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On Saturday, Gary, Indiana officially swears in its new mayor, Karen Freeman-Wilson. She’s actually been on the job since last weekend, though, with a long agenda of big and small goals.

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson

Freeman-Wilson is the first African-American woman mayor in Indiana, where she served as the state’s attorney general. She’s a Gary-raised, Harvard-educated lawyer who has worked in Washington, but feels an obligation to her hometown.

“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.

I talked to Freeman-Wilson for this profile in The Atlantic Cities. She also spoke with our partner station WBEZ late last year about the challenges that she’ll face, namely a high crime rate, shrinking population, and citizens who feel they face obstacles in getting what they need.

On a grander scale, 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.

Freeman-Wilson says she’s going to hunker down for the next few months to focus on her new job. But if she sees any success at all, she’s likely to become a visible player on the political scene. One of her mentors is Newark’s mayor, Cory Booker, who faced a Gary-like situation when he took office a few years ago.

The new Gary mayor says her Newark counterpart told her, “You really have to understand the difference between campaigning and governing. You have to understand your constituency and communicate with them.”

At least Gary residents know she understands their city. 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 University, Howard, and Emory).

Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Obama chides China. Using uncharacteristic blunt language, President Obama said America had enough of China’s currency manipulation and encouraged the global power to abide by “the same rules as everybody else.” At the closing news conference of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, Obama told reporters, “Enough’s enough,” and that “we don’t want them taking advantage of the United States.” The comments came one day after Obama held face-to-face talks with President Hu Jintao, according to Reuters. Obama and other U.S. leaders have grown weary of China keeping its currency value artificially low, thus hurting American companies and jobs.

2. Detroit dock brings tourist upswing. When a $21.5 million dock opened in Detroit earlier this summer, critics doubted the facility would see much use. Although only two cruise ships visited the port this past summer, according to the Detroit Free Press, cruise-ship operators have scheduled 23 visits in 2012. The uptick is expected to bring 2,500 new visitors and an increase in Michigan tourism dollars. Calling it a “significant win” for the region, W. Steven Olinek, deputy director of the Wayne County Port Authority, told the newspaper, “in future years we hope to play an even greater role in the re-emerging Great Lakes cruise industry.”

3. Gary casinos have new owner. New Mayor-elect Karen Freeman-Wilson says new ownership for two bankrupt casinos in Gary, Ind. is good for both the casinos and the city. “Investment in their structure will attract more gamers,” she said. Freeman-Wilson tells our partner station WBEZ that money is needed for infrastructure improvements, especially fixing city streets. Attendance has dropped at Northwest Indiana casinos, according to recent numbers, a falloff that comes even before a proposed Chicago casino heightens competition. Wayzata Investment Partners in Minnesota has taken over at the Majestic Star Casinos, which owe the city up to $15 million.

A state-by-state roundup of key election news from around the Midwest:

Mixed news in Ohio: Union supporters succeeded in striking down a sweeping collective-bargaining state law, rejecting the Issue 2 referendum by a 61 percent to 39 percent margin. The result has been considered a rebuke of first-year Republican governor John Kasich and springboard for President Obama’s once-sagging numbers in Ohio.

Democrats should be reluctant to read too much optimism in the numbers, cautions The Plain Dealer of Cleveland. While Issue 2 failed, the lesser-known Issue 3 passed by an even wider margin. Issue 3, which proposed to prohibit the government from forcing participation in a health-care plan, won more than 66 percent of the ballots cast. It’s a sting delivered to Obama’s federal health-care law.

Implications of Michigan recall: State representative Paul Scott became the first Michigan office-holder to be recalled since 1983. He lost Tuesday’s recall election by eight-tenths of one percent, as 12,284 cast ballots for the recall and 12,087 against.

Scott had been targeted by the Michigan Education Association, according to our partner station Michigan Radio, because he supported budget cuts for K-12 schools and tenure-law revisions, and the state’s income tax extension to senior pensions. His recall is viewed as a warning sign to first-year Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.

