Miller Beach, Part 3: A Center of Gravity in Gary

 This is part of a series of blog posts about community history, urban planning, and the built environment in the Miller Beach community of Gary, Indiana, publishing in 2023 and 2024. Part 1 can be found here, and Part 2 can be found here.


For well over a century, Miller Beach has attracted residents and visitors by being an oasis of sorts while its surroundings changed. As Chicago and Gary both grew, and as the Calumet region encompassing parts of northwest Indiana and northeast Illinois industrialized, the former mouth of the Grand Calumet River at Lake Michigan became a popular resort area in reach of the area's factories and commuter rail lines. It remained physically idyllic through a combination of local stubbornness and external influence.

The Town of Miller was already a longstanding community near the beach by the time it incorporated in 1907, accustomed to visitors but resistant to the idea of being annexed into Gary. Residents feared the intentions of the recently formalized city next door, which was founded as a massive company town by United States Steel Corporation and wished to rapidly extend its municipal boundaries over a larger area. The Town of Miller had other, older company town neighbors like Aetna Powder Works just to its southwest, but U.S. Steel's Gary Works was a huge new facility and the city it spawned had political sway that previous neighbors didn't.

Incorporation gave the Town of Miller some hold over their environs for about a decade, but pressure from U.S. Steel and the closely linked government of Gary eventually led to annexation in 1919 (nearby Aetna would be annexed nine years later). As described in a previous part of this series, annexation into Gary had quick and controversial effects - much of Miller Beach's lakefront was declared to be city property, donated to the city by U.S. Steel after the company undertook legal maneuvers against informal local landholder Drusilla Carr. Those lakefront landholdings were then transformed into a large municipal park. Gary officials faced significant opposition from Millerites during this period, but Marquette Park would play a significant role in the neighborhood's future.

The interplay of long-term residents and vacationing visitors to Miller Beach took on new form as automobiles gained popularity. The Carr family resort and other, smaller vacation rentals were generally oriented toward short-term visitors, but wealthy Chicagoans began to treat the area as a getaway that merited property ownership, rather than a stay in somebody else's lodgings. This accelerated after the Dunes Highway, a paved road from Gary to Michigan City, was completed in the early 1920s. Especially along the lakefront east of Marquette Park, Chicago-based families began to keep second homes in Miller Beach as the first half of the 20th century progressed.



This desirability for out-of-towners, coupled with the natural appeal of Miller Beach's waterways, dunes, and foliage that brought those out-of-towners east in the first place, set the up neighborhood to become among Gary's wealthiest and fastest-growing sections following World War II. Traditional centers for the city's most well-to-do families, like the neighborhoods of Horace Mann and Ambridge, had diminishing cachet during this period of American infatuation with suburban-style living, and that postwar shift in housing development patterns coupled with burgeoning fears about "ilfiltration" from Gary's growing Black population to convince many wealthy white Gary residents to move out to Miller Beach and to other neighborhoods at the city's edges, like Glen Park to the south.


Gary has never been a rich city on the whole, so even as Miller Beach saw construction of increasingly elaborate homes for locals and weekenders near Lake Michigan's shore and along the streets closest to Marquette Park, smaller single-family dwellings and apartment buildings were being constructed there as well. Miller Beach wasn't uniformly wealthy like some of Chicago's north shore suburbs; in practice, it was a largely middle class community with a handful of wealthy residents during its postwar period of fastest growth. That class composition remains largely consistent today. Even so, Miller Beach became Gary's highest-income neighborhood by 1950, and its concentration of local business leaders gave it considerable sway in Gary's politics, aided by its continued importance as a destination for tourists and a getaway for Chicago notables like Nelson Algren, who purchased a small cottage on Marquette Lagoon in 1950 (seen below).



