On the first day of the New Year, Indiana will receive its first ever African-American woman mayor. Karen Freeman-Wilson, 51, was sworn in on December 31st to lead one of the nation’s most depressed cities from the grip of stagnation towards genuine progress: Gary, Indiana. It’s a tough job, but as a native of the city, the new mayor is more than willing to take it on, “In many ways, I feel like Dorothy from Oz — there’s no place like home,” Freeman-Wilson said. Her official inauguration will go down on January 7th.
Once a thriving city boasting some 200,000 inhabitants, Gary has dwindled down to about 80,000, resembling a ghost town, rife with blight, crime, poverty and unemployment. Gary’s deterioration coincides with the decline of the auto industry and its largest employer, U.S. Steel. But Freeman-Wilson is hopeful she can turn things around for her hometown. Plans for revitalization include transportation development in the city’s downtown region, senior housing, attracting commerce, and tackling ever-present issue of crime. “We are all working to deliver government and we’re all going to keep the citizens first in all of our decision-making,” Freeman-Wilson asserts.
With undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard University, the mission of Indiana’s first black Woman mayor is reminiscent of black civic leaders such as Cory Booker — mayor of Newark — who dare to challenge, an change the fortune of a devastated city. “I know about the good things and the good places. It’s irresponsible to know about the good, to know about the potential, and not do anything about it.”
Her multiple accomplishments did not guarantee an easy passage to the top seat. Karen Freeman-Wilson once served as a presiding city court judge in Gary, Indiana Attorney General and CEO of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. Regardless, she failed at two prior attempts to win the mayoral office in both 2003 and 2007. A shift occurred when in November 2011, Freeman-Wilson was elected mayor by an astounding 86 percent.
And now she’s ready to hit the ground running.
She and her newly appointed staff are preparing to hunker down and put their plans into action. Freeman-Wilson will implement an open-door policy in which she will offer 15 minutes of dialogue to anyone interested. Plans to transform Gary’s façade involve providing improved lighting, pothole and sidewalk repair and a commitment to cleaner streets. The hometown hopeful even has designs on bringing a major hotel to the city’s downtown area, increasing service at their nearly defunct airport and collaborating with nearby metropolis, Chicago.
It may seem daunting, but Karen Freeman-Wilson’s connection and commitment to Gary indicate that real change may actually be on the horizon for an urban center so depressed, it has almost no other route to travel, but upwards.
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