The main street in Gary, Indiana is named Broadway, but many local people call it Plywood Boulevard.

Like the first floor of many facades on Broadway, that of the large building which once housed Goldblatt's department store is covered with plywood. But many windows on the facade's upper floors have been shattered and left unrepaired, exposing the building's interior to Gary's pitiless winter.

The abandoned Goldblatt's building sits in the middle of Broadway's commercial strip. One end of the strip had been anchored by the city's other big department store, Sears, Roebuck. It is also closed now, and the huge building remains vacant. No films are shown these days at Broadway's Palace Theatre, which has not been replaced by another movie house on the strip or anywhere else in the central city. The Hotel Gary on Broadway, once the city's best, is now an old-age home.

On a recent cold but sunny Friday afternoon, I walked up a Broadway far different from the one I had known as a boy. Amid the plywood on the nearly deserted street, I saw tacky stores whose customers cannot afford to shop at the nice stores in surrrounding towns.

Looking up Broadway, clouds of gray smoke rose from U.S. Steel's Gary works. Gary had identified itself as "The Steel City." But the steel industry declined, whites fled and those who remained -- most of them black, many of them poor -- have watched their city deteriorate. The smoke from the remaining steel works now seems a frail symbol of economic evanescence.

Until I left Gary for good in 1960 at the age of 12, I had spent a good deal of my life there. My parents were living in New Orleans but I was raised for a lot of the time by my father's relatives in Gary. Now, 25 years later, I had come back to see my father's brother, Uncle Sidney, the only member of our large Jewish family who still lives or works in the city.

With her first husband, Tony Krieger, and her second husband, Alex Horwitz, my grandmother Bobeh Pearl ran a neighborhood grocery store and raised her three children -- my Aunt Libby, my Uncle Sidney and my father Jay -- in a building at West 15th Street and Roosevelt Avenue. The building burned down years ago, and the site now contains only trees and weeds.

I spent a large part of my childhood in the sawdust-covered grocery store with Bobeh. (Almost everyone called her Bobeh, including Gentiles who did not know Bobeh meant grandmother in Yiddish.) Like other kids who are told they are smart, I had notions -- notions about fixing up the store and increasing sales, notions that Bobeh and other family members indulged, but for which they had no time, money or enthusiasm.

Perched atop several metal-and-wood Dixie Dairy boxes and wearing a preposterously oversized white butcher's apron, I often sat with Bobeh in the middle of the three-sided counter at the front of the store. When a customer came up with his or her groceries, Bobeh exclaimed, "Let's punch," called out the prices (which I would punch into the adding machine) and then rang up the total on the cash register.

Bobeh almost never left the store for anyone -- except Uncle Sidney. He would appear, bellow, "Bobeh!" and off she would rush to her apartment behind the store to fix him a meal or a cup of coffee. Sidney always hollered for what he wanted, and he usually got it.

Since Bobeh was an Orthodox Jew, she would not ride on the Sabbath. Just before sundown on Friday, she closed the store and rode over to Aunt Libby's nice home on West Sixth Avenue. From there she could walk, on feet swollen from standing morning to night in the store, to West Fifth Avenue, where she attended Friday evening and Saturday morning services at Temple Beth- El and visited Uncle Sidney's home, which was a block away from the temple.

Bobeh had a heart attack and died in the temple one Saturday morning. The temple itself died several years later, when it joined with two other temples to form a new congregation outside Gary. The temple building became the home of a black church, which has altered the facade and painted part of it black, green and yellow.

Not everything has changed in Gary. Dixie Dairy on West 15th Street is just where it was and as it was when my Uncle Phil, Aunt Libby's husband and a deliveryman for the dairy, took me there for visits.

The dairy still has the same symbol: Little Miss Dixie, a petite white girl wearing a frilly frock and holding a parasol. Like all other small, young and innocent creatures, she always was charming; but she also was a precious figure in this working-class town. Now that Gary is a poor black city, she seems absurd.

