Is Gary, Indiana a safe city to visit?
September 11, 2020 8:36 AM   Subscribe

If we can go to the US next year, I'd like to check out Gary, Indiana. But the reputation of the city precedes it. Is it as bad as people say?

I'm really interested in seeing the ruined church and other civic architecture that has fallen victim to the economic downturn, but I'm both wary of the city's reputation and also have no desire to look like a poverty tourist.

For the former - hard to say how much of it is racism (I'm white and Reddit keeps saying 'don't go if you're white' - ??) and the assumption that everyone in a poor city is about to rob everyone else. I find it hard to gauge whether it really is dangerous or not. My feeling is, as with every city, people are just living their lives...and then I read an article about how the abandoned houses have been popular places to hide bodies. I keep thinking 'well, I could as easily get mugged for my camera stuff in London or Chicago as I would anywhere else' - is this naive?

For the latter - I have no interest in photographing people or abandoned houses. I'm mostly interested in how nature has reclaimed what humans left behind - I live in a city where every square inch gets redeveloped and resold and things don't get allowed to decay. I would like to spend money when there if possible, even if it's just a coffee or snack. That said, I'm aware that Detroiters have been really pissed off with people coming down with cameras and I don't want people to feel uneasy or hostile if I'm carrying a DSLR in my hand.

If it makes a difference, I'll be travelling down on the train (no car, no license) and I'll be a female on her own. I'm also British, so we don't do weapons.
posted by mippy to Travel & Transportation around Gary, IN (27 answers total)
The whole way you’re framing this idea kind of squicks me out to be honest. I don’t think you will get into any real trouble if you’re smart, but it’s hard to see how this could be seem as anything other than poverty tourism. Don’t you have any blighted neighborhoods to take pictures of in England? Surely there are some.
posted by cakelite at 8:55 AM on September 11, 2020 [24 favorites]

Gary, Indiana has a crime rate of 41 per thousand residents, whereas London has a rate of 101 per thousand residents. I won't tell you what is "safe" but some perspective is warranted here.
posted by saeculorum at 8:56 AM on September 11, 2020 [20 favorites]

I went to Gary, I had a nice time. I went to the beach, hung out in a little arty neighborhood and met some nice people. I wasn't there very long. Could suggest an AirBnB if you decide to go.
posted by jessamyn at 9:01 AM on September 11, 2020 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: cakelite - I thought that when writing, but I didn't really know how best to word it. I'm not interested in neighbourhood blight as such, I'm interested in decaying factories and civic buildings. There isn't anywhere with easy access from where I live that provides this. FYI I come from a very poor part of the UK originally.
posted by mippy at 9:02 AM on September 11, 2020

I was going to tell you to go for it, until I saw that you're traveling by train. It's really not that walkable of a city. And there's just not that much around there. Once you're in Gary, you're in Gary...and that's about it. You won't be able to walk to Lake Michigan - it's super industrial. It's a very low-density city, so seeing any sites will take a while.

If you had a car and wanted to drive through on your way to somewhere else, I could maybe see that...

I found this site, which does help show maybe what you're looking for, but I do agree with cakelite that it's just a bit odd/off. Even if Gary were an all-white city, it would still be odd to have a British tourist coming through to tour their ruined architecture. The local residents will surely think you're a bit off.
posted by hydra77 at 9:03 AM on September 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Sorry, not to go back and forth here, but I'm just fine seeing the church if getting around is tricky. There's another site about 30 mins walk away from that as well which is why I'm trying to gauge whether it's any more dangerous to walk around than anywhere else. There are parts of my home town that I wouldn't walk round during the day, let alone at night, and the impression given on Reddit is that the whole city is like that - which, as I said, seems mostly classism/racism?
posted by mippy at 9:07 AM on September 11, 2020

White Americans love to tell other white people how dangerous it is to go where white people don't live. It's not true. The victims of crime are overwhelmingly the people who live there, not the occasional tourist. You're much more likely to get robbed in a busy downtown area.

That said, there's really no way to make this not poverty tourism, even if you're going with the best of intentions. The ruined civic buildings are just as much a result of extreme economic decline as the abandoned houses and empty lots.

