The first thing I noticed was that Michael Jackson was gone. Downtown Gary, Indiana’s main drag hosted a wide-scale mural project in 2002, fantastic possible futures for the city’s boarded-up buildings painted directly onto the boards, with an MJ adorning the old record store, symbolically turning his back on Gary, three digits of his bejewelled glove-hand blotted out with graffiti, as if he were giving his birthplace the finger. It was an odd touch of realism amid the mis-scaled office scenes of ferns and giant computers; Michael had been painted with care and detail. Now, much of downtown has been reboarded, and he has disappeared again.
I’d been driving from downstate all day, with news reports of his death getting more and more detailed as time passed. Shortly after arriving home, a friend texted what I was already thinking: “We should go to Gary.” Hitting one of Chicago’s impromptu MJ-tribute nights didn’t seem right—Thriller had taught me what it meant to have music be your whole life, to be a devoted fan; Thriller was the first album that was all mine, not my parents’—and so, a vigil seemed more appropriate than a dance party. Gary is where it began, and it was only 33 miles from my house. Our car was soon filled with stunned conjecture; the toll booths pumped Off the Wall in every lane.
The Jackson family home is about a mile off an unlit freeway exit. You pass the bank, the only one in town. When I did a travel piece on Gary a few years ago for the Chicago Reader, people were quick to brag about how things were looking up: They had a bank again, after several years without one. Its gleam stands in sharp contrast to a downtown filled with stately, half-burned buildings and trees growing from rooftops and terraces. A fire took much of the area in a single night in 1997: What survived still stands. Old stores are emblazoned with fancy, loping mid-century fonts; there are signs for chains that haven’t existed for decades. It’s strange, impossible, and beautiful, the Pompeii of the Midwest, a rotting monument to industrialization, an apocalypse fueled by plant-closings, white flight, and arson.
The Jacksons left Gary in 1968, right before the Steel City began its freefall: Between 1960 and 2000, the city’s population was nearly halved. Their house shows no mark of its former occupants’ success, save for the renamed streets—it sits at the corner of Jackson Street and Jackson Family Boulevard. It’s incredible to imagine that a family of 11 once lived in the tiny two-bedroom bungalow. There is no garage. Maybe there was, once. Maybe they just practiced in the yard, though dancing in the grass is hard. Maybe there’s a basement we don’t know about.
When we roll up to 2300 Jackson, it’s almost 11 p.m., maybe seven hours since the news hit. Slow-cruising cars blare different eras of MJ as two thick cops parked on ATVs shine their headlights on the crowd milling in the yard. This is not so much a gathering as a looky-loo, a chance to observe the coterie of stuffed animals and notebook-paper tributes. A Gary Fire Department shirt on a hanger clings to the front window’s security bars with a note taped to it: “Goodbye Michael J5 forever.” There’s not a lot of talking up by the actual shrine and its safety candles: Everyone just snaps pictures with their cell phones and slaps at mosquitoes. Some people are crying.
Back at the edge of the yard, locals trade stories, conjectures, and firsthand reminiscences: Michael’s appearance at a Gary high school in 2003, older siblings who went to high school with Tito, theories on what will become of the house. Everyone weighs in on where he’ll be buried: Everyone hopes for Gary, thinks it should be Gary—maybe even right here in the backyard. I imagine the tiny fenced-in lot overtaken by a mausoleum, ringed with teddy bears and white gloves.
The next day, Mayor Rudy Clay talks of turning the house, which would take four minutes (max) to thoroughly examine, into a Graceland. Grim as it is, Jackson’s death could mean new life for Gary. A stretch of downtown is set to be razed in the next year: No doubt an MJ shrine will be its star attraction. Interviewing residents a few years back, the idea that Michael could return and somehow save their seemingly unsaveable city was a collectively held notion. Some held his abandonment against him and considered such a return his duty as a native son, while others were sympathetic—why would the King of Pop ever want to come back to Gary? Few had guessed that this is how it might happen.
The mosquitoes are getting to us, and we’ve taken all the pictures we can of the memorial heap of mini-mart roses and stuffed animals. Across the street, a man affixes a flashlight to a lawnmower, fires it up, and starts cutting the grass. We get back in the car. On our way out, we stop and take pictures of the long-abandoned Palace Theatre’s marquee. Since Donald Trump had the place spruced up for the 2002 Miss USA pageant, it has read “Jackson Five Tonite”—another fantasy future for the Magic City, come and gone.