By Katie Yu, Producer, NBC News
When I first met Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, I was struck by her petite size. As a producer, my first thought was, “How will she look standing next to our very tall correspondent, Harry Smith?” Well, that was the last time I thought about her height, because the woman is a force. Within minutes, she had Harry walking alongside her, garbage bag in hand, picking up trash on the residential streets of her city, Gary, Ind.
Freeman-Wilson has been mayor for more than a year now and she says it’s the toughest job she’s ever had. That’s saying a lot when you consider that this Harvard Law School graduate was once the attorney general of Indiana. But as mayor, she not only has to pull the city back from the brink of bankruptcy, she also has to inspire the people who have given up on Gary.
So how do you fix a broken city? According to Freeman-Wilson, you start by reminding the people who live there why it deserves to be fixed. No small task when you consider just how long Gary has been languishing along the nation’s rust belt. Two things locals will tell you about Gary – it’s the birth place of Michael Jackson and it’s a city you should probably avoid at night. The signs of neglect are everywhere. Driving into the formerly bustling downtown, you’ll see rows of abandoned buildings separated by overgrown lots.
Read more: Battered city of Gary, Ind., considers shrinking 40 percent to save itself
It’s all a far cry from its glory days in the early 1960s, back when it was a booming steel town with close to 180,000 residents. Today, fewer than 80,000 people live there. And it’s those people – the ones who stayed - that Freeman-Wilson is trying to reach, which is why she was walking along the streets that day picking up trash. Freeman-Wilson and her city employees are leading by example – they can often be found out as a group cleaning up the streets, hoping that residents will be inspired to do the same.
We also learned of the mayor’s game plan for the city: to build on top of its existing assets, as opposed to creating new ones. Construction is currently underway to extend the runway at Gary’s airport. The hope is that it will attract bigger aircrafts and commercial airlines to fly out of there. There are also plans to develop its lakefront properties to boost tourism in the region. And to fill its empty houses, applications are being accepted by the city for $1 homes.
The process has been admittedly slow. The runaway project was delayed when officials found that ground contamination near the airport was worse than expected, and plans to tear down an abandoned hotel next to City Hall was postponed when asbestos removal was more expensive than anticipated. All this is made worse by the fact that the city is working with a very limited tax base. The mayor says she’s disappointed by the pace of change, but is determined to see it through.
When we asked her what was at stake here, Freeman-Wilson mentioned her daughter.
“When I listen to my daughter talk about a city that I was proud to say that I'm from, I don't hear that same pride in her voice,” she said. And that’s what motivates her -- to build a city that the children of Gary can be proud to call home.