Like the few other things in Gary that have remained unchanged, Little Miss Dixie reflects the power of inertia, not devotion to tradition. No one has proposed replacing her, because no one has thought about her. Many of the delivery trucks on which she appears look as if they have not been repainted in years. Only neglect may have allowed Little Miss Dixie to survive as a fading emblem of dead Southern gentility in this desolate Midwestern city.

Uncle Phil does not work at the dairy anymore, because he retired and moved to Chicago. Many people who still live in Gary are not working, because they cannot find a job.

According to the federal government's Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for Gary in September was 21.7 percent. This figure actually understates the severity of the situation, because it does not take account of part-time workers and people who have exhausted their unemployment benefits but probably will not regain their jobs.

Gary is the largest city in Lake County, Ind. In late November, county Sheriff Rudy Barolomei announced his department would not evict any residents who lose their homes through foreclosure this winter. He justified his policy by saying, " . . . fs. It's the least we can do for the guys who are unemployed."

The sheriff's compassion is admirable, but survival comes before sympathy for most individuals and institutions here.

Crime is pervasive, as those with nothing turn against those with next to nothing. The local newspaper, the Post-Tribune, stuck with its large building on Broadway, does everything but deny it is edited and published in Gary. It dropped "Gary" from its title years ago. Its front-page masthead characterizes it as "serving Lake and Newton counties daily" but does not mention Gary. In the smallest and lightest type of a page two box containing publication and subscription information, Gary is identified as the place where the paper is published and from which it is mailed; but, in both that box and another, the paper's offices in other cities are identified by the names of those cities, while its Gary headquarters is identified only as the "Main Office."

I did not return to Gary because I wanted to write about it. In fact, I had no reason to think Gary was worth writing about.

I now live in Washington, from where journalists often dredge up Gary as a suitably-depressing illustration of industrial decline, economic failure, urban decay, white flight or black despair. Republicans dismiss Gary as one of those unfortunate Democratic industrial cities that have not yet benefited from the Reagan economic recovery. Democrats embrace Gary as another cluster of constituencies -- blacks, union members, unemployed workers, poor people -- whose grievances make them receptive to Democratic nostrums.

I came back to Gary to celebrate what my Uncle Sidney called his "49 years and 365 days" of practicing law here. He had decided to mark the anniversary by giving a lunch for the many local court people -- judges, bailiffs, clerks, secretaries -- with whom he had worked over the years. He had invited his entire family, and my parents and I were among those who accepted.

Uncle Sidney now lives with his wife, my Aunt Gertrude, in an apartment in Munster, a town near Gary. But he still practices law in Gary -- one of three white lawyers to do so. His offices occupy the entire second floor of a small building on Broadway. (They used to occupy only part of the second floor, but he took over the space that had been used for "Bishop Tousana's Spiritual Classes.") The offices include a sparsely furnished waiting room with a pay phone and a room that cannot be entered because it is crammed with boxes of old files. Equipment has been stolen from the offices, but theft is an ordinary part of life on Broadway.

Sidney is exceptionally intelligent and ingenious; but he is not a liberal social activist and he would be offended if people were to think of him as one. Perhaps he has kept his practice in Gary only becase he is wilfully eccentric. He is gregarious, even boisterous; he loves to scandalize people with an outrageous anecdote or unflattering characterization; he often digresses when he tells a story or makes an argument. He enjoys his nights on the town.

But when Sidney gets down to business, he means business. His regular clients include families who have been swindled when they bought a home or hired a firm to repair it, and mothers who have not received their child support payments. Sidney has represented these people for little or nothing. He has fought the con artists and made the feckless fathers pay up. People in Gary are fond of Sidney (and exasperated by him) because he is a character -- but they also respect him because he has character.