As Gary continued to change, especially along racial demographic lines, Miller Beach was faced with the same uncertain path that many other Chicago-region neighborhoods and towns simultaneously navigated. With strong legal mandates for integration and a proliferation of blockbusting, some white Miller Beach residents fled elsewhere beginning in the 1960s, preferring to leave than to have Black neighbors. But like in Oak Park to Chicago's west and Beverly on Chicago's far south side, some of those who stayed were determined to welcome integration, keeping neighborhood institutions intact along the way. Miller Beach was the only majority-white section of Gary where Richard G. Hatcher carried a large portion of the vote when he and Carl Stokes of Cleveland simultaneously became the first Black politicians to be elected mayor of U.S. cities with more than 100,000 residents in 1967.

Shortly after Hatcher's election, a watershed moment for Gary that greatly accelerated panic peddling in parts of the city, the Miller Citizens Corporation was formed to "manage" the neighborhood's racial integration using tactics shared with similar organizations in Beverly, Oak Park, and elsewhere. By interrupting blockbusting and working closely with skeptical white residents to keep them in Miller Beach, MCC hoped to educate their neighbors and retain them long enough to get them to see the value of living in an integrated community. Central to this effort were members of Temple Israel, a synagogue formed by early Jewish residents of Gary in 1910 that moved its services to Miller Beach in 1958. Having faced housing discrimination in various Gary neighborhoods before, members of Temple Israel were part of a core group of neighborhood stakeholders who advocated fiercely for inclusion of new Black families in the area's future. The synagogue remains a center of progressive politics in Gary today.

 Miller Beach transitioned gradually, and is now majority Black with a large white plurality. Much has happened to Gary since that transition began. The domestic steel industry collapsed in the 1970s and 1980s and has not recovered substantially since, essentially wrecking the economy of the entire Calumet region with Gary at its center. While U.S. Steel's Gary Works is still in operation, it now employs fewer than 10% of the workforce it did in 1970. Municipal politics went through phases of dysfunction over the years. The city has only 40% the population it did in 1970, and that population loss has created spiraling challenges for provision of basic public services. The city tends to pop up in the public eye these days most often in the context of decay - Gary struggles to maintain its roads and sewers, and even Miller Beach (which remains its wealthiest and most stable neighborhood) has seen some local schools close and amenities retreat. For a period of time before money was secured for rehabilitation in two waves (first in the mid-1990s, then in the 2010s), Marquette Park's facilities and landscaping even fell into disrepair.

The big-picture situation for Gary has shifted many aspects of life in Miller Beach. Fewer Millerites raise children here than in previous decades, and those who don't get their kids into the lottery-based Charter School of the Dunes often choose private schools if they have the money to make that choice. Some nearby neighborhoods and business corridors have emptied - one residential neighborhood, called Inland Manor, was absorbed into the Indiana Dunes National Park (a federally managed preserve that begins in Gary and extends east to Michigan City) and intentionally returned to nature. The uncertainties created by municipal precarity, such as inconsistent public services and unpredictable tax levies, have once again swung the makeup of Miller Beach's most prominent lakefront properties toward a greater concentration of Chicago-based owners who don't live here long term. People who move permanently from Chicago to homes in Miller Beach's toniest sections tend to have the money to ride out Gary's challenges, and they have a fundamentally different experience of the struggling city than Miller Beach's less monied residents. That class stratification is often mirrored by racial stratification, something that is also true of similarly "successfully integrated" communities like Oak Park and Beverly.


Miller Beach is not a race- and class-blind utopia; nowhere in the U.S. is. But despite that, it's still significantly more socially and economically integrated than most of the country, and it continues to be a center of gravity for the city around it. Miller Beach contains some of Gary's only sit-down restaurants, some of its best-kept public facilities, and some of its most important arts and culture institutions. It is home to some of Gary's most connected and influential residents, and continues to draw visitors who contribute short-term cash to the neighborhood. And some of those visitors end up adding long-term revenue to Gary's property tax rolls - through all its changes, Miller Beach has consistently seen new construction of getaway homes and permanent residences over the years, and is the only neighborhood in Gary with regular ongoing residential construction activity in the 21st century. Nestled in the dunes and idyllic in physical form, it's easy to understand the appeal.