If you want to do something in Gary near the train station, I suggest going to a Railcats minor league baseball game, assuming they're playing. Get some hot dogs and beer and enjoy our very earnest, very goofy national pastime.
posted by theodolite at 9:12 AM on September 11, 2020 [32 favorites]

Gary is a hardscrabble town but it does have some nice parts as Jessamyn mentioned above. There definitely is some crime but it's unlikely to happen to you. When Americans obsess about "safety" on internet forums it almost always is actually about whether or not there are black people around, so of course the supposed danger of a place is way overexaggerated. Taking pictures of various ruins in Gary is something photography people in Chicago come down to do fairly often. You might consider looking around for some urban exploration/photography Facebook/Meetup groups to see if anyone might want to meet up and tag along/show you around.
posted by Brain Sturgeon at 9:30 AM on September 11, 2020 [11 favorites]

There's a distinction between poverty tourism and finding the beauty in abandoned places, but sometimes it can be a subtle one. Some might interpret your actions as being disrespectful, and sometimes, even the possible appearance of disrespect—particularly when traveling abroad—ought to be enough to decide not to do something.

Since you mentioned travel by train, you might consider taking Amtrak's Capitol Limited during your travels. It has a full observation car, and travels right through downtown Gary.

Naturally, photography from a moving train can be much more of a challenge, but it's doable, and you pass by some large Rust Belt sites on the way, both in and outside of Gary, including US Steel's Gary Works. It's still operational, but parts are abandoned or in long-disuse, and sometimes you can see the lake in the background. I've met many Britons on Amtrak in the past, and nobody will look twice at you for taking photos out the window.

Crossing the US by rail is a very underrated way to travel. Watching the forests of the East give way to the plains of the Midwest and the mountains and deserts of the West, it's very compelling. Book a sleeper and enjoy the ride.
posted by vitout at 9:45 AM on September 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: vitout - I'd love to do the California Zephyr one day, having taken the Vancouver-Seattle train in the past, but it's not an option for this trip for various reasons. The Rust Belt-ness is what interests me, though, as it's quite different from what you'd see from the train here.

Brain Sturgeon - I've been looking at a few but have found people are quite cagey about meeting up with strangers.

theodolite - there is some of that here, such as people who have never been to London or Birmingham being convinced there are 'no-go' areas under Sharia law. For the most part where I live, it's gang on gang violence and unless you're walking through a housing project with money and gold hanging out of your pockets, you're fine. Hence me thinking it all sounded dubious.
posted by mippy at 9:56 AM on September 11, 2020

That said, a lot of Gary is going to be empty-feeling, so the people who live there totally aside, it may not seem safe for a woman traveling alone which is completely understandable. I imagine unless you team up with local hobby pal, you'll end up needing to use a car share. If you're, say, taking a day trip on the South Shore Line from Chicago, you could always get a Lyft downtown from the Gary station and try walking around and if it starts to creep you out, just get a Lyft back to the Dunes (right near the South Shore Line, different station but not too far) so your day trip isn't for nothing.
posted by Brain Sturgeon at 9:56 AM on September 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

It's safe enough as long as you have situational awareness, but I'm honestly not sure the trip as you've described it is really all that feasible. Though yes, I suppose with supplemental use of Lyfts or cabs perhaps. It's just not a walkable place and the trains you're thinking of aren't like subways--you can't really use them to get around town, per se.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:08 AM on September 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

Yes and no. So... even unsafe cities aren't all that unsafe. Like someone pointed out, the crime rate in Gary is 41 per 100,000. That's a pretty low probability. And crime generally isn't random. You're not going to be standing on a street and someone jumps out and shoots you. Much of the crime in inner cities is people who know each other and have some pre-existing grudge. That said, none of that really matters if you're the victim of one of the few random crimes. And honestly, the place where I'd be most concerned about random crime in just about any city is... public transportation hubs. I've never been to Gary, but in every other city I've ever been to, the train station and main bus depot are two places where a lot of sketchy people just kind of hang out. A lone woman with expensive electronics makes an easy target.

I think there's a way for you to do this safely, but I don't think it's by train. If you Uber in to the church, take some photos, walk around the neighborhood a bit, and Uber back out, you're in very little danger. If you wander around from a train station through a post-industrial wasteland, you increase your risk significantly.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:12 AM on September 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

A lone woman with expensive electronics makes an easy target.

