Does everyone really love Mayor Pete? His home town has some answers

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By many measures, Buttigiegs mayoral career has been a success but his policies have not pleased everyone and poverty and crime are still high

Jack Colwell was a young reporter with a big story. Trade union sources told him that the Studebakercar plant, the beating heart of South Bend, Indiana, was closing down with a loss of nearly 7,000 jobs that would devastate the community. On 9 December 1963, above his byline, the front page headline on the South Bend Tribune newspaper read: Auto output to end here.

We had an afternoon edition at that time and it was taken out to the factory gate, said Colwell, who is still a political columnist at the paper. Workers were coming out and they wouldnt believe it. They thought it was fake news. No, no, we havent heard it. Nobodys told us. This is not true. Studebakers still going to be here forever. They just wouldnt believe it and of course then the announcement came soon thereafter and they believed it.

When Pete Buttigieg announced his run for US president last Sunday, he chose to do it in a cavernous former Studebaker factory in South Bend. The ghosts of assembly line workers were replaced by his cheering supporters. The symbolism was clear for a candidate who is said to have the trauma of midwestern deindustrialisation in his bones and who is trying to make the case that after seven years as mayor his revival of the city shows he is ready to be president.

Buttigiegs rally in South Bend, Indiana. Photograph: Joshua Lott/AFP/Getty Images

Many in South Bend proudly agree. But there also those who complain that, like many other urban regeneration efforts across the midwest, the benefits have been distributed unevenly in Indianas fourth biggest city, where more than 40% of the population is African American or Hispanic.

Studebaker shuttered two weeks after the Kennedy assassination due to falling sales, outdated production facilities and fierce competition fromChrysler, Ford and General Motors.

There were fears that the city might not survive. Walter Winchell, a radio broadcaster, warned: Grass will grow in the streets of South Bend.

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And it darned near happened, Colwell mused. The whole economy suffered because a lot of the Studebaker workers not only lost their jobs, they lost their pensions and there was a lot of poverty, suicides even. It was a very depressed place and that went on for decades.

South Bends population sank from 130,000 in the 1960s to 100,000 today, a decline of 23%, as many young people, including Buttigieg himself, sought greener pastures. Newsweek magazine named it one of Americas dying cities. But after spells at Harvard, Oxford and McKinsey, Buttigieg came home. In 2012, aged just 29, he became mayor on a promise of revitalizing downtown and tackling urban decay.

By many measures, his watch from which he took a seven-month leave to deploy to Afghanistan with the navy reserve in 2014 has been a success. South Bend has seen its first significant population increase in half a century. Joblessness has been cut by more than half, from 9.6% when Buttigieg took office to 3.8% today. Some $850m of investments have poured in. While South Bend is about 55% Democratic, he won reelection with more than 80% of the vote.

Pete Buttigieg and his husband Chasten Buttigieg. Photograph: John Gress/Reuters

Colwell, who has seen mayors come and go over half a century, said: I dont think you could say that he just single handedly turned the city around. There were other mayors before him who brought the city back some and, perhaps no matter who was mayor, maybe the time had come when there was going to be a rejuvenation. But certainly he was a prime catalyst in bringing it about.

Under Buttigieg, old Studebaker buildings are being revived and converted into mixed use spaces, including for tech start-ups. One-way streets have been scrapped and altered to become more friendly to pedestrians and cyclists. Buttigieg introduced a public art installation called River Lights on the main waterway. He has tried to make government more systematic by gathering data on everything from rubbish collection to gunshots.

And his daring 1,000 houses in 1,000 days initiative demolished or repaired abandoned homes. When he announced that, I thought he was crazy, Colwell said. In fact, I think I told him at the time, why would you set a goal so ambitious? A thousand homes in a city this size in a thousand days? He did it. He surpassed the goal.

South Bend Code School HQ in the former Studebaker building. Photograph: Lucy Hewett/The Guardian

So I think some ambitious projects like that helped take the city out of the doldrums that had lasted for so long after Studebaker. They started saying wait, we dont have to bring in another auto manufacturing company or something, we can be prosperous again with other types of industries.

