Gary, IN

Chicagoist: Inside Gary’s Big Plans to Revive its Food Scene and Economy

It sounds like faint praise, but bear with me: Mama Pearl’s Barbecue Soul Food and Catering has the most buzzed-about address in Gary, Indiana. That’s 411 E. 5th Street, a 15,000-square-foot building across from the town’s minor league baseball stadium. Soon, this single-story slab—which looks like it used to be a Blockbuster but never was—is slated to become ArtHouse, a culinary arts incubator.

The project is the latest stab at revitalizing Gary, and it’s backed by more than $1.5 million in grant funding, thanks to University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy and University of Chicago’s Place Lab, led by the artist Theaster Gates. They’re collaborating on the project with the Gary government, headed by mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson.

Right now, though, ArtHouse is little more than a promising idea. When my friend and I arrived at its future home, the building looked empty, and our car was the only one in the lot. This is par for the course in Gary. It’s routinely called a ghost town. The city is about 55 square miles—bigger than San Francisco—but it has 78,000 residents, about one-tenth of San Francisco’s population.

It wasn’t always this empty; back when the U.S. Steel plant in Gary was thriving, the city had 180,000 residents. Now, though, abandoned homes are a serious social problem. On back roads, vines reclaim empty gas stations, and trees sprout from the roofs of empty schools.

Hungry for barbecue, my friend and I approached Mama Pearl’s building and started trying doors. The first two were locked, but as we circled around to the other side of the building, we passed a wall decorated with a giant stock photo of Southern food—a good omen. Finally, we found the restaurant, its windows covered in giant, outward-facing decals that read “Now Open BBQ.”

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