Yes, although probably any person with expensive (and easily fence-able) electronics is going to be a target for robbery.

Some other things to consider:

Your whiteness and female-ness might generate some hard feelings depending where you are -- to some extent, you yourself will be perceived of as quite dangerous (because of your ability and perceived willingness to invoke police violence) and people might seem wary or hostile for that reason. That might make you quite uncomfortable but is not likely to be dangerous to you.

You might also experience police contact, potentially aggressive or harassing police contact, if you are in a heavily police-surveilled neighborhood. You don't want to interact with the police if you can help it; depending on the experience it can be unpleasant or traumatizing, or it could endanger members of the surrounding community.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 10:18 AM on September 11, 2020 [3 favorites]

This is not an answer to the question, apologies, but when you talk about ruined churches and nature reclaiming what humans have left behind, the first thing I think of is St Dunstan's in the East, which is a lot closer to home if you're in the UK. (And very easy to visit using public transport.) I realise you probably know about it already, but on the offchance... it's well worth a look.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 10:27 AM on September 11, 2020

Response by poster: Rock 'em Sock 'Em - I didn't think of it that way, and I can see now, being in my 30s, I might look like a 'Karen' to people.

Getting Uber or Lyft is dependent on my having wifi to use the app or sorting out roaming data. I feel less safe having my phone out in "dodgy" areas than my camera, phone robberies are a big thing here, and my camera etc. will be in my bag when not using. It is a 6min walk from the station to the church, I've been trying to risk-assess that. I wouldn't think twice about using a train or bus station in the daytime in the UK.

ManyLeggedCreature - I have been there, and to all of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries over the years (would recommend Abney Park btw). I also really like photographing graffiti, though, which you don't get so much in those sites.
posted by mippy at 10:41 AM on September 11, 2020

Eric Allix Rogers is based out of Chicago but has been photographing architecture and the built environment all over the region, including in Gary, IN. He's a nice guy (we were briefly acquainted years ago), you might try contacting him for advice specific to architectural photography and Gary and getting around the Midwest without a car.
posted by yeahlikethat at 10:43 AM on September 11, 2020 [3 favorites]

I live in the Chicago area, have a general interest in architectural photography, and have been to Gary multiple times; I will note that sites like the famous church (which I've photographed in the past) have been fenced off when I've visited them in the last few years, as there's been a push to rid the area of attractive nuisances. It's also not a particularly convenient place to be without a car, as the sites of interest are somewhat sparce and spaced well apart. You may want to keep an eye on the Facebook page for the Gary Preservation Tours, which might be a better time to visit, if you're interested. If you do end up coming, feel free to hit me up, as I have a car and my partner and I go on photographic field trips occasionally.
posted by carrienation at 11:08 AM on September 11, 2020 [8 favorites]

I think Gary is a super-interesting city, and I'd recommend going there as urbanist. The city's dynamic growth and serious decline were amazingly fast. The big public buildings were only occupied for about 50 years, and the fixed transit lasted about 20 years. As such it is locked in time. As for crime, it's population has fallen so much, that it's on it's way back to being classified as 'rural' so I wouldn't worry about crime.
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:19 AM on September 11, 2020 [3 favorites]

I went on the Gary Preservation Tour last September and I think I have the self guided tour map here somewhere. Also recommend the Dunes and a hike to the house that Nelson Algren and Simone de Beauvoir stayed in the early 50's.
posted by readery at 11:28 AM on September 11, 2020 [3 favorites]

You mentioned that you wouldn't think twice about using a train or bus station in the daytime in the UK, but I am not sure that general sense of safety around transport hubs transfers to suburban/rural America.

I realize that you asked this question to get feedback on that very issue, and I just want to encourage you to continue investigating that matter rather than relying on any preconceived ideas you have about the safety of public transportation based on your experiences in the UK.

