Never Can Say Goodbye

My husband and I spent the weekend in Indianapolis visiting family, and on the first, most boring part of the drive back home to Wisconsin (the state of Indiana consists of one large city, numerous college towns, suburbs of Chicago, and a lot of cornfields) I told him about an article in the Sunday paper about the Michael Jackson King of Pop tour of Gary, including the sights it covered and its cost. Bernard, a native of Gary, Indiana himself, laughed so hard I thought he was going to lose control of the car.

He spontaneously got off the highway at one of the Gary exits, telling me he was going to take me on the Michael Jackson tour.

He skipped driving past the hospital where Michael (and, incidentally, Bernard himself) was born; I'd been there to visit various family members over the years. So our first stop was Lucky's Lounge, where the Jackson brothers first performed as professionals.

If a contest for the city with the most boarded-up buildings is ever held, Gary would probably win. Lucky's is an abandoned building with a board partially covering its large front window. On the front door a message of thanks for patronizing them, plus a warning that a person had to be 21 or over to enter, is still visible. This part of the building, Bernard explained, had been a liquor store. The lounge portion was in the back, its entrance around the corner. A sign that reads "Granny's Hometown Cookng" or something like that now hangs over the front door. We didn't bother to go closer to determine whether Granny is still cooking. The building looked so forlorn, it was depressing. "Now, would you pay to see that?" Bernard asked me. I understood his laughter from earlier better now.

From there we drove toward the Jackson family house. Bernard pointed out a Fifties-style two-story elementary school within walking distance of the house, saying it was likely this was where the Jackson children received their fundamental educations. It is now a girl's academy.

We drove a few blocks to Jackson Street (named for President Andrew Jackson), where, on a corner marked with brown street signs saying Jackson Family Way and 2300 Jackson Street. On the corner sits 2300 Jackson Street, a plain one-story house with weathered white siding that is, and I'm not kidding, about as wide as my garage (which can hold two cars and a motorycle or snowblower). But, like most houses in Gary, the house has a full basement, which effectively doubles its size. Still, it is very, very small for a family of 11 people. Across the street is a house that appears identical, except its siding is a light greenish-blue color. Two of those portable roofed strutures in the front yard shield tables of souvenirs from the elements. The tour does not include going inside the Jackson home - which until recently was occupied by a cousin of the family - but the operators have worked out a deal with the owners of the similar house across the street for the tour participants to walk through. Of course, participants are invited to shop at the souvenir stand in the yard. This may well represent the only time the tourists actually get off the bus (the tour also includes driving past the home of the owner of the Jackson's first record label, whose home included a recording studio and who apparently is still in residence). Then, I suppose it's back aboard for the trips back to the Far South suburb of Matteson, Illinois (about a 45-minute drive) or E. 53rd Steet in the Hyde Park section of the city (near the President's digs), a ride which can easily run close to an hour.

The tour takes from 3-1/2 to 4 hours in total, the largest chunk of which is spent just getting to and from Gary. The city hung a large banner across Broadway in honor of Michael Jackson. A downtown theater, long abandoned, has on its marquee, Jackson Five Forever.

This love Gary shows for its most famous sons is ironic, considering the Jackson brothers never performed in Gary after they became Motown recording artists. Kids from Gary who wanted to see their old friends and classmates had to get to Chicago, some 30 miles away (quite a distance for 14- and 15-year-olds) to see the Jackson Five. Michael himself only returned to Gary once more in his lifetime, in 2003, to receive the keys to the city.

It's important to note that the city of Gary was economically healthy in 1969, when the Jackson family left town. Sometime after that the steel mills began cutting back, manufacturers moved to different locations, retailers closed, and the boarding up of buildings began. I never understood why Gary shows such love for Michael, given that he never so much as gave a concert in his hometown after becoming rich and famous. For that reason, I personally hope the tour operators make a bundle. Likely there is no licensing is required to drive past public or abandoned buildings or pointing out where Michael and his family lived, or opening up a house across the street to the public. No licensing means the organizers don't have to give the family a cut of the profits (this may well explain why the Jackson house is not open for tours). And the tour is not cheap - you'll learn the price at the end of this column - so profits are probably plentiful. Plans the city has to open a museum would absolutely have to include a payment to the family for the right to display Michael's belongings. But good luck trying to get 2300 Jackson Street declared a historical site, something the mayor of Gary is reportedly attempting to do. It's the former home of a pop star, for crying out loud, not Abraham Lincoln's log cabin.

Which brings me to what my husband said to me after we pulled back out on Broadway. A sign at the corner proclaims, "Visit Michael Jackson's childhood home, turn here" because apparently people driving to Chicago are stopping off to look at the house (and buy souvenirs across the street, no doubt), bringing in more money not related to the tour. Bernard held out his palm and said, "That'll be $55, please."


shelia said...

Got to love your husband's sense of humor.

Dave Yaros said...


A great article! Like your husband, I too am from Gary and know the city and its history well.

For readers interested in learning more about the non-Michael Jackson aspects of the "Steel City," I have a website which chronicles the history and monitors the day-to-day political shenanigans.

It is Dave's Den. All are invited to stop by and peruse the offerings on my and Bernard's hometown.

bettye griffin said...

Yeah, Shelia, we were both stunned that people are paying that much for what is mostly a drive-by tour of Gary's Jackson-themed spots. But as I said, more power to them!

Glad you enjoyed the post, Dave@

Lori said...

Those Jacksons are an interesting bunch, aren't they? Wonder why they never treated their hometown to a concert after they got famous?

Oh, according to my husband, Detroit would win the contest for the city with the most boarded up buildings. But I'm not trying to start nuthin' up in here! (LOL).

bettye griffin said...

Interesting, Lori! Detroit might just be the "winner" here, since I'd imagine it's larger than Gary. I have friends in the greater metro area, but the only one who lived in Detroit proper, my brother-in-law, cleared out when he became a parent!