers who could fix them up quickly and stay for at least five years. But with the University of Chicago data, Freeman-Wilson says the city can start to take bigger steps. (All the data is online, and the mayor encourages anyone to download and analyze it.)

Gary officials now have a roadmap as they make difficult decisions: Can the city shed some of its 52 square miles? Which neighborhoods need blight reduction the most? What's the best use for vacant land? But van Dyk says the citizens of Gary have a knowledge not found in any data set, and that has to be part of the solution, too.

"There's a big human element to it," he says. "It's not just crunching numbers."

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