“A viable neighborhood is a community: and a viable community is made up of neighbors who cherish and protect what they have in common,” Wendell Berry
In the 1970s the entire IUN History faculty save for Dune Acres resident Jim Newman – John Haller, Fred Chary, Paul Kern, Rhiman Rotz and myself - moved to Gary’s Miller district, joining department founder Bill Neil and numerous other colleagues. including Jack Gruenenfelder (Philosophy), George Thoma (English), Abe Mizrahi (Math), Bill Reilly (Business), and Les Singer (Economics), to name just a few. With many wealthy Millerites leaving for Munster and other suburbs in the wake of desegregation, houses became available at reasonable prices, even those near Lake Michigan. African-American administrators such as Ernest Smith moved there, too. Smith’s neighbors initially were not very friendly, perhaps worried about eroding property values about eroding property values, as was happening in Glen Park closer to campus. In the spring of 1971 white liberals, including IUN’s Judy Eichhorn, formed the Miller Citizens Corporation (MCC) to encourage stability both by welcoming black families and discouraging panic selling. The MCC set up a “hot line” to dispel false rumors and convinced the city government to ban “for sale” signs.
Post-Trib columnist Jeff Manes wrote about Angela McCrovitz, a Gary native who claims she was born in the same hospital on the same floor as Michael Jackson. Her grandfather was the first owner of Flamingo’s Pizza. Recently Angela returned from South Carolina to operate the Chart House restaurant in Miller. The building used to be a Catholic convent. Angela said, “Our upstairs dining area is where the nuns slept in cots all in a row.” Her place was once the Baker House, so Angela kept the statue out front but gave him an anchor, oar, lantern, and old keys.
Michalae Dunlap’s mother, LaVelva Burks-Gibson (above), came to Gary in 1966 by rail because her dad, David Burks, had taken a job with U.S. Steel. Hers was one of the first African-American families to settle in Miller. In a paper for Steve McShane’s Indiana History class Michalae wrote:
Seven-year-old LaVelva started first grade at Norton Elementary, but within a year the family moved to Miller. This was a culture shock to young LaVelva, who recalled: “I was the only African-American student in the entire school. I did not feel welcome. I was bullied. It was the first time that I heard the n-word, and didn’t even know what that meant. I went home and asked my mother Leatha and she cried. She told me that it meant an illiterate person that could not read or write. I went to school the next day and told them that I did know how to read and write. It did get better after that. However, people kept saying that I didn’t act like I was a Negro, whatever that meant.”
In third grade, LaVelva recalled: “We had to reenact The Night Before Christmas. I was the mother in an interracial relationship. That was the first time that race was not an issue. It was like the barrier disappeared, only to resurface when African-Americans became more prevalent in the Miller area. I had found my niche and was comfortable with it. I was the first African-American girl to wear an Afro. It was curly and everybody wanted to touch my hair. It made me feel odd.”
When Richard Hatcher ran for mayor of Gary in 1967, Leatha got her children to campaign as well. LaVelva held up signs and made posters that said, “Hatcher, Hatcher! He’s our man!”
LaVelva and her best friend Toni Holiday went shopping together and to the movies on weekends. They were like other girls - talking and laughing in between classes, having sleepovers, and spending time with other friends. Middle school was not all fun and games though. LaVelva’s parents separated, and Leatha started worker as a caseworker and then a teacher. When LaVelva was in seventh grade, her dad was shot and killed during a robbery at his parents’ home in Bessemer, Alabama.
At Wirt High School LaVelva stayed away from cliques. A lot of times she found herself being the only African-American at social events. Some black students called her an Oreo and Uncle Tom. She recalled: “I was the first African-American president of the Girls’ Athletic Association. I did Y Teen, which was a group of African-American girls trying to make a difference. I was also involved in the African-American Club, and the French Club. I worked the concession stand at football and basketball games. Homecoming was a big deal. We’d have the entire street decorated. We built floats. We hung posters in the store windows. We’d always lose, but the point was to have pride in your school no matter what.”
LaVelva (second from right) prom picture
LaVelva’s senior year she was a cashier at Wilco Grocery. She recalled: “I’d walk to work, and the neighborhood dogs would all follow me. Then, when I got to the store, they’d turn around and walk back.” LaVelva graduated from Wirt in 1977 and moved to Birmingham to attend Bessemer State Technical College. She lived with her grandmother Velva Green, and worked weekends at Princeton Medical Center to put herself through school. After graduating in 1980 with a Nursing degree, she moved back to Gary and worked at Methodist Hospital Northlake for over 30 years.
In 1982 LaVelva’s mother got married to Elijah Ross. LaVelva was maid of honor. She and Leatha (above) wore matching suits and blouses with white flowers in their hair. Leatha’s cousin Theuroux Barnes officiated. Elijah treated LaVelva as if she was his own flesh and blood.
In 1993 LaVelva married Michael Dunlap. I came along two years later, and two years after that, my parents split up. LaVelva began dating Remick Gibson. In December of 1998 my brother Tre’ Gibson came into the world.
In 2012 LaVelva’s stepfather Elijah died. He’d been battling heart issues and developed a cancerous tumor in his stomach. A couple years later LaVelva left Methodist Hospital and started working at a methadone clinic in Gary. She sees hundreds of people each week. Her job is to assist them in relapse prevention and help them eventually detox off the methadone. She said: “It’s definitely a new experience. There are no night shifts, so I always get off at the same time. Patients know each other. When you see them every day, you build relationships with them. You know them by name and they share things about their lives.”