Gary, Indiana breaks new ground: Karen Freeman-Wilson has called Gary, Indiana a “blighted steel town on Lake Michigan’s southern shore.” She’s going to get a chance to clean it up. Voters elected Freeman-Wilson as the city’s mayor on Tuesday. In doing so, she becomes the first black female mayor in Indiana state history. She tells the Northwest Indiana Times she’s already working to make Gary a safer, business-friendly city.

Regional outlook: Changing Gears senior editor Micki Maynard examines the impact of Tuesday’s elections on first-year governors across the Midwest. Will the momentum that swept Republican governors. Rick Snyder, John Kasich and Scott Walker into office now work against them?

She explains that it’s not entirely a partisan issue. But on Tuesday, union supporters that protested collective-bargaining limits won the day. Heading into 2012, they hold the Midwestern momentum.


Download audio file (ReinventingOurCitiesFINALFORAIR_web.mp3)

“Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.” That’s what Carl Sandberg said about Chicago.

The poet Joseph Brodsky said, “Everything about our cities is king sized — the beauty and the ugliness.”

And President John F. Kennedy said, ” We neglect our cities to our peril, for in neglecting them, we neglect the nation.” He could have been talking about our region, too.

Reinventing Our Cities, an hour-long radio documentary from Changing Gears, looks at all the issues facing our cities, from Pittsburgh to Chicago, Detroit to Gary, Indiana. Big questions remain. Can these cities learn from each other? What are the best ideas that can work for each? Or do they have their own unique problems?

The documentary includes stories from Dan Bobkoff, Changing Gears’ Cleveland reporter, who visited Pittsburgh; Sarah Hulett of Michigan Radio, who reported from Detroit; and WBEZ reporter Michael Puente, who went to Gary.

Bobkoff, Hulett and Puente spoke with Changing Gears reporter Niala Boodhoo about their impressions of the cities they visited — and the challenges they face.

Along with the reports, Reinventing Our Cities featured our listeners, who shared their own ideas for fixing the urban centers of our region. Changing Gears Ann Arbor Kate Davidson talked to them, and their stories are here.

When visitors come to Chicago, one of the top tourist attractions on their list is Navy Pier. Right now, thousands of people are pouring in each day for the Winter Wonderfest. But Navy Pier wasn’t always such a shining star, according to Richard Longworth, a senior fellow with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and the author of Caught in the Middle.

Opened nearly100 years ago, the pier was used by the U.S. Navy (hence its name). By the 1990s, it had fallen into disrepair, which was when Chicago Mayor Daley stepped in. Now, the pier has shops, restaurants, museums, theaters, and a stunning view of the Chicago skyline.

Chicago is often held up around the region as the example to emulate. And yet, it has a bookend, about 500 miles to the east: Pittsburgh. It faced a devastating collapse in the early 1980s, when the bottom fell out of the steel industry. But thanks to efforts by community, business and education leaders, Pittsburgh has gotten back on its feet.

(Read and listen to even more about Pittsburgh in our series, Reinventing Pittsburgh.)

The task there isn’t finished, though, nor can any of the cities in the Great Lakes region declare complete victory. But Donald K. Carter, who heads the Remaking Cities Institute at Carnegie-Mellon University, believes the Rust Belt can become the Water Belt, if the region leverages its greatest resource. 

Some answers may come from overseas. Mayors from all over the world came to Chicago recently for a conference on metro cities. There, the mayor of Turin, Italy — often called the Detroit of Italy — spoke of the job losses that his city encountered in its own economic decline.

But Turin has fought back, with an economic development approach that still includes the automobile industry but which depends on far less in order for survival.

In this enormous task of reinventing our cities, ideas are everywhere. But will our cities learn from each others’ failures and successes? And can they accept help from each other? Those are questions we’ll be exploring at Changing Gears.

Pittsburgh and steel began a courtship in the late 1800s. That courtship would eventually produce a lovechild: Gary, Indiana. In the early 20th Century, Pittsburgh’s U.S. Steel Corporation began searching for a spot to build its new steel mill near Chicago. It found one on the southern shore of Lake Michigan in Indiana. The new mill employed thousands and helped the young city of Gary grow big and strong. But when those plentiful steel jobs began to dry up, both cities fell on hard times. 

