A woman takes a photograph following the dedication of a historic marker at Gary’s City Methodist Church. (Carole Carlson / Post-Tribune / Chicago Tribune)
A woman takes a photograph following the dedication of a historic marker at Gary’s City Methodist Church. (Carole Carlson / Post-Tribune / Chicago Tribune)
What exactly does it mean to be labeled “the most miserable city in America”? Is it the absolute worst place to live in our increasingly miserable country?

“Not the worst, just the most miserable,” explains the Business Insider story that denigrates Gary with this infamous ranking.

The story, which has garnered national attention, ranks the 50 most miserable cities based on U.S. Census data from 1,000 cities. Two other Indiana cities landed on this list, Hammond (23rd) and Anderson (35th), in Madison County.

“These cities have things in common — few opportunities… high crime and addiction rates, and often many abandoned houses,” the story states.

“Taking into consideration population change (because if people are leaving it’s usually for a good reason), the percentage of people working, median household incomes, the percentage of people without healthcare… and the number of people living in poverty.”

“The most miserable city in the US was once a manufacturing mecca, but those days are over,” states the online story, published Saturday.

“We are keenly aware of the challenges reflected in the data used by the Business Insider,” Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson told me Tuesday. “At the same time, the article or ranking does not reflect the reality of improved data.”

For example, the city’s population decline has slowed over the last decade, and the number and percentage of vacant and abandoned buildings has been reduced, she noted.

“The glaring omission is that this minimizes the work underway to change these circumstances,” the mayor said. “Nothing is said about the thousands of jobs created over the past six years. Nothing is said about the infrastructure improvements.”

Freeman-Wilson insisted she was not attempting to ignore the obvious challenges facing her city. “I am simply saying that the ranking is one-sided and seems only contemplated to emphasize the negative aspects of our community and others,” she said.

The mayor is right. Statistical data can be cold as steel. Notorious labels can be long lasting. The city of Gary, once labeled “the murder capital of the nation,” knows this better than most any other U.S. city, including every other top-50 “miserable” city.

“I don’t see it. I see a community of people who want to be here,” Gary Common Council President Ron Brewer said at Tuesday’s Council meeting. “People can write what they want about our city. I know we have good residents."

At that meeting, Freeman-Wilson said publicly, “Do we have challenges? Absolutely. To be listed as the most miserable city in the United States is an affront to this community.”

At Wednesday's Indiana State Board of Education meeting, presumptive Gary mayor Jerome Prince reminded officials to consider the city’s less fortunate residents who don't have an alternative to the challenges facing them.

“The only request I have, as you contemplate the state of affairs in the state and city of Gary, do so from the perspective of a hardy robust citizenry here, not the article in Business Insider,” Prince said.

That story doesn’t offer any input from Gary residents or city officials, but instead quotes a “drug-enforcement agent who grew up in the area” as told to The Guardian in 2017.

“We used to be the murder capital of the US, but there is hardly anybody left to kill,” the story states. “We used to be the drug capital of the US, but for that you need money, and there aren't jobs or things to steal here."

This is a purposely harsh quote to punctuate the story’s data-driven narrative.

“I don’t see any interviews from citizens that would support this negative ranking,” Freeman-Wilson said.

When I first contacted Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., he was hesitant to help publicize a story written by journalists who’ve likely never visited Hammond. However, he also felt instinctively compelled to defend his city.

“Internet polls usually aren’t nice to cities like mine, nor did the story’s one paragraph description of Hammond mention any of our positives, like lowering crime rates, positive business environment, rising home prices, and the CollegeBound program,” he said.

The Business Insider story cited data critical of the city’s population rate and poverty level, as well as a 2014 study noting air and water pollution problems, and lead contamination as “a particular concern for residents.”

Again, Hammond residents also were not quoted in the story.

“I can tell you that not one person ever stepped foot in Hammond to prepare for that story,” McDermott told me. “I’d rather deal with reporters who know what they are talking about.”

I reached out to the story’s two reporters, James Pasley and Angela Wang, asking if they have ever visited Hammond or Gary. It’s unlikely they tried to contact any residents or officials in either city. Because Gary is ranked first on their list, even a token phone call would have been a polite gesture, if not a journalistic standard. By Wednesday night, neither reporter replied to me.

Pasley, a New Zealand native, is a “visual features fellow” at Business Insider, according to his online bio. Wang is an “editorial fellow” who earned a master’s degree in data journalism. Their story exemplified, and oversimplified, data journalism, based strictly on figures, not feelings or people or context.

Unfortunately, it will only confirm the biases of anyone who’s already critical of Gary or Hammond or Anderson, or any of the other 47 cities on that list. They’re all convenient targets for a long-held consensus of criticism, now bolstered by outdated census data.

Challenged? Beleaguered? Troubled? Sure. Miserable, I say, was a miserable word choice to define these communities.

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