Gary, Indiana, is the Pompeii of the midwest: a city of ruins where life can seem to have just suddenly stopped. The “Magic City,” as it was nicknamed by its founders, was established as a company town for U.S. Steel in 1906 but fell into a depression almost half a century ago from which it has yet to fully recover. The city’s fortunes were inextricably tied to those of the industry, and when steel took a downturn in the late 60s, so did Gary. “By 1972 the bigger businesses started leaving,” says David Hess, the local-history librarian at the Gary Public Library. “It’s not that unusual to lose the department stores, but Gary lost its banks. There were no white-collar jobs to be had.” Between 1960 and 2000, nearly half the population moved away. Buildings were boarded up and houses were abandoned. Today Gary is perhaps best known as the sometimes murder capital of the U.S. and the childhood home of the Jacksons.

But despite the decay, the city is quietly bustling. Tiny businesses survive amid the overgrown vacant lots and gleaming revitalization projects. It’s the kind of big small town you don’t find much anymore, a place where there isn’t even a functioning movie theater and if a tumbleweed were to blow across your path you wouldn’t bat an eye. Though it’s only about a half hour away from the south side of Chicago, it’s not the most obvious choice for a long weekend–I was determined to do 36 hours in Gary, New York Times style, but couldn’t pull it off–but it’s a 24-hour adventure anyone who fancies himself an urban explorer has no excuse not to take.

Friday, 4:30 PM

Grab an early dinner at Eat Your Heart Out (487 Broadway, 219-880-2636). Located inside a mini office building, it’s a cheap, family-run spot with three tables in a common area and a pickup window on the side of the building. The menu is surprisingly extensive, diner food with a southern bent, and everything is from scratch–as one of the proprietors puts it, “If you come up to the window and order chicken, you’re gonna have to stand there while we fry it.” The jambalaya is a local favorite and the friends who accompanied me on my trip unanimously declared the sweet potato pie the best they’d ever tasted. Eat Your Heart Out is only open until 5 (and closed on Sundays), but if you don’t get there in time you can always make do with the world’s largest Bennigan’s, located two blocks west at Gary’s baseball stadium.

7 PM

Take in a game at Steel Yard Stadium, home of the Gary SouthShore RailCats, one of eight baseball teams in the independent Northern League. The RailCats play 48 home games between mid-May and early September. Ten bucks can get you a seat anywhere in the stadium, including the Hot Tub Party Deck in center field. That’s right: parties of 10 to 25 people can actually watch the game in a Jacuzzi with a private refrigerator–and then go home with a souvenir beach towel. Parking is free, so even factoring in the gas and tolls, it’s still usually cheaper than seeing the Cubs or the Sox. Call 219-882-2255 for tickets.

11 PM

The fanciest place to stay in Gary proper is the Majestic Star Casinos and Hotel (1 Buffington Harbor, 888-218-7867) overlooking Lake Michigan. If gambling’s not your thing, you might be able to check out a show at the casino, though at press time nothing was booked.

Saturday, 8 AM

Have breakfast at the Juice Garden (2700 Fifth, 219-881-0212), Gary’s only health-food restaurant, deli, and grocery. It’s run by a local minister and his family–their slogan is “Organic Foods the Way God Intended”–and every booth has a tiny Bible right next to the salt and pepper shakers. There are vegan options (tofu scramble), fake meats (a “chorizo” omelet), blueberry pancakes, and a sizable juice bar and smoothie menu. Breakfast ends at 11 AM, but the veggie burger served at lunch is worth the trip to Gary all by itself. Open from 8 AM to 6 PM; closed Sundays.

9 AM

The Market City Flea Market (4121 Cleveland), five miles south of the Juice Garden, is Gary’s best bet for bargains. Most of the vendors inside hawk overstock items–socks, perfume, candy, that sort of thing–though a few deal in antiques and resale clothing. But the parking lot is a free-for-all: warped soul records, shiny swords, frozen shrimp (“fresh from the Gulf!” one sign said), and bras priced four for $10. The market’s only open on Saturday and Sunday, from 9 AM to 5 PM, and it’s best to get there early.

