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Mayor has hopes for Jackson boyhood home

June 29, 2009 6:28:09 AM PDT
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. Mayor Rudy Clay joined the congregation of Zion Progressive Cathedral International Church to not only celebrate the life of its native son, but to make the case for a permanent tribute to honor the pop star and his music.

"We've been discussing a Jackson 5, family museum. That's on the table. We're going to make it happen. We're going to make it happen in a big-time fashion," said Clay.

Sunday morning's memorial service was just one of many in the area where fans expressed their love and admiration for the late singer.

Outside Jackson's boyhood home at 2300 Jackson Street, the symbols of sympathy continued to grow because of the mementos meant to chronicle how Jackson touched lives.

Earl Bogan and his family crafted a homemade keepsake of a silver hat and glove.

"I feel he need that. He needed that. I'm so glad to be here," said Bogan.

Also outside the old Jackson family home, while dozens held vigil and paid their respects, others simply cashed in as well-wishers flocked to possess a piece of the legend.

But amid the sharing of favorite Jackson memories, many of the devoted want to know what role the singer's cardiologist and prescription drugs played in his death.

"Back in '97, Michael had a song called 'Morphine' that talked about being addicted to demerol," said fan Tim Gilleand.

But for most, it's just about remembering what Michael Jackson was to them.

"He was just the greatest entertainer," fan Sonia Cuba said.

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.

Mayor 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, saying Michael Jackson's rare show in the city shouldn't suggest he didn't care.

"His physical body wasn't always here, but his heart was always in Gary," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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