City limits

Harris Public Policy’s Gary Project joins forces with a dynamic new mayor to reframe the Indiana steel town’s future.

The Gary Project at UChicago grew out of a phone call that Gary, Indiana mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson made to former Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, distinguished senior fellow at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. She was seeking advice on Gary’s challenges. Daley invited the mayor to speak at the school soon after she was elected, and a broader collaboration took root. “It’s not just Gary,” Daley told the Chicago Policy Review, based at Harris. “There are many other cities in America just like it. I’ve always thought that we should not forget the people in a city like that.”

Launched in 2012, the Gary Project provides a rare opportunity for seven to ten students each quarter to put theory into practice by confronting Gary’s problems. “I thought it was a perfect fit,” Daley said in a recent interview. “We’re taking graduate students and giving them real experience about an issue, to research it, come up with the facts, and come up with ways of solving these problems.” Part of their job is to search for new ideas, often by studying the experiences of other struggling industrial cities, and figure out how to apply them to Gary. It started with Harris students but was soon expanded to include students from other units, including Chicago Booth, the Law School, the Pritzker School of Medicine, and the College.

Early on, Daley and Freeman-Wilson assigned the Gary Project two challenges: dealing with abandoned houses and cleaning up unkempt neighborhoods. These were not only urgent needs, they spoke to Daley’s conviction that to thrive, a city needs to be attractive. Abandoned buildings “represent the deterioration of Gary,” he told NBC in 2013. “You have to get those down. If you don’t, that’s a symbol.”


Along with poverty and crime, abandoned housing is one of Gary’s worst problems and the starting point for any rebuilding effort. “One thing about blight and abandonment is it’s extremely contagious,” says Joseph A. Van Dyk, director of the city’s redevelopment department. “If there’s a blighted building on a block there’s a far greater chance that the other buildings will fall into disrepair. The strategy is to find the one or two abandoned buildings and take them out.”

In the spring of 2012 a group of Gary Project students explored what to do with abandoned houses. They came up with a series of proposals, like selling houses for a dollar, a revival of an old US Department of Housing and Urban Development program that transferred abandoned properties to residents willing to fix them up and live in them, and giving vacant lots to a neighboring homeowner who would keep it up and pay taxes on it.

“We had a bunch of recommendations,” says Jocelyn Hare, MPP’13, part of the Gary Project from the beginning and now its first postgraduate fellow. She says she became “pretty enamored” of the problem of abandoned housing. “I figured if you could solve this issue in a city with very limited resources, you could do it anywhere.”

It quickly became clear, however, that good policy recommendations required a better understanding of the problem. No one really knew the full scope of Gary’s abandoned housing problem. The students set out to find answers. It took them a while to figure out how to do it. One idea was to fly over the city with infrared cameras that could detect houses that were inhabited. But geothermal mapping would have been expensive, says Ana Aguilera, MPP’13, now a junior professional associate at the World Bank in Washington, DC. It also would have revealed relatively little about the condition of the houses. In the end the students used software from a Detroit start-up and went from house to house, entering data into their smartphones.

The survey covered more than a third of the city and yielded color-coded maps that showed at a glance the condition of whole neighborhoods. It gave the city a much clearer picture of its housing problem and helped win a $6.6 million federal grant that will pay for the demolition of hundreds of houses. The grant also will fund a pilot project to dismantle 12 houses and sell them as recycled building material, an effort designed mainly to create badly needed jobs. “It’s really huge,” says Hare. “I think we’re going to see changes in how the city feels and looks.”


To tidy up neighborhoods, students in the Gary Project borrowed an idea from Macon, Georgia. They identified five-block areas in five neighborhoods, then organized massive five-week cleanups, area by area. Local volunteers, youth groups, UChicago students, and city workers pick up trash, mow vacant lots, and cut brush. The goal is not just to beautify a neighborhood but also to inspire pride in it. “A lot of people I know have lost their hope,” says LaToya Jones, a 39-year-old Gary resident who has taken part in several 5x5x5 cleanups, first as a volunteer and more recently as a paid city employee. “I want to be a source of hope. If I’m on fire, they can catch on fire.” But the cleanups have attracted relatively few volunteers from the targeted neighborhoods.

The inclusion of students from across the University has given the Gary Project a strong interdisciplinary flavor. This year, for example, Sameer Vohra, a Harris student and third-year pediatric resident, is part of a group of students trying to figure out efficient ways of addressing Gary’s public health problems. The problems—for instance, high rates of asthma—resemble those in Chicago’s poor neighborhoods, but Gary has a small health department and lacks a big medical center. The challenge, Vohra says, is to address health issues from a wider community perspective, starting, perhaps, with education. “One question we hope to try to answer is what can a small city government do,” says Vohra. “What impact can it make on health outcomes without a lot of resources?”

UChicago students are struck by the determination of people they’ve met to tend diligently to their small corner of the city. “I was surprised that even in the worst neighborhoods in Gary there was a strong sense of community among the neighbors,” says Doug Nagy, MPP’13, who worked with another Chicago Booth graduate on the project when the two were students. “It was an inspiration to me that things can get better.”

By mid-2014 the Gary Project was entering its third year. Freeman-Wilson says it’s already helped her city move forward, through the 5x5x5 cleanups, abandoned housing survey, and more. “It’s the innovations of students who aren’t jaded enough to dwell on what we can’t do that really has made this project,” she said at the meeting with Nagy. For his part, Nagy was impressed by the city’s openness to new approaches. “If the University of Chicago can come up with some great ideas, Gary is perfectly willing to try them,” he says. “It’s a perfect laboratory. ... If we can improve the quality of life in Gary with new strategies, those strategies are likely to work in Youngstown and Cleveland and Detroit and places like that.”

Gary, Indiana Mayor with Harris School Students
Karen Freeman-Wilson (center), mayor of Gary, Indiana, invited policy recommendations from Harris students including Jocelyn Hare, MPP’13 (right). Photography by Joel Wintermantle

“We owe it to another generation to rebuild Gary into something that no one ever thought it could be,” says Daley. Historian S. Paul O’Hara, who wrote a book about Gary, agrees that the Gary Project follows in a long tradition of seeing the city as a place of new ideas and possibilities. It’s happened in education, in politics, and, in a sense, in making steel. “Gary has always been sort of a laboratory for all kinds of experimentation,” he says. Whether that spirit can reverse Gary’s fortunes is still to be seen.

Adapted from a story originally published in the July/August 2014 issue of The University of Chicago Magazine.