How a big idea for the Knight Cities Challenge is turning blight into opportunity in Gary, Indiana

communities / Article

October 28, 2016 by Eve Pytel


Delta Institute’s Martin Brown stands outside of a vacant home that will be deconstructed and materials harvested for resale at Steel City Salvage in Gary, Indiana. Photo courtesy the Delta Institute.

The Knight Cities Challenge is open through noon ET Nov. 3, 2016 seeking the best ideas to make one or more of the 26 Knight communities more successful. Eve Pytel is director of the Delta Institute, a 2016 winner of the challenge for Steel City Salvage, a reuse facility in Gary, Indiana, that reclaims building materials to create jobs, support businesses and provide opportunities for community collaboration on development projects.

My Knight Cities Challenge journey began in 2014. I was working on behalf of Delta Institute with the city of Gary to convene a regional discussion on a significant issue facing the city – blight. We talked about the nearly 6,000 vacant homes in Gary and how creative strategies like deconstruction might provide an opportunity to remove blight while creating new economic opportunities through the harvesting of valuable materials from the homes before demolition. We proceeded to work with the city to set up a pilot program that would lead to the deconstruction of 12 Gary homes.

But what would we do with all of the lumber and architectural materials salvaged from these homes? Gary had no place to warehouse the materials and prepare them for resale. This was our Knight Cities Challenge big idea moment. 

<p><em>The Delta Institute project team, including Martin Brown, Eve Pytel and Ben Shorofsky, at the future site of Steel City Salvage in Gary, Indiana. Photo courtesy of the Delta Institute.</em></p>

The Delta Institute project team, including Martin Brown, Eve Pytel and Ben Shorofsky, at the future site of Steel City Salvage in Gary, Indiana. Photo courtesy of the Delta Institute.

In November 2015, we entered our idea to create a marketplace for reclaimed building materials into the Knight Cities Challenge. By reconceiving of Gary’s blighted homes as assets we would create economic opportunity through reclamation and reuse of building materials that would be sold at our warehouse, Steel City Salvage

Last spring, we were thrilled to receive notification that our idea was a Knight Cities Challenge winner, and we hit the ground running. Right now, we have houses being demolished; we have demolition contractors learning how to more effectively take apart homes; and we have an 8,000-square-foot building to clean up and turn into our Steel City Salvage warehouse. Our idea is now being brought to life through our work and the work of our many community-based partners. 

Our project is big and (a bit) unwieldy, but we have the full support of Knight Foundation behind us. They’re helping us communicate about our project, connecting us with other Knight Cities Challenge winners who are doing transformational work in their communities, and providing us with whatever support we need to make sure we’re successful.

And Knight wants your ideas too. Take that concept that you’ve been turning over in your head, or that problem you’ve been trying to solve, and turn it into a winning idea for your community. Knight Cities Challenge ideas tend to be about doing things big and small that pave the way for even bigger investments that make cities more vibrant—specifically by attracting talented people, expanding economic opportunity, or spurring civic engagement. There’s a lot of good stuff that can fit into those categories.

Just as we saw potential in the vacant homes of Gary, Knight Foundation saw potential in us and our idea. Now, it’s your turn!

For more on the Knight Cities Challenge and to apply, visit, follow @knightfdn and #knightcities on Twitter, or attend a virtual or in-person information session. 

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