Urban Decay Lures Hollywood to Gary
When Gary, Indiana was booming, the city’s factories belched a constant cycle of smoke and steel. When the industrial hub thirty miles south of Chicago went bust, those buildings decayed with equal fervor.
The steel industry has not returned, but the crumbling remains of Gary’s last viable economy are offering some small hope of a new one.
Last year the action blockbuster “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” filmed at Gary’s abandoned City Methodist Church, which is falling apart from the inside out. The year before, “A Nightmare On Elm Street” also shot scenes there.
In 2010 Gary was the location for 24 films. With 26 productions already shot, 2011 is a record year for Gary’s nascent film industry.
“It is a significant economic development driver already and we are still fledgling,” Ben Clement, executive director of the Gary Office of Film and Television, said of the hundreds of thousands of dollars the city makes each year from films.
A booming industrial city through the 1950’s, Gary suffered a very public decline as steel production shifted overseas. In turn jobs disappeared, residents fled, crime rose and the once-vibrant city became a shell of its former self.
“Gary can feel the pain and the weight of what’s going on with China,” said Al Cohn, a location scout and manager with the Illinois Film Office. “We are playing more with zeros and ones and keyboards than with hot steel.”
The city’s population has declined 22 percent since 2000, from 102,746 residents to 80,294, according to 2010 Census data. The median income for Gary residents, according to the 2009 American Community Survey, is $24,821, and 30 percent of all families are under the poverty line.
Unable to afford the costs of demolishing its eroded buildings, Gary has been left with an abundance of outsize, abandoned structures that have proven to be a destination for urban explorers, photographers and filmmakers.
For the new Transformers film, director Michael Bay turned a former cement plant on the edge of Lake Michigan into Chernobyl.
“In a sense it’s kind of like the right place for all the wrong reasons,” said Cohn, who scouted locations in Chicago and Gary for the Transformers production. “There are still locations that offer a window into the past and its faded glory. And faded glory is still a visually interesting backdrop to filmmaking.”
In 1997, Clement opened the Gary’s film office to capitalize on that interest.
“We started to see that there was value in our infrastructure,” Clement said.
Since then, Gary has been used as a location in dozens of productions, including the films “Pearl Harbor” and “Soul Survivor” and the History Channel show “Life After People.”
“When they are bombing Tokyo, they are bombing Gary, Indiana,” Clement said of Gary’s role in “Pearl Harbor.”
But Clement insists that the city’s goal is not to become a theme park of urban decay.
“I am not preserving these building for that purpose,” Clement said. “As long as they’re here I am taking lemons and making lemonade.”
Clement said some citizens feel he is allowing Hollywood to exploit their battered city.
“I get some residents who just don’t get it,” Clement said. “They are of the mindset that we should not be airing our dirty laundry.”
With all of the city’s challenges — Gary no longer has its own movie theater to watch the productions it stars in — courting the film industry seemed frivolous to some residents, Clement recalled. But he insists there are benefits for the city beyond the income generated.
When he saw kids lined up to get the actor Tyrese Gibson’s autograph outside the Methodist church after Gibson wrapped filming, the smile on their faces confirmed his mission to bring such productions to Gary, Clement said.
One of those kids “could be the next Spike Lee because he saw a Hollywood production in his front yard when he was five or six,” Clement said.
At the Horace Mann apartments, a mixed income housing complex a block from the Methodist church, kids repaired their bikes and recalled watching the big-budget productions in action.
“It’s good publicity,” said Jamal Mayes, 17. “Because right now it’s kind of like a ghost town here.”