Written by Mary Elise McGrail, Communications and Marketing Intern
“What are you guys doing?” a voice calls out, muffled in the late autumn rain.
Attendees of the Go Gary Project Tour are huddled around a barbed wire fence with their multicolored umbrellas, peering at the unusually dark leaves of a poplar sapling, and listening intently to Eve Pytel, director at Delta Institute, explain how the black leaves indicate phytoremediation, the regenerative ability of plants like poplar trees to uptake toxic substances from the soil.
A tour member runs over to the car to inform the interested Gary citizen, who nods his approval to the group before driving on.
The poplar tree farm was one stop on Delta Institute’s Go Gary tour, a survey of four promising projects that are supporting Gary, Indiana’s environmental, cultural, and economic revitalization.
Tour attendees visited two projects led by Delta, including the poplar tree farm and a reuse warehouse, as well as two other major projects underway: City Church Ruins Garden and ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen, both Knight Cities Challenge winners.
Together, these four efforts are reclaiming vacant spaces and repurposing deconstructed materials in support of a brighter future for Gary.
STOP 1: CITY CHURCH RUINS GARDEN
The first stop on the tour was the City Church Ruins Garden, a 2017 Knight Cities Challenge winner, which offers a great example for other post-industrial cities aspiring to re-energize their own local economies through sustainable development.
With reconstruction unrealistic and demolition too expensive, Joe van Dyk, Director of the Redevelopment Commission in Gary, saw potential in the imposing, yet neglected United City Methodist Church after seeing the Carmo Convent ruins garden in Lisbon, Portugal.
Through the Knight Cities grant, the Redevelopment Commission has begun to transform the church into “an interesting compromise between conservation and demolition,” Redevelopment Fellow Sam Salvesen explained. “Making it a ruins garden restores the space as a community and cultural anchor.”
As daylight filtered through broken stained glass, tour members wandered the debris and took pictures of the grandeur, transfixed by the eerie mood and devastated beauty of the church. Many inquired if art would be incorporated in the ruins garden.
While the structural foundation is still undergoing architectural evaluation, a light installation designed by artistic engineers from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago may be in the works, contributing to the economic and cultural vibrancy of downtown Gary.
STOP 2: POPLAR TREE FARM
After success with a similar endeavor in Muskegon, Michigan in 2013, Delta partnered with Fresh Coast Capital to plant hybrid poplar and cottonwood trees on the abandoned site of the former Bear Brands Hosiery Factory in Gary. This site was strategically chosen as it had posed many environmental obstacles towards redevelopment.
Poplar trees serve as a smart, low-cost interim land management strategy for contaminated land, as they take up contaminants in the soil and create local economic opportunities as an affordable and sustainable source of wood for interested manufacturers and community members.
At the Bear Brands Hosiery Plant site, plans to replace the barbed wire with a white fence and mow down overgrown weeds will also beautify the land for surrounding residents.
Community support, as well as a strong partnership with the City of Gary, helps to ensure long-term success and maximizes positive environmental outcomes.
According to Pytel, once the poplar farm is mature and the trees are ready for harvest, the site will be open for community initiatives, such as school field trips and the cultivation of a community garden by a local Lutheran church.
Although the black leaves of the sapling in question currently reveal a high level of soil contamination, the sapling will reach adulthood as a healthy, green tree viable for harvest. In the words of tour leader and Delta Institute CEO, Bill Schleizer, the color transformation of the leaves can be viewed as a “fantastic marker of progress” for the recovery of the soil and a hopeful emblem for the revitalization of Gary as a whole.
STOP 3: STEEL CITY SALVAGE POP-UP SHOP
After a morning of touring the ruins garden and poplar tree farm in near-freezing rain, it was time to warm up and enjoy food and community at the Steel City Salvage pop-up shop. Launched in 2016 with funding from the Knight Foundation, Steel City Salvage is an initiative led by Delta in partnership with the City of Gary, and it aims to contribute to Gary’s revitalization by turning its 6,000 vacant structures into a supply chain for a reclaimed building materials warehouse.
This pop-up shop was also its debut event, inviting residents, families, salvagers, and artisans to learn about the effort and shop for materials while enjoying local food and entertainment.
The inventory of materials will continue to grow through deconstructions and donations, and ultimately graduate from a pop-up to a permanent Gary-based marketplace. It will contribute to ongoing economic growth by offering “both a cheap and accessible replacement option for people, as well as an attraction for those looking to scoop up vintage, unique, and funky pieces,” says Martin Brown, Senior Programs Associate at Delta Institute.
STOP 4: ARTHOUSE: A SOCIAL KITCHEN
Community involvement is integral to the cultural aims of ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen and any thriving community.
Established in 2015 with funding from the Knight Cities Challenge, ArtHouse has been met with enthusiasm due to its range of free classes and events that foster connection between Gary citizens and their city. Community Engagement Specialist, Arleen Peterson, shared how, at their recent jazz night attended by at least two hundred seniors from the community, many came up to her and wistfully exclaimed, “It’s just like the good old days.”
Tour guests marveled at the cosmopolitan feel and modern structure of the venue, sustainably constructed in collaboration with renowned artist and the site’s artistic director, Theaster Gates. Peterson invited guests to make themselves at home by writing poetry and good intentions on a floor-to-ceiling canvas and enjoying samples from ArtHouse’s highly-regarded Culinary Incubation Program for aspiring chefs and catering businesses. Alumni include Kalifornia Jones, Co., the caterers responsible for the mouthwatering barbecue at the Steel City Salvage Pop-Up Shop.
Attending the Go Gary Project Tour, you could feel the excitement and energy driving each initiative, and combined they are working to create a more resilient Gary community. As a team, we are committed to our role in a larger ecosystem for good. Through innovation and community support, Gary is using its resources to build towards the future.