It is clear that LaVelva Burks-Gibson is a Godly, intelligent force to be reckoned with. I was fortunate that God placed me with such an incredible woman.
Amy Miazga interviewed Curtis A. Remus, born on December 17, 1946. Fourteen years earlier, his grandparents, William and Orla Remus founded Remus Farms north of Route 6 and west of County Line Road. Remus Farms supplied produce to Tittle’s Market on Route 20 in Miller and other area groceries. Amy wrote:
The Remus family grew corn, wheat, oats, soybeans, hay, and several acres of fruits and vegetables on the 40-acre property. William also raised draft horses and appeared in local parades. In 1970 he purchased a wooden sleigh, which transported children on rides around the property.
In 1946 Curtis’s father, William Remus, Jr., a pipe fitter, took over the farming operation. He added flats of flowers, potted plants, and hanging baskets and went into the egg business. Eggs were sold from refrigerators placed on the back of the hundred year-old farm house on Route 6. If nobody was home, there was a till on the back porch for customers to pay and make change. Starting with 300 poultry, in time over 10,000 chickens were laying approximately 7,500 eggs a day delivered to area groceries and restaurants.
Curtis learned to pick corn by hand, drive a tractor and take care of pigs, chickens, geese, horses and cows before school. In the summer he’d go with grandfather William to Michigan to pick up fruit and vegetables. On the way home they’d go door-to-door in Portage, Chesterton and East Gary saying, “The fruit man is here.” Payment was lunch at Home Haven on Route 6 and County Line Road, which his grandfather owned.
After attending Indiana State, Curtis and brother Randy joined the family business. A pipefitter like his father, Curtis farmed all day, slept a couple hours, and then went into the mill. In 1970 the first of 22 greenhouses was built; by this time the amount of farmable land doubled. Today Remus Farms has Indiana’s largest selection of rare perennials. The farmers market is open all year long.
Lewis Miazga, back row, fifth from left
In 1955 Amy’s dad, Lewis Miazga, was a third grader at Gary Emerson. At the end of the school year his teacher Miss [Louise] Elisha took the class to her house at 2201 West 57th Avenue. They played games, went for a walk in the woods, and collected sticks, leaves, and wildflowers. A tunnel in the garage took them to the basement. They had a bonfire, snacks, and homemade pizza with all types of toppings. Amy wrote:
My dad was in ROTC in high school. In Emerson’s attic was a shooting range. Cadets used to walk through the halls with loaded rifles on the way there.
After my dad got out of the service in 1968, he and my mom, who was from England and met him while he was stationed in Alaska, moved back to Gary. They lived in a trailer near Miller on Route 20 for a year or so before moving to Benton Street in Gary and ultimately to Wheeler.
My dad worked in the mill before going into business as an electrician. At age 50 years he was re-wiring a house in Griffith and passed a house that he recognized. The mailbox said “Elisha.” My dad knew instantly it was the site of his third grade field trip. That night with his full beard and long hair he rang the doorbell. Miss Elisha opened the door and said, “Lewis Miazga how have you been?” My dad said, “How did you know?” She said it was his big browns eyes.
Some years later, my grandpa was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and needed a hospital bed and wheelchair. My Grandma saw an ad in the paper and set up an appointment to view the merchandise. The owner was Miss Elisha, who had cared for her invalid mother and never married. My dad paid another visit to Miss Elisha to pick up the bed and wheelchair.
The trailer park where Lewis Miazga lived 45 years ago was one of several located on Route 20 east of County Line Road that were convenient for steelworkers. Gregory Nordyke’s interview with trailer park mom Joan Havlin appeared in my Portage Shavings (volume 20, 1991). Havlin told Nordyke:
When we moved to Ted’s east Town, they did not have a street; it was just an unpaved cut through. It was like sand. Then they put in the street and a sidewalk and planted this tree in the yard. We paid $25 a month for lot rent. The trailer renters, we called them fly-by-nights. They’d move out in the middle of the night; then we would see these pad-locked trailers. We saw the manager set people out into the street.
The trailer park had various regulations, like 5-mile-an-hour speed limits. You can work on your car, but you can’t leave it up on jacks. Kids are supposed to be inside when the lights come on. No loud music after 10 p.m. These were not really enforced that much. Behind us they’d come home at 2 or 3 a.m. and turn up the music. You’d go ask them real nice to turn it down and they’d cuss you out.
At L.A. Nails a buffed, tattooed, bald, gentle Vietnamese immigrant cut my toenails and suggested I get a “pedi” next visit. Home by 3 p.m., I watched “Girls” on HBO, much better this season than in recent years. The amazing Lena Dunham eulogized Julia Louis-Dreyfus, star of Veep, in Time’s “Hundred Most Influential” issue.
The Lee Botts (above) documentary “Shifting Sands” debuted on Lakeshore TV, only the screen was black for the first 15 minutes. That’s when I describe early Miller as a haven for fugitives, hermits, eccentrics, and nature lovers. Writing about squatter Drusilla Carr in “Gary’s First Hundred Years” I noted that in 1872 she moved from Valparaiso to a Miller fishery to join her brother as a housekeeper and cook. Two years later she married Robert Carr and moved into a two-room pine cabin near the mouth of the Grand Calumet. Her only neighbors were boat builder Allen Dutcher, a hunter-trapper of French and Indian descent named Jacques Beaubien, and a former slave known as Davy Crockett. Corey Hagelberg and Kate Land have started a nonprofit venture called Calumet Artist Residency where practicing artists will be able to stay in a cabin next to their house atop a Miller Beach sand dune not far from where Drusilla Carr a century ago rented out cabins.