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Gary and New Duluth: Not always synonymous

Though Lorraine Mlodozyniec wasn't able to finish "The Melting Pot" before her death two years ago, her tireless work lives on.

Before she even began work on the book, which was to be one of the few extensive histories of the Gary and New Duluth neighborhoods, Mlodozyniec tirelessly collected the history of the place she called "home."

Some of the fruits of those laborious efforts saw the light of day in 1995, when the "Centennial Memory Album" was released to celebrate the neighborhoods' first 100 years.

"The history of Gary-New Duluth is one of ordinary people and how they lived," it began. "They were not well-known. They were not the rich, nor the politicians. These people worked, ate, spent their money, raised their children, made life enjoyable and handled hardship.

"They were extraordinary in that they had courage, vision, hopes and the strength to persevere."

Another individual responsible for that publication was Frank Bucar, who was a member of the Centennial Committee.

"I don't know what it is now," he said of Gary and New Duluth today, "but, before, it was a hotbed for the ethnic community. ... It was a treat watching the old-timers, their broken English and what they came up with.

"It was very hilarious."

Bucar first moved into the neighborhoods in the '50s.

"My parents fled former Yugoslavia," he said, "and I was born in a refugee camp in Austria. ... When these immigrants came over, they couldn't speak English, so a lot of them worked in the mines and the steel mills -- just like my family did."

Bucar, who has led the multi-ethnic group the Singing Slovenes since its inception in 1980, said his fondest memories of Gary and New Duluth were getting by on a shoestring budget.

"We were poor, very poor," he said, "but I wouldn't trade that for anything. We didn't have vehicles, but we had so much fun. We mowed our own grass on our ballfields. During summer vacation, we played baseball every single day. We had teams from lower Gary, upper Gary, lower New Duluth, upper New Duluth. We had big rivalries back then -- all by ourselves, just sandlot.

"... Some fond memories there, definitely."

Vic Blazevic, though 20 years Bucar's senior, also pegged sandlot games as a favorite pastime in Duluth's westernmost neighborhoods.

"When there was a snowball fight or something," he said, "it was always Gary versus New Duluth, and vice-versa."

But Blazevic's not picking sides. Though he was born in Gary, his parents would buy a 10-room house in New Duluth just a few years later (Blazevic is the oldest of 15 children).

"We weren't that close together," he said of the twin cities. "The only time we got together was at church or at school. ... You almost cut yourself off completely (moving from one to the other). I had cousins living in Gary, and we visited them only once or twice a year."

As expected, Gary and New Duluth have gone through a lot of changes throughout the years.

According to Mlodozyniec's research, the neighborhoods got their start in 1888, when a Chicago firm starting buying up land along the shore of the St. Louis River. Soon thereafter, this new community for "business sites and factories" was dubbed "New Duluth." (Around the same time, the modern Commonwealth Avenue was also born.)

By 1895, the development had already been incorporated into the city of Duluth.

It wasn't until 1907 that the seeds for what would become Gary were even planted. This was the year "Judge" Elbert Henry Gary, U.S. Steel Corporation founder, announced that a massive steel plant would be coming to the area. Three years later construction began in Morgan Park on the plant and, by the end of that decade, immigrants started pouring into the area (then being billed as "the promised land") to grab any one of the lucrative jobs the plant afforded.

"It was good money back then," Bucar recalled. (Unlike his father, Bucar was only able to work at the plant for a handful of years before its 1972 closing. The day after he graduated from the high school in Morgan Park, he was a U.S. Steel employee.)

Workers not residing in U.S. Steel's company town of Morgan Park -- including many of the area's first African Americans -- found themselves in New Duluth and the new community of Gary.

As for the new city's name, there are some differences of opinion.

Some historians claim it was named outright after Judge Gary.

Others, like Blazevic, claim it's what the non-English speaking immigrants started calling it, as a large number of them had just moved from another U.S. Steel town, Gary, Ind. (To be fair, it's just a roundabout way of saying the same thing, as that Chicago suburb was itself named for the steel corporation's founder.)

Blazevic still gets a kick out of pronouncing "Gary" the way the "old-timers" used to: a very guttural, extended "Gaaaaaarrrrrryyyyyy."

Though Gary and New Duluth never quite got the numbers forecasted by some (early population projections had the cities reaching 100,000 by 1922), one thing they did have a lot of was immigrant groups -- 26 different ones, in fact (hence the title of Mlodozyniec's book).

According to the "Centennial Memory Album," South Slavs had the highest population by the 1930s.

"When I was a kid in Gary, you heard almost every tongue there was," Blazevic recalled.

But how did the ethnic relations play out in those early days?

"We didn't hardly ever collaborate with each other," he said. "Snowball fights, yeah. ... Other than that, we played with our neighbors. On our block alone there were 40 kids.

"Big families in those days."

Though the "melting pot" is less pronounced than it used to be in Gary and New Duluth -- something Bucar said happened by the time his kids were born -- there are still pockets of it. (Bucar's expansive musical group may promote Slovenian heritage, but it features descendants of many different heritages.)

Not all the changes in Gary and New Duluth have been positive. Devastation struck the communities when the steel plant closed in 1972, as it had employed more than 2,500 people on a continuous basis throughout its operating years.

Bucar, who opened a saloon with his brother after they both lost their jobs at the plant, was there for the worst of it.

"When the steel plant closed, there were a lot of depressed people," he said, "and they did a lot of drinking."

Sometimes, though, it's the little things that get under people's skin.

One change Blazevic can't live with is the way folks refer to the two neighborhoods these days: Gary-New Duluth.

"It just bothers me that they insist on calling it 'Gary-New Duluth,'" he said. "Just like Lincoln Park and West End. Lincoln Park is in the west end. It's not West End."

Though it's been a few years since the two communities really banded together for their 1995 centennial, Gary and New Duluth are experiencing somewhat of a revival.

Children get off to a good start at the flashy Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary; the impeccable views of the "Gary Alps" (Bucar's words) never go away; there's a number of talked-about places on the main drag to grab some grub (like Hugo's Pizza II, the Vietnamese Lotus Inn and the Gary Milk House) and the city has never gone a day without a decent nightlife.

Even Mlodozyniec's book, "The Melting Pot," will see the light of day soon. Her husband, Walter, was happy to report that one of their daughters has taken it upon herself to finish her mother's pet project.

"Neighborhood Spotlight" is a semi-regular series highlighting Duluth's many communities.