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Flags at half staff in Jackson’s hometown

Major Rudy Clay said he would like to transform the downtrodden community into a mecca for the pop singer’s fans.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The hardscrabble city of Gary, Ind., which rose to prosperity in its steelmaking heyday and saw its fortunes fall with the industry, sees an opportunity in the death of its most famous native: Michael Jackson.

The mayor is calling Jackson’s modest boyhood home the new Graceland, and others hope to use Jackson’s name to raise funds for a museum.

But Jackson and his family, like so many others, left the northwest Indiana city behind a long time ago.

Flags flew at half staff outside Gary’s City Hall on Friday as Jackson’s hits, including “Bad,” blared inside the building intercom system. Outside Jackson’s childhood home, fans danced to a boombox playing “Thriller” and performed his trademark Moonwalk on the street.

Major Rudy Clay said he would like to transform the downtrodden community into a mecca for the pop singer’s fans. He said even he’d like to arrange to have the pop icon, who died Thursday at the age of 50, buried in Gary, though he has not broached that possibility with Jackson’s family.

“If they can do it for Elvis Presley in Graceland, we can do it for Michael Jackson in Gary,” Clay, 73, told The Associated Press.

But tourism experts said they were skeptical that Gary could really draw Jackson fans.

For one, Jackson only lived in this community about 30 miles southeast of Chicago through the age of 11. Since then, the pop star rarely visited.

Roger Brooks, the CEO of Destination Development International, believes that Jackson’s famed sprawling Neverland ranch in southern California has more potential to be a lasting tourist attraction.

“It was his place as an adult,” he said. “It was his vision that built the place from the ground up.” And, he said, it was the place associated with all the bizarre and troubling stories about Jackson.

“People would go to California to see that,” Brooks said.

But Clay shook his head when asked if Neverland might be a better location for die hard fans to connect to the singer’s legacy.

“No. No. No,” Clay said. “If you’re going to build a museum to Michael Jackson you should build it where the true love for him is.”

The Jacksons moved from Gary after the Jackson 5 recorded their first album in 1969.

By that time, the steel industry, in which Jackson’s father had worked, had started to decline. Over the following decades, the city’s unemployment and poverty soared, crime increased and the population dwindled.

Nearly 200,000 people lived in Gary in the 1960s. By 2007, that dropped to 96,000 and one-third of residents lived below the poverty line, according to recent U.S. Census data.

Clay said he hopes Jackson’s death will help energize officials to push for building a memorial, which could include arts center and museum, to the singer in his childhood hometown. Proposals also include moving the Jackson home near an interstate that serves as a main route for commuters heading to and from Chicago, Clay said.

More than 100 people gathered Friday outside the small white-colored home where Jackson lived, creating a circus-like atmosphere. As a boombox blared “Thriller” and other hits, some fans danced while others did the Moonwalk down the asphalt Jackson Street — initially named after U.S. President Andrew Jackson.

Dozens of teddy bears, flowers and affectionate notes piled against the door.

“If you’re a real Michael Jackson fan, this is where you come,” said Kandy Keaton, 38, who drove from nearby Hammond to pay her respects. “This is about his roots. This is where he and his brothers practiced and practiced. This is where his dad pulled it all together.”

But at least a few neighbors said they were disappointed Jackson didn’t do more to help his hometown when he was alive. His reported pledge to help raise money for an arts center that would bear his name never materialized.

“This is great that this (Jackson’s death) is now bringing attention to Gary,” said Darrell Hodges, 49, who went to the same elementary school as Jackson. “But the Jacksons could have done more for this community.”

Clay dismisses such criticism.

“Michael Jackson’s rare show in the city shouldn’t suggest he didn’t care,” Clay said. “His physical body wasn’t always here, but his heart was always in Gary.”