Movie review: Stagnant Hope: Gary, In (2014)

If you are from Northwest Indiana, the documentary Stagnant Hope will likely break your heart.

Alex Semchuck chronicles the rise—and mostly the fall—of Gary. Gary was incorporated in 1906 as a community to house workers, mostly unskilled, for US Steel. Unsurprisingly as the steel industry faltered and then collapsed, so did Gary.

Once a culturally vibrant city, Gary was hit in the 1960s by a decrease in steel jobs, an increase in crime, and the start of white flight to other neighboring cities. Businesses fled. Today one in five houses stand abandoned.

Alex focuses on several historical structures of Gary that were once points of pride. He relates the history of the place and then shows photos and videos of the current state of the buildings.

Union Station: Historically Indiana was a transportation hub and Gary was no different. Union Station was built in 1910 and last used in the 1950s. Previously on the Indiana Landmarks’ list of Ten Most Endangered Places in Indiana, nothing has been done to save or restore the building. Union Station has been abandoned and left to decay.

City Methodist Church: A huge gothic structure built in 1926, the church celebrated its last service in 1975. It has been abandoned and left to decay for over 35 years. Seth Thomas, tragically killed in an accident at the age of 23, famously photographed the fading beauty of the building.

Gary Public Schools Memorial Auditorium: Lavish venue for concerts, cultural events, and other gatherings, the auditorium was one of the victims of the 1997 fire that swept through Gary. Surprisingly, this abandoned and decaying shell of a building is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Palace Theatre: This theatre was built in 1924 as a stunning theatre, originally for live shows and then for movies. The theatre closed in 1972, but its façade was covered with painted plywood in 2002 when Trump’s Miss America pageant was held in Gary. (I’m thinking there is a message there somewhere.)

Public Schools: Alex chronicles and then shows before and later photos of several important schools started in the 1920s under the work-study-play model. Originally exemplary schools, these schools were closed in the 2000s (such as Horace Mann in 2004) and have been left to slowly decay.

After touring these structures, Alex then starts to examine the revitalization projects planned over the years. Most never left the planning stages. Others were constructed, such as the Sheraton or the Genesis Conference Center, but not fully implemented as initially conceived and left to wither and die.

He focuses on two modern grass roots initiatives: Stewart House Urban Farm and Gardens and Gary’s Time.

Stewart House Urban Farm and Gardens is an attempt to get urban farming to take root. More than just a community garden, Stewart House Urban Farm and Gardens is meant to make money and encourage the community to engage in private farming. As of the documentary, funding and knowledge sharing was lacking.

Gary’s Time was started by Roger Hayward, a Pennsylvania resident. He had the vision and heart to rebuild abandoned houses in Gary one house at a time. He hires and trains at risk individuals to help them build skills and rebuild their lives after prison.

Alex also interviews the current mayor of Gary, Karen Freeman-Wilson, along with others about the challenges facing Gary and the hope—seemingly stagnant over the last forty years. The documentary ends with talks and rallies about peace and an end to violence, in a city racked with crime and murder.

Gary was once a vibrant city in northwest Indiana, now long abandoned and forgotten. Dreams die hard though. Plan after plan for revitalization bubbles up but inevitably dies. The once proud steel city is now just a shell, a ghost town in the making. Stagnant Hopes reveals some of that history and architectural splendor. You’ll weep at what once was…and what is now….and hope for the future.


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