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The last few decades have not been easy on the city of Gary, Indiana, just outside Chicago. Crime and high unemployment plague the city. But through the difficult times, Gary residents have clung to at least one thing that makes them proud: Gary is the hometown of Michael Jackson. That pride is not likely to diminish with Jackson's passing.
Michael Puente of Chicago Public Radio went to Gary and sent this story.
MICHAEL PUENTE: Michael Jackson's death yesterday drew people from all around to his boyhood home here at 2300 Jackson Street, named after President Andrew Jackson in Gary. Andrea Perlinsky came here even though it was her birthday.
Ms. ANDREA PERLINSKY: I didn't think on my birthday night I'd being doing this. I had to come.
PUENTE: The tiny, one-story white home has red trim, a black roof and little front yard. It sits at the corner of a now downtrodden neighborhood, a few blocks away from where the Jackson children attended elementary school. Jackson's death brought fans like Perlinsky back to this spot to say good-bye.
Ms. PERLINSKY: Young people, older people, just - we loved him, loved him so. He transcended a lot of generations. He was just wonderful. He brought a lot to this town. He put us on the map.
PUENTE: As news broke of Jackson's death, dozens began surrounding the home in Gary, placing flowers, teddy bears and notes of condolences on the front step. For many here, this wasn't just a passing of a celebrity, it was more like a death of a family member. Mable Moore came to know Michael as a neighborhood kid.
Ms. MABLE MOORE: They used to practice right there in the house. You could hear them at night.
PUENTE: Forty-four-year-old Lasomia Hamblin remembers when Michael Jackson and his brothers triumphantly returned to the city to give a special concert at Gary's West Side High School in the early 1970s. There, Jackie, Tito, Marlon, Jermaine and Michael played all their big hits.
Ms. LASOMIA HAMBLIN: I was little, but I went. A bad loss we had today.
PUENTE: Hamblin's older sister Doris Jennings remembers attending Garnett Elementary School with Jackson's older siblings. She too recalls the little brother who would grow up to outshine the rest. While some criticized Michael Jackson for not doing more to help his struggling hometown, Jennings thinks that's unfair.
Ms. DORIS JENNINGS: They are going to remember him from his music and the things he did. It wasn't about what he could do for the city, because it's a lot of people who left here who didn't do nothing for the city. It's just him, the King of Pop.
PUENTE: Those personal connections to Michael Jackson are common here. In fact, my late father, Jesus Puente, worked for a time at Inland Steel Company in neighboring East Chicago with Jackson's father, Joe, and often come home telling stories about him. The Jackson family moved out of Gary in the late '60s, just as layoffs by U.S. Steel began to take their toll.
Despite the city's challenges, Mayor Rudy Clay says people around the world knew Michael Jackson was from here.
Mayor RUDY CLAY (Gary, Indiana): Wherever you went in the world, if you were from Gary, Indiana and you told people you were from Gary, the first thing that came out of their month is that that's the home of Michael Jackson. So, that lifted our community and it also lifted you. It made you proud. So Michael made us proud in Gary, Indiana. And the world's greatest entertainer and nothing will take that away.
PUENTE: The mayor says there are discussions about creating a museum in the city to honor Michael Jackson and his family.
For NPR News, I'm Michael Puente.
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