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Moment of Indiana History

Beyond Steel, in the Magic City

As the Jacksons’ musical star rose in the late 1960s, their hardscrabble hometown was in decline.

After Michael Jackson passed away in Los Angeles in June 2009, hordes of fans kept vigil around a two-bedroom house in Gary, Indiana.

In the 1960s, the clapboard bungalow at the since renamed intersection of Jackson Street and Jackson Family Boulevard was home to Michael and his eight talented siblings.

As the Jacksons’ musical star rose in the late 1960s, their hardscrabble hometown was in decline.

The Rust Belt poster city had seen its fortunes diminish steadily over the course of the twentieth century. The Lake Michigan municipality had been hailed as a model city at century’s dawn, in so far as it incorporated the principles of the City Beautiful movement. The urban planning philosophy stressed the integration of business and residential areas, aesthetic harmony and development on a human scale.

Once known as “The Magic City” and “The Eighth Wonder of the World”, Gary’s prosperity hinged on its connection to the steel industry. From 1906 to 1908, U.S. Steel built the world’s largest integrated steel mill at the lakeside location, named the Gary Works after U.S. Steel board chairman Elbert Gary.

Together with other steel mills in the state and Illinois, the Gary plant provided one-fifth of total US steel output by the end of World War Two. In the process, however, the industry’s demands had ravaged the once-Magic City’s loveliness, its shoreline replaced by a harbor, its architectural landmarks overshadowed by factories and its stately neighborhoods overpopulated.

To make matters worse, in the 1960s diminished demand along with competition from foreign steel hobbled the Indiana-based industry. Between 1960 and 2007, Gary’s population dropped from almost 200,000 to less than half that number.

In 1997, a massive fire ravaged much of the city’s historic downtown, and until recently there was not a single bank in the boarded-up town.

In 2003, Michael Jackson made a public appearance at Gary’s U.S. Steel Yard, where he discussed the possibility of helping the city raise funds for an art center. Although the project never came to fruition, at the time of the star’s passing, Gary Mayor Rudy Clay speculated that a Jackson museum could be the very thing to resuscitate the city.

More than 6,000 fans honored Jackson at a memorial service July 10, 2009, at the steel yard he’d visited on his final trip to Gary.

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