All this week, Changing Gears has been looking at reinventing Pittsburgh. Yesterday, we heard how Detroit has borrowed some of its ideas. In our final report, Michael Puente of Changing Gears partner station WBEZ headed to Gary to see if this smaller Steel Town can learn from its industrial mother, Pittsburgh. But he found old habits are hard to break.

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Download the audio here


More Reinventing Pittsburgh:  Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5


If you thought steel production was a thing of the past in Gary, think again. Smokestacks here release huge white plumes of steam showing there’s much life going on inside this plant, U.S. Steel’s largest–literally on Lake Michigan. Here, more than 7 million net tons of raw steel are produced annually.

It once employed once employed 50,000 workers, including Jim Robinson. He began his career in steel more than 40 years ago. “If you didn’t go to college, if you didn’t go into a profession, you could always count on jobs being available at the mill,” said Robinson, now the district director for the United Steel Workers of America’s regional office in Gary.

“It used to be you could walk up to the employment office and they tried talk you into starting in the afternoon. Certainly not true today.”

Over the past four decades, decline in demand for steel has hurt workers, leading to a blood-letting of layoff. It accelerated folks moving out of Gary and blight to set in just about everywhere you can look. At last count, Gary’s population was down by about 80,000 people from the early 1960s to just over 100,000 today.

But mills here like U.S. Steel continue putting out tons of steel They’re just doing it with far fewer workers. This plant now has only about 6,000 jobs, although it’s still the city’s largest employer.

With numbers like that, you’d think this city would be ready to pull the plug on steel and find new employers as Pittsburgh has. Not yet, said Robinson. “Gary’s future is obviously not ever going to be decoupled from U.S. Steel simply because it’s a major part of the city and a major part of the city’s tax base, he said.

And, Pittsburgh’s move away from steel and toward areas like education and medical fields may not work here. “By definition, that doesn’t create an awful lot of work for people who aren’t teaching or in the healthcare field. They talk about retraining but the question is retraining for what? Last I checked we don’t have retraining funds to send people to medical school.”

Still, there are signs Gary is following Pittsburgh’s lead.

While it may not totally wean itself off steel, it is making efforts to reduce its dependence on it.

Ben Clement, whose job is to attract new firms to Gary, gave a tour of a vacant lot that soon will not be empty. Planned for this site is “a high technology data center which is going to house Fortune 500 companies and others wishing to store their data at a secure location,” Clement said. The $100 million investment will create more than 100 jobs.

“We definitely want to embrace our industrial past. However, from a business perspective, we have to recognize that attracting or luring clean industries and high technology is going to be important to Gary’s growth and our future,” he said.

Meanwhile, the mayor of Gary, Rudy Clay, says the city is committed to doing more with less and diversifying its economic portfolio.

The city has partnered with a Chicago firm to push along ideas to promote growth beyond industry. And, it’s getting much needed advice–and money–from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Clay says the city has its sights on expanding its little used regional airport and its beach front area, which is part of a national park; It wants to expand the local Indiana University campus; open a land-based casino; and, perhaps most surprisingly, increase tourism.

Remember, Gary is where Michael Jackson got his start. There’s a proposal to build a large museum in his honor near his boyhood home.

But none of these ideas are to supplant U.S. Steel.

The company recently announced it plans to spend more than $200 million for a coke substitute plant in Gary, continuing its 100 year grip on the city. After all, it is named for U.S. Steel’s founding chairman, Elbert H. Gary.

“Nah, they’re not going anywhere,” he said. “I think we’re going to continue to be good cooperative partners with U.S. Steel. They will be here. And, we’ll just keep working them and just keep building the infrastructure and keep building our city and making sure that businesses continue to move in here and jobs, jobs, jobs for people here. We’re getting there.”

But, financial advisor Dean Kaplan says Gary must show it’s serious.

“All these things are very, very difficult because you’re talking about making a major sea change in how places are perceived and really leveraging their assets in way that may not have been done in a long time. The city has to show that it’s really committed to turning things around.”

