If you feed them, they will come.
A sage universalism to be sure, and perhaps part of the foundational inspiration for ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen, soon to translate into a delectable spread of food, art and community.
As social kitchens go, this is a first for Gary, a community that lost both businesses and residents over several decades. After all, the city once had crazy bragging rights: the childhood home of the Jackson 5 and the site of a bustling steel industry that once employed a legion of workers. How many cities can lay claim to a family of entertainment superstars and an industrial boom?
Today there are fewer than 100,000 people living in Gary. When residents need a food fix or cultural infusion, they typically travel to nearby Merrillville or even Chicago, about 30 miles away. But ArtHouse hopes to bring back big crowds and even jobs and businesses to the city by playing a central role as a culinary incubator and community space.
Geoff Black, a photojournalist who has lived in the city for 50 years, is ready to support the ArtHouse project. He feels that one of the biggest problems in attracting people to the downtown space may be helping them break their comfortable trends, which can be hard.
“My wife and I both work outside Gary,” says Black. “We spend a lot of time in Chicago and the suburbs. Gary is a bedroom community for us. We go to work; we come home; we go to bed. If going outside of Gary has been a trend for 10, 20 or 30 years, people tend to stick to that. African-Americans are loyal. We continue to do whatever it is for a long time.”
In every community there are familiar mainstays; places frequented for a good meal and a dose of cultural inspiration. Welcome to Mama Pearl’s, a soul food eatery that will share space with ArtHouse on 5th Avenue.
Joni and Hope Mason, owners of Mama Pearl’s, which has been feeding Gary denizens for three years, are pleased about ArtHouse’s arrival. Named after Joni’s mom who passed on her “from-scratch” recipes and turns 104 soon, the restaurant already has a loyal following, thanks to the couple’s diligence. The Masons have been known to work 20-hour days to keep their business in business.
“It’s been difficult to survive,” Hope admits. “It’s tough to keep good employees because you’ve got to work very hard in this field. And you have to make sure people are handling your recipes the way you intended and not changing things.”
Not only the Masons but also Gary residents are sure to appreciateArtHouse’s training programs. There will be a culinary entrepreneur program and food service basic training, provided for those residents desiring business ownership or positions in the restaurant industry.
Hope and her husband will have a role in ArtHouse itself as well, something they look forward to.
“The people of Gary are excited to see what’s going to happen here,” she says “with the art installations, classes and how those will be conducted. Our electronic board even has a message: Welcome, ArtHouse. “
-Shirley Henderson, ArtHouse staff writer