GARY, Ind. — Even with interior walls stripped down to the studs, Stacy Burnside smiled fondly when she walked through her Gary childhood home.

The familiarity was still there — her bedroom that once had pink walls, wood panels in her father’s “lawyer den” with her brother’s aging Mr. T sticker and a front room where the family decorated for Christmas.

“When I first walk in, I still see the Christmas tree,” said Burnside, 47. “That’s my favorite thing to do in the world, even now, is to decorate Christmas trees. It started in this house.”

In 1962, when the Burnsides moved to the 1100 block of Williams Street, they were the third African-American family on the block, said her mother, Magdalene Burnside-Clay, 74.

“It was exciting,” she said. “It was very few people at that time that owned their own homes … (it was) something that was ours.”

Moving from the east side of the city, it was a big deal for them to own a home, especially in the city’s Gary Heights neighborhood, she said. Gary Heights is on the city’s West Side, less than a mile east of Burr Street.

“I didn’t even know that side of town existed,” Burnside-Clay said. “I thought we had gone to another city. We didn’t go that far. I was really amazed when we went to that area.”

Within a few years, white families gradually began to leave the neighborhood.

After divorcing her husband, Charles, Burnside-Clay eventually raised seven children in the 900-square-foot house. Over the years she held a variety of jobs at the former Amoco refinery, the post office and as a school secretary, she said.

There “was a lot of laughter with the kids in the house,” she said. “I always liked to cook and we had always had people coming over all the time.”

She and her children lived there until 1983 when they moved to South Bend, property records show. Stacy was 13.

For decades, Burnside-Clay continued to own the house and let various family members live there. She kept in close touch with neighbors who watched over the house.

It was a safety net, somewhere she or her children could come back to if they needed a place to live, she said.

But, by 2015, it had become an eyesore. The aluminum siding was worn and every window was broken, Burnside said. No one had lived there for more than a year.

When Burnside-Clay nearly lost the house from unpaid property taxes, Burnside, now an Indianapolis-based IT project manager, decided to purchase it. She began a daunting and costly plan to renovate the house.

It was a small way to pay tribute to her determined parents — including her late father, a longtime Miller preacher — to show the neighborhood where she was born and raised deserved better and faith that restoration across the city was possible.

“There’s a part of me that wants to move back to Gary,” Burnside said. “I kinda feel partly responsible for the condition that Gary’s in, because (we were told to) go to school and get out. That’s what we were told and that’s what we did.”

Decades after the decline of the steel industry, cars still lined the block on a Sunday morning. Both houses next door had neatly cut grass. One still had a neighborhood watch sticker on the front window.

Burnside said she recalled the neighborhood as a tight-knit community where neighbors watched each other’s children and kids walked in groups down several blocks to Edison Middle School.

She recalled how she and her siblings would build forts with bed sheets in the basement. They had a treehouse and apple tree in the backyard.

“This is where I knew happiness,” she said, standing between walls now framed by 2-by-4s. “This is where happiness lived. This is where my family lived. When we moved, it was tragic for me, because I left everyone and everything.”

Both next-door neighbors continue to watch over the property, Burnside said. That was part of the reason she wanted to restore the house. By 2015, she had not set foot in the house for years.

“I cried,” she said. “There’s like a flood of emotion.”

Aside from broken windows, there was 18 inches of water in the basement. Walls and insulation needed to be completely gutted. A wall buckled from the basement water. Electrical wiring and plumbing needed to be totally replaced, she said.

Public records show the property on Williams Street was assessed at $39,600 in 2015.

“When I’m done, I will have put $40,000 into this house,” she said. “You won’t reap that. There’s no cost-benefit to putting (that much money) into a house, before you won’t get that much selling it.”

Burnside replaced the siding, windows and doors. As expenses pile up, she is tackling each project as she saves the money. She estimates she has about $20,000 to go.

The roof is next, she said. A contractor told her it couldn’t wait another year. Rain would leak in and damage the drywall she installed.

“I don’t know anyone that’s doing a complete renovation,” she said. “Even the people that get the dollar homes.”

This year, the city selected eight applicants for its Dollar Home program where it sells vacant houses for $1. In exchange, applicants have to bring the house up to code within six months and live there for at least five years.

Arlene Colvin, head of Gary’s Community Development Department, said it was not unusual for people to take over their parents’ property.

The handful of other assistance programs the city offers for home repairs are all income-based, usually around $35,000, she said. They generally require those applicants live in Gary.

Burnside said she isn’t sure how long it will take to complete the house. Either way, it will stay in the family, she said.

“I’m a person of faith. If you can’t control it, leave it to God,” she said. “For me, it (is) not just restoring a home, it’s maintaining the legacy. I have so many fond memories of Gary.”

“It’s been so overwhelming and it’s been so expensive,” she said. “I think in my heart of hearts, the things that were worth having are also hard. You are going to say it was worth it.”


Source: (Merrillville) Post-Tribune, http://trib.in/2yN54Bp


Information from: Post-Tribune, http://posttrib.chicagotribune.com/

This is an AP-Indiana Exchange story offered by the (Merrillville) Post-Tribune.