The 1,000 houses in 1,000 days initiative did not please everyone, however. Some here contended that it had unintended consequences and a disproportionate impact on African Americans.

Regina Williams-Preston, a teacher and council member, lost three rundown houses that she had bought hoping to renovate and turn into a valuable investment. She told CNN: There was just this real concerted effort to make sure we hit that goal. Like anything that came in the way we had to change policy, we got it done so we can hit that target. But in the wake of that, people lost homes.

The transformation of South Bends downtown has also provoked a mixed reaction. David Stamper, account manager and director of marketing at the Union Station Technology Center, said: When I was a teenager in the 90s, we didnt come to South Bend because it was dangerous. Now the downtown is thriving.

David Stamper: When I was a teenager in the 90s, we didnt come to South Bend because it was dangerous. Now the downtown is thriving. Photograph: Lucy Hewett/The Guardian

John Jessen, a commercial property broker who, like Buttigieg, is 37, said the market has exploded in the past five years and the mayor was the key factor. Hes doing fantastic, he said. Hes been a breath of fresh air in this country and hes done a lot of good for South Bend. A lot more people are living downtown; there are three or four buildings being converted into luxury apartments. Theres no doubt the city is better now than when he took office. Theres a sense of excitement that there hasnt been in South Bend for many years.

But Buttigiegs focus on downtown has been criticized for coming at the expense of other neighborhoods. More than a quarter of the population still lives at or below the poverty line, well above the national average of 14%. Crime is also high. There were 15 murders, 93 rapes and 345 robberies per 100,000 in South Bend in 2017, compared to six, 52 and 339 per 100,000 in 2010, according to

Phil Gallam, 29, a digital product designer sitting in the downtown Chocolate Cafe one recent cold day, said: Im on and off about the mayor. He pays a lot of attention to infrastructure but seems to ignore the fact weve still got quite a bit of violence in South Bend. He pays attention to the roads but not other issues.

City pride sculpture on Michigan Street, a busy row of shops and office buildings in downtown South Bend. Photograph: Lucy Hewett/The Guardian

Im in the midst of a job search and there hasnt been much at all. I havent noticed many opportunities around here. Theres been a couple of companies popping up but its a tricky moment.

Gallam now regrets voting for Donald Trump in 2016 but says he would not vote for Buttigieg in the next election. I feel a lot has been ignored so I wouldnt trust him in office to protect us.

Should Buttigieg, a piano-playing polyglot bidding to become the youngest and first openly gay US president, remain a serious contender in the Democratic primary, his record on race relations in South Bend is likely to come under forensic scrutiny. Two in five African Americans in the city live below the poverty line, which is almost double the national poverty rate for African American households, according to a study by the city in 2017.

The mayor recently faced questions over a 2015 speech in which he used the phrase all lives matter, often interpreted as neglecting the specific grievances of African Americans, as well as his demotion of the citys first black police chief, Darryl Boykins.

A judge in Indiana is yet to rule on whether to publicly release five tapes of secretly recorded conversations between police officers that led to the removal of Boykins in 2012. Buttigiegs opponents believe the tapes could include white officers using racist language, potentially igniting tensions in the city.

Attendees listen to Pete Buttigieg announce his presidential candidacy Sunday in South Bend, Indiana. Photograph: Joshua Lott/AFP/Getty Images

But his admirers insist he has shown a strong commitment to inclusiveness. Jimmy Gurul, a law professor at neighbouring Notre Dame University and former president of the Hispanic National Bar Association, said: I think hes very comfortable interacting with minority groups of all colors. Ive seen him with a Hispanic group, maybe 20 people, going round the table; people feels he cares about our concerns; its seven in the evening and he could be at home.

Whatever Buttigiegs accomplishments, he is bound to be asked: can the mayor of a city of 100,000 residents run a nation of 330m? But even Republican mayors in Indiana have been impressed. James Brainard, the six-term mayor of Carmel, which has grown to a similar size as South Bend, said: Petes done a good job as mayor. Hes well spoken, hes smart and I think hes well focused, for the most part, on ideas. And thats what the country is yearning for: leaders who talk about ideas and dont bash each other. I think most people are really tired of that.

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