Sidney's lunch was held in a poorly-lit meeting space overlooking the main area of Gary's Genesis Convention Center, one of the federally-subsidized projects through which Mayor Richard Hatcher unsuccessfully has been trying to revive the city. The center is too small and ill-equipped to handle major conventions. This may reflect poor planning -- or a sober assessment of Gary's ability to attract such affairs.

I had approached the lunch with some apprehension. I had followed the controversy over black anti-Semitism; I had known that at least half of the 150 lunch guests would be black; and I had been concerned that at least some of them would be unpleasant to Sidney or those of us in his family who had distanced ourselves from Gary and its difficulties.

I should have known better. Almost all the guests, but particularly some black guests, vividly demonstrated their affection for Sidney and warmly welcomed his family.

Even before the lunch started, I introduced myself to three black people -- two women and a man -- whom I had noticed standing together at the edge of the dining area. They told me that, although they did not work at the courthouse and therefore had not been invited to the lunch, they had heard about it. They said that, years ago, they had known Sidney (as well as other members of Bobeh's family) and they just stopped by to congratulate him.

Mayor Hatcher showed up, sat himself at the head table and, during lunch, delivered a nice tribute to Sidney. The mayor's remarks, which emphasized the mayor's friendship with Sidney as well as Sidney's contribution to the community, were especially gracious in light of Sidney's numerous notes to the mayor criticizing his performance. At least Sidney wrote the notes on forms with carbon copies and space for a reply.

One person who immensely enjoyed the lunch and spoke at length about Sidney was a black bailiff. He has been a friend of Sidney for 20 years, since the days the bailiff was a Lake County deputy sheriff. Sidney and he led the crowd in singing a spontaneous "Happy Birthday" to an embarrassed guest. They then stopped the show with a manic rendition of "Havah Nagilah." The bailiff reminisced about Sidney in a humorous and moving way. Like many other people at the lunch, he has loved Sidney not in spite of Sidney's faults but, at least in part, because of them. Sidney's spirit has touched his own.

My visit to Gary has reminded me that our country has not lost its sense of shared humanity. Gary has been traumatized by economic disaster and racial division; but it also has been sustained by kindness and hope. The sheriff refuses to turn unemployed workers and their families into homeless people. A black bailiff and a Jewish laywer sing together at a lunch. These are little things, but not trivial things.

As Sidney's lunch was breaking up, I talked with a black minister who had delivered both the invocation and the benediction. An exceptionally thoughtful, sensitive and eloquent man, he has been a good friend of Sidney for many years. He told me that he was sad Jews had joined other whites in fleeing Gary, that the absence of Jews was a loss for the entire community. "A synagogue," he said, "is not just a house of worship but a way of life."

I thought about his observation when my parents and I drove out to the Temple Beth- El cemetery in East Gary.

At the cemetery, Bobeh's grave is next to her husband Tony's and in front of her daughter Libby's. Each of the three tombstones has a small glassed-over photograph of the person buried beneath it. Horwitz's grave -- while my father calls his father by his first name, he calls his stepfather by his last name -- is several rows away, near the front gate of the cemetery, exposed to the stares of the merely curious. There is no picture of his tombstone.

I felt sorry for Horwitz, isolated and without a photograph. My father had told me that Bobeh married Horwitz not because she loved him but because she needed someone to help her run the grocery store and raise her children. And he did help her. Her need, his help: Is that not a kind of love?

It was late in the afternoon, and the dull light of the northwest Indiana sky was starting to fade. My mother returned to our rented car to get out of the cold.

My father and I were standing in front of Bobeh and Tony's graves when my father started to break down. He walked quickly toward the cemetery gate, but then he stopped and turned around. His eyes, filling with tears, were fixed on Bobeh's grave. Recalling one of her expressions, he said to Bobeh, to me, to himself, "Bobeh was right: Life is a dream." As he turned toward the gate, I rushed up to him, put my arm around his shoulder and said, "Better a dream than a nightmare."