By Mark Sorkin
Photo by Robert Kozloff

Working with the Gary Project showed me how busy a city is. You have to be flexible to make decisions in such a dynamic environment.”
—Kelly Saulsberry, MPP'13

The car inches forward a few feet and stops when the next house comes into view. There’s a padlock on the front door, tufts of grass sprouting from the gutters, paint peeling from the siding, and a large hole in the window frame on the second floor.

“This one looks abandoned to me,” says Robert Vanneste, AB’12, a first-year student in the Harris School of Public Policy.

“I think so, too,” says recent Harris alumnus Bradley Crawford, MPP’13. He looks down at his mobile app, which lays a grid of parcel properties over a satellite image of this Gary, Ind. neighborhood, and clicks on the correct lot. The app prompts him to answer questions about the structure and assign its condition a letter grade. “I’d call that a D,” he says, and Vanneste agrees. A grade of F would signify an immediate safety hazard.

The parcel survey, designed as a first step to address blight in Gary neighborhoods and foster economic growth, is part of an ambitious, innovative partnership between the University of Chicago and the city of Gary. The UChicago–Gary Urban Revitalization Project was officially launched in September 2012, but seeds were planted the previous winter, when former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, a distinguished senior fellow at Chicago Harris, invited newly elected Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson to be a guest in the speaker series he organizes for students.

The mutual benefits of collaboration are apparent. “It’s a win-win,” Daley says. “The project gives students practical experience in urban policy, and a unique opportunity to work directly with a mayor and her staff. At the same time, a city government that needs help benefits from the talent and passion of top students.”

For Daley, the Gary Project also underscores a core belief: “No people and no city in America should be forgotten. I want students to understand that good policy can help make a difference even in one of America’s most distressed cities.”

That is welcome news for Freeman-Wilson, who confronts immense challenges with limited resources. Gary, once a thriving hub for steel manufacturing, has seen its population plummet from a 1960 peak of 180,000 to 80,000. Businesses have moved or shut down, a striking number of homes are vacant, tax revenues have dropped, and the city government has a severe budget deficit. The poverty rate hovers near 35 percent, and unemployment is about 20 percent.

Despite the obstacles, Freeman-Wilson sees encouraging prospects for revitalization, in part because of alliances with UChicago and other partners. “We are thrilled to be working with the University of Chicago students,” she says. “The energy and creativity they bring are helping us develop smart solutions to some age-old problems,” she says.

Real-world experience, real-world results

The Gary Project already is showing results. Chicago Harris interns in 2012 assisted city officials in reviewing the municipal budget to address strategic priorities. Since then, students from Harris, the Booth School of Business, and the School of Social Service Administration have developed a range of policy recommendations for Daley, Freeman-Wilson, and city officials as part of a Harris practicum. Overall participation in the project has included undergraduates, graduate students, and alumni.

Kelly Saulsberry, MPP’13, who took part in the internship and practicum, was on a team assigned to develop a neighborhood cleanup strategy for Gary. Her team proposed “Five by Five,” in which Gary officials would partner with residents to target small-scale but significant improvements in a five-block radius over a five-week period, and then rotate to another community. In spring 2013, another student team tested the strategy with a spirited cleanup in Gary’s Marshalltown Terrace neighborhood. Since then, the city has conducted cleanups of four more neighborhoods.

The experience is relevant to Saulsberry’s new job with the city of Chicago, where she focuses on affordable housing and homelessness as deputy policy director in the mayor’s office. “Working with the Gary Project showed me how busy a city is,” Saulsberry says. “You have to be flexible to make decisions in such a dynamic environment. Things will not always be perfect, but you have to be thoughtful and move forward.”

Students developed the technology-driven parcel survey in response to a challenge from Daley and Freeman-Wilson to create ideas concerning the city’s abandoned buildings. To date, students and other volunteers have used mobile phones to compile data on more than 15,000 parcels, about 25 percent of the city. The vacancy rate is about 30 percent.  

The city has embraced the parcel survey. “The survey data will help us to more efficiently target our resources,” says Joe van Dyk, director of redevelopment for the city of Gary. The data is also a powerful tool that the city can use as it advocates for much-needed funding. 

Other student projects have included economic development strategies, municipal budget practices, and grant opportunities. Last February, UChicago students helped Gary residents claim the Earned Income Tax Credit on 2012 federal tax returns.

The road ahead

The University plans to enhance the project with a Harris-based program offering one or more postgraduate fellowships to recent graduates, who will continue working with students and city officials for up to one year.

“When Mayors Daley and Freeman-Wilson launched the Gary Project with Chicago Harris, we had great hopes that it would be as transformative for the school community as for the city of Gary,” says Chicago Harris Dean Colm O’Muircheartaigh. “This partnership has greatly enhanced our capacity to offer students real-world opportunities to apply the skills they acquire in the classroom, and I’m delighted to see that their efforts are already making an impact. Harris remains fully committed to the Gary Project, and we look forward to deepening our ties to the city in the years to come.”

Among Mayor Daley’s next priorities is developing a plan for deconstruction, a sustainable, job-creating alternative to demolition in which building materials from abandoned homes are sold or saved for reuse. Program leaders hope to roll out a pilot project for deconstruction and continue fundraising to support other student-led projects.

On one morning as students and alumni are collecting data, Freeman-Wilson zips over to greet the surveyors and encourage them as they hit the streets. She says hello to each one, shaking hands with new arrivals and offering a hearty hug to those she’s met before.

When the work is done, the surveyors head to a local restaurant to share pizza and stories about what they accomplished that day. “It feels good to get into the neighborhood and do positive things,” says Yuting Shao, a third-year College student majoring in economics. “And it’s a great experience if you want to write policy.”

Originally published on November 11, 2013.