Program: WVPE Features
Reporter: Michael Puente, Chicago Public Radio; for IPBS
Over the last 30 years the city of Gary has been hit hard with unemployment and crime. But even through the tough times, the city's residents could always hang on to the one thing that made them proud: being Michael Jackson's hometown.
That's not likely to change even after Jackson's unexpected death Thursday.
But it does end a long desire to see the city's favorite son return again one day.
The passing of Michael Jackson drew people from all around to his boyhood home at 2300 Jackson Street.
Andrea Perlinsky came even though it was her birthday.
"I didn't think on my birthday night I'd being doing this. I had to come."
The tiny, one-story home is in a downtrodden neighborhood, a few blocks away from where Jackson attended elementary school.
Perlinsky grew up in Gary but now lives in the nearby, affluent town of Munster.
Jackson's death brought folks like Perlinsky back to the city to say good-bye and place a flower at the front door.
"Young people, older people, we loved him so. He transcended a lot of generations. He was just wonderful. He brought a lot to this town. He put us on the map."
As news broke of Jackson's death, dozens began surrounding the home in Gary, placing flowers, teddy bears and personal notes of condolences at the front door.
For many, this wasn't a mere passing of a celebrity.
Mable Moore remembers Michael as a neighborhood kid.
"They used to practice right there in the house. You could hear them at night."
Moore held a black and white publicity photo of the Jackson 5. It was signed by Michael six years ago during the 'King of Pop's' last visit to his hometown.
Moore reminisced about those early years before the family moved out to Los Angeles for fame and fortune.
"He went to school, he practiced. And he played along with the rest of the children."
44-year-old Lasomia Hamblin remembers when Michael Jackson and his brothers triumphantly returned to the city to give a special concert at Gary's West Side High School in the early 1970s.
There, Jackie, Tito, Marlon, Jermaine and Michael played all their big hits.
"I was little but I went. What a bad loss we had today," Hamblin said.
Hamblin's older sister Doris Jennings remembers attending Garnett Elementary School with Jackson's older siblings.
But she too recalls the little brother who would grow up to outshine the rest.
Jackson was criticized for not doing more to help his struggling hometown. Jennings says that was unfair.
"They are going to remember him from his music and the things he did. It wasn't about what he could do for the city because it's a lot of people who left here who didn't do nothing for the city. It's just him. The King of Pop."
When the Jackson family moved out of Gary in the late 1960s, the city, once hailed as the city of the 20th Century, was already on the decline, mainly due to layoffs from U.S. Steel, where Jackson's father worked.
Drugs, gangs and unemployment plague the city to this day.
But the city's mayor, Rudy Clay, says people worldwide also knew about Michael Jackson.
"Wherever you went in the world, and you were from Gary, Indiana, and you told you were from Gary, the first thing that came out of their month was that's the home of Michael Jackson. So, that lifted our community and it also lifted you and it made you proud. Michael made us proud in Gary, Indiana. The world's greatest entertainer and nothing will take that away."
Over the past decade there's been talk about how to best commemorate the Jackson family history in the city. One idea included a theme park and there was also talk about a reality series.
Clay says the most likely project will now be a museum, with Jackson's boyhood home at 23-hundred Jackson Street as the centerpiece.
Also from Michael Puente for Chicago Public Radio: Gary Crushed by Jackson's DeathDownload Now (5.43 MB)