10 AM

Head over to the intersection of Fifth and Broadway and take a self-guided tour of Gary’s art and architecture. The boarded-up storefronts that run south along Broadway have all been spruced up as part of the Gary Mural Project, organized in 2002 by Chicagoan Chris Toepfer. Ten artists, including noted muralist Damon Reed, have adorned the buildings with paintings that either pay homage to days gone by (a giant diamond ring on the window of a jewelry store, classy ladies on the entrance to the Palace Theatre) or envision better days to come (a typical office scene on the windows of one nondescript building). Others, like Reed’s portrait of Michael Jackson flipping the bird with a sparkle-gloved hand, make less sense.

One block south and to the east, at Sixth and Massachusetts, is the old Gary post office, a favorite of Indiana preservationists. Built in 1936, it was designed by Howard Lovewell Cheney, who also served as supervising architect on the Chicago Tribune Tower. The building hasn’t had a roof in decades, and from the street you can see saplings growing behind the teller windows. At Seventh and Massachusetts are the remains of the Gary Memorial Auditorium, one of several landmarks that burned in a single evening in 1997. Another victim of the fire that’s still standing is the City Methodist Church at Sixth and Washington, a center for antiracist activism in the 1920s. A little further to the west are two Frank Lloyd Wright homes: 669 Van Buren and 600 Fillmore. The second is a rare example of the American System-Built prefabs Wright briefly designed just before World War I.

12:30 PM

Arman’s Dog House (5875 Melton, 219-939-1000) recently came under new management–it’s now called the Dawg Fish Grill, though the sign outside hasn’t been changed–but it’s still the place to go if you like your lunch deep-fried and meaty. The menu features the usual beef franks and Polishes alongside homemade Italian and lamb sausages and shrimp and fish po’boys. You can eat at one of the bright little Formica booths in the dining room or in the gravel picnic area out back. Open from 10 AM to 10 PM; closed Sundays.

1:30 PM

Believe it or not, Gary is actually a nice place to commune with nature. The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is a few miles east of downtown, and just to the northwest, in Miller Beach, is Marquette Park, Gary’s best bird-watching spot. The park is home to two buildings designed by Prairie School architect George Maher: Marquette Park Pavilion, built on a lagoon in the Grand Calumet River in 1923, and the Gary Aquatorium, formerly the Gary Bathing Beach Bath House. The Aquatorium, built on Lake Michigan in 1920 and rescued from demolition in 1991, also houses two small permanent exhibits in its east and west wings: one dedicated to the Tuskegee Airmen and the other to Octave Chanute, an early aviation expert and mentor of the Wright Brothers. The pavilion is open only for private events on the weekend (tours are available Monday through Friday from 9 AM to 5 PM), but the Aquatorium is open to the public 24/7/365. If you’re looking to fish, the stocked lake at Lake Etta County Park (4801 W. 29th, 219-769-7275) is open daily from April to October, 7 AM to 7 PM; daily permits are $12 for non-Lake County residents. During the summer the park also has water slides ($2 per person) and paddle boats ($5 for a half hour).

5:30 PM

If you’re looking to eat someplace a little more upscale, your choices are going to be limited to the sort-of-thriving Miller Beach commercial district. One of the better options is Miller Bakery Cafe (555 S. Lake, 219-938-2229). Neither a bakery nor a cafe, it’s a cozy white-tablecloth restaurant that does a bit of everything: contemporary American, Asian, French, and Italian. The bar is decorated with bright oil paintings from local artists; when I visited, one wall was entirely covered with paintings of Speed Racer characters. The local business community flocks here for lunch, the lakefront property owners for dinner. The wine list is sizable, entrees focus on big cuts of meat and fish, the Asian crab cakes are crunchy and sweet, and the corn bread custard with cilantro pesto and Greek yogurt is a must. Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Hours vary; reservations recommended.

Visiting Gary

A drive to Gary will cost you $3 on the Indiana Toll Road, with an extra 15 cents to access Miller Beach from I-90. (You can get to Miller for free from downtown Gary on U.S. 12 or other surface streets.) The South Shore train line departs from several downtown Chicago stations every two hours from 8 AM to 1 AM on weekends and from Miller Beach, downtown Gary, and Gary Chicago International Airport every two hours from 6 AM to 10 PM (each one-way ticket is around $5). Gary does have local bus service (the depot is located two blocks west of Steel Yard Stadium) but if you want to sample the full breadth of the city, I strongly recommend a car.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mathew Clark.