Born in Gary, educated at Harvard, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson has a mission: revitalizing a one-time economic powerhouse now best known as the birthplace of Michael Jackson.
he office of Gary, Indiana’s new mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson is on the second floor of city hall, overlooking this decaying Midwestern town and its 50 square-miles of problems. On nearby blocks, the city cries for help. Weeds and bushes oppress the lawns and porches of boarded-up homes and run-down businesses. After a brief stint as Indiana’s attorney general, Freeman-Wilson took office in Gary in January, becoming Indiana’s first black female mayor and Gary’s first female mayor. Fixing this troubled city is now her responsibility, and oddly enough, her dream.
Dressed in a dark, business suit one February morning, the 5-foot-1-inch mayor wears a pin on her lapel. It’s the city seal, which proclaims Gary as the “City of the Century.” Her hair is cut short and accentuated by simple gold hoop earrings. Her brown skin, is smooth, concealing that she is 51. She smiles easily — completely unrehearsed and without pretension — disarming even political foes.
This morning, as she wraps up her second briefing of the day, Freeman-Wilson takes a seat in her office. Three desktop computer screens – all turned on – crowd her desk and near them is a fourth computer, the city-issued laptop, behind which rests a gavel, from her days as a city judge. She glances at the stack of opened letters. One catches her eye and elicits an exaggerated yawn – a letter from an attorney who claims to represent the Jacksons, Gary’s most famous family.
Members of the Jackson family have contacted the mayor’s office for permission to hold a summer event near their old house, at 2300 Jackson Street. They also want to sell products there. The problem – the mayor hasn’t spoken with anyone she feels is authorized to make the decisions. Before initiating a phone call to a man who says he is a Jackson cousin, she fiddles around with her phone, unsure how to use the speaker phone. One of the most difficult adjustments to her new job has been unlocking the secret to it. “Oh, I can’t stand this phone” she murmurs, as she places the call.
“Mr. Jackson, this is Karen Freeman-Wilson following up to our meeting from last week,” she says while leaving a voice mail message. “You know, maybe to get to the bottom of this, I would like to speak with Mrs. (Katherine) Jackson, so if you could set that up through my secretary … it would be great to do that sooner than later so that we could move forward in a way that we’re going to deal with this. Bye bye.”
Under the previous mayor — Rudy Clay’s — administration, patriarch Joe Jackson announced plans for a $300 million family museum to be built in town. The project could be a coup, guiding Michael Jackson fans and tourists to the financially strapped city. However, since the June 2010 announcement, nothing has happened.
Meanwhile, with that project in wait-and-see mode, Freeman-Wilson still must sort out the logistics of the summer event.
I ask her if it would’ve been easier if the DeBarges were from Gary. She laughs, then explains her problem with the proposed summer event.
“There’s all this controversy about who represents whom and I’m like, you know what. I’m not going to try to work out y’alls differences for you. I need to talk to one person,” Freeman-Wilson says. “You all determine who that is because this isn’t my primary initiative. I’m not opposed to it but I’m not going to spend a whole lot of energy on it because I just don’t see it. There are a lot of things on our laundry list that are much more close to being done and being realistic.”
Her voice remains even and does not reveal a shred of frustration. Switching topics, she discusses the proposed Jackson museum.
“You know, if somebody brings me a viable proposal that is financed, I’d do it. We can have it right there,” Freeman-Wilson says, pointing towards her office window where across the street the Genesis Convention Center sits. “I’d tear down the Genesis Center in a heartbeat. But …I got something in the mail yesterday or the day before and there are lines where they clearly cut and paste signatures, I’m like what is this?”
Just as she completes her thought, Freeman-Wilson looks down at her office phone and laughs. She never completely hung up the phone from the call with the Jackson family member.
“Well,” she smiles. “I don’t say anything that I wouldn’t say on the 10 o’clock news.”
What Happened to Gary?
Gary, Indiana meets at four busy interstate highways, boasts three rail lines and rests on the southern banks of one of the world’s largest bodies of water, the Great Lakes. It’s about an hour drive from Chicago, the nexus of the nation’s freight rail network.
Gary was founded in 1907 as a hub for the steel industry and became so prosperous that, in the early 20th century, it began attracting to the region African-Americans seeking jobs and economic security. Then decades ago, the steel mills began closing and in their wake, a crumbling economy emerged.
Many residents have waved goodbye to Gary – there’s been a 20-percent population drop within the past 10 years, down to 80,300 people – and those remaining face a 15.6 percent unemployment rate. The city’s