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Inside Gary’s Big Plans To Revive Its Food Scene And Economy

By Mae Rice in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 12, 2015 7:10PM

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.

Mama Pearl's building, by Mae Rice/Chicagoist

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.”

Southern food mural in Gary. By Mae Rice/Chicagoist

Joni Mason opened the door for us. He owns Mama Pearl’s with his wife, Hope. (Joni’s mother, Pearl, is the restaurant’s namesake; she’s almost 104 years old.)

We were the only customers in the restaurant, and the Masons welcomed us warmly and apologetically. They had hosted a party the night before, and stayed up until 2 a.m. They had another event that night. They were a bit frazzled. Still, they fed us an insane smorgasbord of barbecue; I recommend their baked chicken, the sweet potatoes, and the mac and cheese, if you’re ever in downtown Gary. Once ArtHouse arrives, you actually might be.

Joni Mason. By Mae Rice/Chicagoist

The ideas for ArtHouse came together slowly. On the Harris School’s end, the project traces back to 2012, when the school first partnered with the Gary government. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement, brokered by Mayor Freeman-Wilson and former Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, who is a senior fellow at the Harris School. Students got to work with a living, breathing city government; the government could request proposals around sticky policy problems.

According to Carol Brown, director of the school's Daley Fellowships Program, ArtHouse started with one such policy problem: even by local standards, Gary’s downtown felt eerily empty. Mayor Freeman-Wilson wanted to turn it into a destination for Gary’s scattered population, and students floated the idea of an incubator. The mayor suggested a culinary arts one to tackle what is, according to Brown, the well-known "retail leakage" around food in Gary. Locals eat out plenty, but far from home, spending “about $100 million dollars a year” in restaurants outside the city, Brown says. The incubator has the potential to shift locals' spending habits, so that they buy more meals in Gary proper.

Specifics are still getting nailed down. Brown says that currently, the school is planning to host trainings on two separate tracks—one devoted to entrepreneurs and a “basic culinary skills training program” for people who want to work in restaurants.

The former will help improve prospective restaurateurs’ odds of success. “There are people in Gary who have tried to start restaurants who clearly did not have the background to be able to start a restaurant,” Brown said. “In general people lack the management skills, the understanding of the culinary industry, the ability to put together a business plan, and the ability to raise financing.” Raising financing, especially, is hard in Gary. People don’t want to invest in the area, she says.

The more basic training will prepare Gary residents, many of whom are unemployed, for an industry that’s growing. From now until 2019, the Center for Workforce Innovation forecasts 1,700-plus new “food preparation and serving related” jobs being created per year in Northwest Indiana—which makes the food industry the second-fastest growing one in the region. Culinary training may not prepare residents for jobs in Gary, but as Brown points out, a job in Northwest Indiana is still better than no job at all.

The vision for ArtHouse extends beyond practical policy problems, too. Isis Ferguson, the program manager at Place Lab—another university institution behind the project—says it’s also an experiment in “ethical redevelopment.”

She and the Place Lab team are less interested in numbers—how many artists will there be, how many people will experience the incubator— and more interested in “how you redevelop cities, and use art and culture as the main animator.”

In that spirit, Place Lab is focusing on using grant money from Bloomberg to redesign ArtHouse. Led by Gates, an acclaimed local artist-turned urban planner, who recently opened an arts center in Chicago's Grand Crossing, the team will install three works of public art in and around the premises.

Theaster Gates, photo via MPC

One of those works will be an overhaul of the building itself. Though it has all the equipment necessary for the incubator—it was chosen, in part, for its giant industrial kitchen—the building has been fairly called “15,000 square feet of ugly.”

Isis put it more diplomatically: “We think of the building as… an object that could use a little love, design-wise.”

She and the Place Lab team are also working on community outreach around ArtHouse. Recently, they coordinated the first meal in their Home Grown Meal series, a series of dinners where “Garyites” (as Hope Mason calls them) can learn about and give feedback on the burgeoning plans for ArtHouse. Held in a private home on Thursday, Oct. 15, the inaugural dinner was attended by about 35 people, most of them locals. The main takeaways were, according to Isis, that a communal space for cooking appealed to retirees, and that “just having somewhere to go and something to do is super appealing.”

Somewhere to eat wouldn’t hurt, either. Whether Gary is a ghost town or not, it has a distinctly ghostly restaurant scene. According to one estimate, the city has less than 20 sit-down restaurants.

“This is really the nicest physical sit-down restaurant in Gary,” Joni Mason said of Mama Pearl’s.

Jesse Flores, a manager at Miller Pizza Company across town, pointed out the site of a failed Bennigans. “They couldn’t make it… [and] there was a Pizza Hut on [Route] 20, and they couldn’t make it."

Part of the issue, Flores said, is crime. “I carry a gun to work every day,” he said. “I’ve had one pointed at me before, sure.”

Crime isn’t prohibitively high around Miller Pizza Co.; in his 15 years working there, Flores says the restaurant has experienced a handful of armed robberies and overnight break-ins. However, crime is much more prevalent by the highway. “[Route] 20 is a really bad area for restaurants… you can go in, rob a place, and you’re on a highway already.”

Miller Pizza Co., by Mae Rice/Chicagoist

Gary restaurants struggle to find workers, too. Flores said, simply, “I hired two people within the last two months, and neither one of them came to work on their first day.”

Joni had the same problem, but took a bigger-picture view. “Opportunities [in Gary] have not been what they are becoming now. So you have a lot of people who are steeped in… the apathy of what was. They built their lives on just being able to exist and [haven’t had] an opportunity to work in a professional setting of any kind. Being a janitor can be a professional setting… [but] they’ve never had the opportunity to really do that.”

ArtHouse can help alleviate these staffing shortages, if not the structural causes behind them. Its visibility might also help shift the culture to a place where dining out without leaving town isn’t an anomaly. Jesse had never heard of ArtHouse, but Hope and Joni recently spent several hours with Gates, and the experience left them excited. Hope hopes ArtHouse will “pull the town together” and “regenerate [Gary’s] potential.” Joni hopes it shows everyone clinging to old stereotypes of Gary—as smelly, violent, and empty—how much things have changed.

When Joni took me on the tour of the premises, everything did look full of potential. I saw stand-up mixers as tall as me in a kitchen bigger than my entire apartment, and a private event area with seating for hundreds, lit by glitzy chandeliers. The building, though, felt nearly as deserted as it looked from the outside. The kitchen echoed. There were eight people in the whole place. When ArtHouse arrives, at least one building in Gary will feel less like a microcosm of the city itself. It’s a start.