But reinventing Gary, like Pittsburgh, will take years if not decades. And, Kaplan says the most important thing, like Pittsburgh, Gary needs to want to do it.

\As the reporter for WBEZ’s satellite office in Chesterton, Indiana, Michael Puente is responsible for covering the news and issues of northwest Indiana, Chicago’s South Side and southwest Michigan.

Changing Gears is spending the next few years looking at ways to reinvent the Midwest economy. Today, we kick off our first week-long series: Reinventing Pittsburgh. Once, it was the Steel City, just as Detroit was the Motor City. But while Detroit struggles to find its new identity, Pittsburgh is undergoing an enormous transformation, shifting to an economy that includes technology, medicine, education and yes, steel.

Can Pittsburgh be a model for the Great Lakes region? Later this week, we’ll be looking at how Detroit and Gary, Indiana, are following Pittsburgh’s lead. But first, we look at where Pittsburgh was.

Pittsburgh Skyline from Station Square
Photo by flickr user jmd41280

Download audio file (PittPartOne_web.mp3)

Download the audio here


More Reinventing Pittsburgh: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5


When I first got to Pittsburgh, I did something foolish.

I pulled over in a parking lot, grabbed my microphone and digital recoder, and headed straight for tailgating Steelers fans.

“Mind if I grab you for a second?” I asked a fan.

I was asking for it. I had come to Pittsburgh straight from Cleveland. The cities share steel, snow, and mutual hatred on the football field.

Even worse, they just happened to be playing the Clevleand Browns that day.

A man yells: “Cleveland sucks!”

OK, heckler man. But what’s so great about Pittsburgh?

This is what I heard from a sampling of tailgaters: “Everybody loves Pittsburgh. Even people who leave Pittsburgh love Pittsburgh like this guy here. It’s Pittsburgh; we know how to survive. All of our jobs are on the rise. Yes, Pittsburgh’s economy is booming.”

It’s like these people work for the chamber of commerce.

More people chimed in. “Pittsburgh is probably one of the most livable cities around. Meds and Eds. That’s the new manufacturing: medicine and education. We were very industrial and then they figured out we have to do something else. What are you laughing about? I’ve only lived here for a year. You should be knowing this stuff.”

They should know this stuff. This is a whole new Pittsburgh.

Photos by Erika Gatz

Unemployment is 7.4 percent: nearly two percent lower than the national average. And, recent census data shocked this city.

For the first time in decades, the population actually went up. Just a little, but it’s a sign the city has officially come out of its steel depression.

“I never have ever badmouthed US Steel,” said former steelworker Colin Meneely. “They paid me for every minute I worked.”

It’s not hard to find a former steelworker in Pittsburgh. I found him working in an office downtown.

Colin Meneely
Colin Meneely

Before it all collapsed in the early 80s, MeNeely spent many minutes working in the industry.

“I did,” he said. “I worked in US Steel’s Clariton Works as a tar plant foreman.”

It was good pay, good benefits, and you didn’t need a college education. But it was messy work.

“There’s always the danger of explosion or fire,” Meneely remembered. “It was a bad place to work. You didn’t leave your papers on your desk because they’d be dirty by the end of your shift.”

Steve Lee remembers those days too.

“When I first came to Pittsburgh to interview at Carnegie Mellon, I said this is the ugliest place I’ve ever seen in my life.”

It was 1971 and he went to Carnegie Mellon anyway.

“I’d come to school at the end of summer vacation and for two weeks, my eyes would run,” Lee said. “I’d have a sore throat just from all the junk in the air.”

Lee studied architecture. That meant he spent a lot of time working late into the night…and sometimes into the mornings. And, as dawn approached, he’d look out his window, and see a magnificent sight.

“The sky was just throbbing and red as the open hearth furnaces were being stoked.” Lee said it made him realize Pittsburgh is an amazing place.

“But I was very young,” he said. “I didn’t realize we were at a moment of huge transformation.”

That huge transformation was about to hit Colin MeNeely, the steelworker. The facility where he worked was shut down.

