Next Stop: A Day at the Beach in, Yes, Gary, Indiana

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The Indiana sand dunes.

Credit
Lyndon French for The New York Times

Gary, Ind., is rooted at the bottom of the U-shaped curve of Lake Michigan, a region of crisscrossing highways, casinos and forests of smokestacks.

Gone are the days of the Jackson 5, its greatest claim to fame. Gone are many of its other residents, the prosperity of its steel mills, the letters listing the showings on the Palace Theater marquee. Gone, too, are the Chicagoans each day of the summer, stopping, if at all, for gas as they head east on road trips and summer vacations.

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Gary Indiana water tower.

Credit
Lyndon French for The New York Times

They should consider making a stop. Far from the cement grid lining the city’s heart, there are sandy ridges of wooded pines, serene footbridges over natural ponds, and the feeling of some faraway world — the dream of Michigan’s Mackinac Island winking its way onto the scene, a mirage that just can’t be true.

The beach, very much not an illusion, is a foreign image to the industrial norms of northwest Indiana. The despair of an ailing city met with the beauty of a beloved wedding venue, at the Marquette Park Pavilion. The city churches gaining a prayer in the proud bronze statue of Jacques Marquette. And a view of the Chicago skyline, like a giant ship in the distance, the buildings’ bottom halves blurred by sky-colored mist — a floating city. The redevelopment is part of a $28 million project.

“It’s our own world down here,” said DeAundra Joshua, an employee of Carmella’s Café, which overlooks the lake and acts as a venue in the summer months for karaoke, jazz, folk music, and group sessions of yoga.

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Indiana dunes beach.

Credit
Lyndon French for The New York Times

Down the shore from the cafe, wedged between patios of family cookouts, the Gary Aquatorium has revived an even more distant history. The stately cement building, a former shower and changing facility designed by Prairie-School architect George W. Maher, has survived abandonment and closure to become repurposed into a museum of aviation. An exhibit commemorating the Tuskegee Airmen occupies one half, and on its roof sits a replica hang-glider of wood and polyester — perched, as it was in 1896, above Indiana’s sandy dunes, where experimental flights by French-born engineer Octave Chanute inspired and informed the later success of the Wright brothers.

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