Residents fight for the future of what was once called the "Brigadoon of industrial housing."
For nearly a century, a neighborhood seemingly straight out of the English countryside has stood tucked away along the industrial coastline of East Chicago, Indiana.
Built in 1917, Marktown was envisioned as a worker’s paradise that would supply a steady stream of labor for the Mark Steel Company next door. Founder Clayton Mark and architect Howard Van Doren Shaw — best known for his country homes and the Market Square shopping development in nearby Lake Forest, Illinois — believed that offering amenities that most tenement-dwelling workers could only dream of would keep them in the factories longer. For a model, they looked to the Garden City movement then in vogue in England. That legacy can still be seen today in Marktown's gable-roofed houses and narrow streets, where cars park on the sidewalks to leave the lanes free for wandering. When it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, the application boasted of the “charming northern European village effect” in what boosters still call the “Brigadoon of industrial housing.”
Over time, industrial East Chicago has hemmed in the neighborhood. Factories now surround it on all four sides, with three steel plants and a BP petroleum refinery. As the National Register application put it plainly, “It is striking to find a village completely surrounded by one of the densest heavy manufacturing areas in the country.”
As East Chicago fell on hard times, so too has Marktown. The Mark Steel Company was sold less than a decade after Marktown broke ground, long before the envisioned community of 8,000 could be laid out. Just a quarter of the 190-acre plan was ever built. In the 1970s, Marktown residents had to fight back against a plan to run a highway through the neighborhood. “We’ve always had this propensity of working together as a neighborhood,” says fifth-generation resident Paul Myers.
The next quarter century wasn't any kinder. In a neighborhood census just a few years ago, 25 percent of the housing units were vacant. A full 63 percent required such extensive roof renovations that surveyors could note the disrepair from the street. Just five or six hundred people live in Marktown now. Myers, who started and heads up the Marktown Preservation Society, says that Marktown has fallen into a “gradual state of disrepair. There's very little code enforcement in East Chicago.”
For residents, this past year has been a breaking point. Across the Illinois border in Chicago's South Side, proposals have been floated to save the historic Pullman company town under the direction of the National Park Service. Marktown hasn't been so lucky. Last year, rumors of talks between BP and at least one prominent local property owner began to surface, and The Chicago Tribune reported at the time that BP planned to use the space for a parking lot. As of this February, BP had purchased 22 properties in the neighborhood, and a BP spokesman told the Times of Northwest Indiana that they had plans to turn any converted lots into green space.
In mid-April, neighboring homeowners were notified that ten BP-owned Marktown properties, including several houses and a former hotel, were scheduled to be demolished on May 5. Over the town's nearly hundred year history, only one of the 220 homes originally built had met that same fate, Myers explained to the Chicago Tribune last year. But now, as ten more are slated to be taken down, Myers says he's worried. BP has reassured residents that they don't plan to force anyone to sell, but neighbors fear the domino effect will convince others to leave. “It's the first step towards the total demolition of the neighborhood,” Myers says.
Still, Kim Rodriguez, a lifelong resident who has spearheaded the opposition to the demolition campaign, told the Times of Northwest Indiana that she plans to stay strong. Rodriguez represented a group of Marktown residents at the East Chicago City Council meeting on Monday, where they presented a 1,500-signature petition against the tear downs. Rodriguez hopes that the creation of a historic review board could save the homes from demolition by a private company like BP.
“They can buy up whoever they want to buy from, but they'll have to work around me,” Rodriguez told the Times earlier in April. When Marktown's 100th birthday comes along in three years, Rodriguez plans to be there. “Fifty-five years of memories. I can't imagine just walking out the door and never coming back.”
Top Image via Save Marktown's Facebook page.