I tried to find reports and crime statistics on the train station in Gary, but didn't have much luck. I just found a few dodgy sites that I wouldn't want to link to here. But maybe you could request the information from the NICTD here:
posted by ASlackerPestersMums at 1:06 PM on September 11, 2020

Are we talking about City Methodist Church in Gary? Yeah, I'd go there in the daytime in a heartbeat, it's like four blocks from the city hall and the county court building, it's not, like, you're in the abandoned forgotten corners of a bombed-out town full of mutants. I don't find pretty much any bit of Gary all that scary in the daytime; if you're not buying drugs or selling sex, people aren't going to hassle you (beyond teenaged boys talking big and a few homeless people). But you're talking about being right downtown, and in the daytime, that's completely fine. I actually like Gary a lot! It has a lot of neat civic institutions hanging on, even though the city has crashed really hard! It also smells a lot better than it used do! (Because so much of the heavy industry has gone; you used to smell Gary MILES before you got there from all the horrible stuff being pumped into the atmosphere, but now it just smells like a city.)

(I also don't want to speak authoritatively but I don't think there's a heck of a lot of danger to your phone; a lot of European urban crime relies on crowds to escape -- pickpocketing, quick grabs -- and that's a lot less common in the US. In cities like Gary (and Peoria, where I lived for 12 years) they're going to smash your car windows at night when you're not awake and steal things from inside your car, or strip your air conditioner for its copper or things like that. Not a lot of pickpocketing or phone grabbing. Honestly most property crime that ends in theft in the Midwest relies on the fact that a lot of people, even in big, "dangerous" cities still don't fucking lock their doors, either on their cars or their house. Burglars just walk through wealthy Chicago suburbs trying doorknobs until they find an unlocked one.)

I even like riding the South Shore (which is a rickety-ass excuse for a train, affectionately known as the "vomit comet"), although weirdos will definitely strike up conversations with you when you're on the South Shore. They won't try to rob you -- there's conductors -- but they might try to tell you about their weird religion.

If the Covid is gone by then, hit me up, I will literally drive you around Gary and introduce you to Fazoli's breadsticks, the world's most rotgut, and yet delicious, rest-stop fast food. I was in Gary last year with all three of my small children, as the beginning and end-point of a family trip to the Indiana Dunes, and there was not anything to be particularly fussed about, except Indiana drivers. (Drives my husband a LITTLE BIT CRAZY that I like to take local road shortcuts in northern Indiana because the roads are horribly maintained and he never knows where we are but the interstate gets so knotted up with trucks and I've been driving (or passengering) that area for 40 years, so YES we are taking a shortcut through the bad part of Gary and YES I've been in much, much scarier parts of Indiana than Gary but they were full of white people with guns so for some reason people don't get nearly so worked about them).
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:53 PM on September 11, 2020 [17 favorites]

(I should emphasize that the South Shore is a commuter line that serves the Indiana suburbs of Chicago. It USED to be a "real" interurban and for that reason goes as far as South Bend at least a few times a day, but the vast bulk of its service is train commuters from the suburbs heading into Chicago for work, and if you ride it during commute hours it's all commuters and lots of suits. I think some people in this thread think it's ... something else. But it's a regular commuter train! With the regular mix of people you find on US commuter trains!)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:10 PM on September 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

I used to live in Chicago and have stopped in Gary a couple times. I wouldn't worry about being out and about during the day. But it is kind of unsettling just how quiet and empty the place is, in a visceral way. One time I took the Greyhound bus back to Chicago from Michigan -- when we got to the Gary stop a few of the people on the bus were nervously joking with the driver not to linger too long.
posted by Standard Orange at 7:34 PM on September 11, 2020

I'm a woman who photographs the derelict built environment and cemeteries. I don't recommend doing so alone, or on foot. When you're lost in framing a shot, you lose your situational awareness, and are vulnerable to things in the environment. Could be a loose dog, could be a hole in the ground, could be a person with their own agenda. It's good to have a look out, and a car to hop in if the situation starts to seem sketchy. You can cover a lot more ground, too. If the car's a no go, you can find a more walkable destination with the type of places you want to shoot than Gary. Sign up for the UER message board if you're looking for Urbex buddies or regional location advice.
posted by Scram at 2:29 PM on September 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

You might want to check out this website from Michael Puente a journalist, professor and local resident who has devoted two decades of his life to covering Gary and Northwest Indiana. Beyond the culture/economics reporting, he also covers a lot of the environmental threats to the area.
posted by caveatz at 2:30 PM on September 15, 2020

For anyone still following, here's another resource when exploring Gary:
posted by carrienation at 11:27 AM on October 15, 2020

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