“I think it was 1982 and this area was just horrible at that time for employment,” he said.

Sabina Deitrick is the keeper of startling statistics. She’s with the University of Pittsburgh.

“This region lost 150,000 manufacturing jobs in roughly little better than half a decade: the early to mid 80s. And about 67,000 of them in steel alone,” she said.

This was not some long, protracted decline like the auto industry or manufacturing. Virtually overnight, 150,000 jobs were wiped out. News reports at the time covered the plight of steelworkers who drank more and felt aimless.

“It’s the magnitude and the speed at which those closings occurred that had just an incredibly strong effect on the deindustrialization of the Pittsburgh region,” Deitrick said.

There was no time for denial. The world had changed. Globalization, deregulation, choose your villain. Steel was over. And, the future was uncertain.

I asked Steve Lee to take me on a driving tour of the new Pittsburgh.

He now runs that architecture department where he was once a student.

Pittsburgh’s hills are San Francisco  steep. We’re heading down toward the city’s three rivers to the Pittsburgh Technology Center.

With steel a fraction of its former self, the air and water are pristine now. And, after a couple downtrodden decades, many steel mill sites have new uses.

One is home to biomedical research and students learning to be the next video game designers.

I asked him what it would have looked like here fifty years ago.

“Well, you certainly wouldn’t have seen the river and the bike path that’s running all the way along there–all the way to downtown,” Lee said. “This would have been huge shed buildings with massive rolling mills inside that were just creating just unbelievable sound.”

Across one of Pittsburgh’s three rivers is another former mill. It’s now home to condos and upscale retail.

Lee says it’s the former Jones and Laughlin site.

Look toward downtown and you’ll see the city’s tallest building. At the top are the initials for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

“For anyone from Pittsburgh, it’s not the UPMC building, it’s the US Steel tower, and it will remain that to everyone’s death,” Lee said. “But obviously, it’s a huge icon of the shift from basic industry to service industries in the region.”

Today, the hospitals are the biggest employer. There are 1600 technology companies. Google has added more than 150 employees there.

A generation ago, 40% of the economy was heavy industry. Today, no one thing dominates.

And, in those nearly 30 years since he was shown the door at US Steel, Colin Meneely has reinvented himself too. After clerking in the Port Authority’s law department, he realized he needed some education to get ahead.

“Graduated from the University of Pittsburgh at age 44 and went straight to law school,” Meneely said.

Before long, he was senior council at the region’s transit agency and much like the city itself, doesn’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about his days in the steel industry.

Special Thanks to: Erika Gatz, Rick Sebak and WQED, Tiffani Emig and the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, Carnegie Mellon University, Steve Lee, and everyone else who gave their time to help with this production.

Next week, Changing Gears kicks off its first week-long series with a look at Reinventing Pittsburgh.

All across the Great Lakes, cities are searching for ways to reinvent themselves. But how can they shift from a dependence on industry to the new economy? What’s the best path for Detroit and Gary, Indiana to take? The answer may lay just to the east in Pittsburgh. EGatz_F10_0032

Once it was the city of steel; now no one industry dominates. Pittsburgh’s economy is a mix of a reliance on education, medicine, technology and a smidgen of steel.

But that rejuvenation has been decades in the making, and actually has its roots in steps taken just after World War II.

Changing Gears Reporter Dan Bobkoff reports Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday from Pittsburgh, looking at the collapse of steel, the dismal environment, and the coalition of community leaders that help put the city back on its feet.

On Thursday, Sarah Hulett of Changing Gears partner station Michigan Radio reports on ideas from Pittsburgh that are helping transform Detroit. And on Friday, Michael Puente of WBEZ, another Changing Gears partner, will explore how Gary can shift from being a steel city to something else.

Listen to Changing Gears reports on Michigan Radio, WBEZ and ideastream in Cleveland, and we’ll be posting them here as well. Meanwhile, here’s Dan Bobkoff’s promo for the series.

Download audio file (PittPromo.mp3)

We can’t wait to hear what you have to say about it.