I finally got to visit the planned worker community of Marktown in East Chicago this weekend. In 1917, industrialist Clayton Mark hired famed architect Howard Van Doren Shaw to design a complete community for workers at his steel mill in Indiana Harbor. The town was built to resemble an English village, with residents parking on the sidewalk and walking in the streets. The original plans included different types of housing, shops, schools, a post office, a recreation center (with tennis courts), and a movie theater. Construction stopped after WWI with only 10% of the town completed, including 200 Tudor Revival-style homes. In contrast to the nearby company town of Pullman, where workers could not own their homes, residents in Marktown had the option to rent or own their homes.
Marktown is now completely surrounded by heavy industry. BP, which owns an adjacent refinery, has been buying property there since they acquired the facility from Standard Oil in 1998, and has demolished entire swaths of homes in the last 4 years. Marktown Historic District has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1975, but because the homes are privately owned and BP isn’t using federal funds for demolition, historic district regulations that might otherwise protect the town’s structures don’t apply. There is still a small-but-passionate group of resident preservationists, some of whom have lived in Marktown for generations, who continue to advocate for the community. One of them shared his experiences of growing up in the neighborhood and allowed us to tour his restored duplex.
Some speculate that BP views Marktown residents as a liability: if there’s an explosion at the refinery, Marktown is within the blast radius and couldn’t be evacuated. There is some historical merit to this concern, as an explosion at the same plant in 1955 killed two people and damaged 140 homes in the Stiglitz Park neighborhood across the street (Standard Oil eventually bought up and demolished all of those damaged homes).
BP wanted to create a parking lot with the property they’d recently acquired on the perimeter of the neighborhood (indeed, it seems they are planning for all of Marktown to someday become a parking lot), but were pressured by residents and activists into creating a community green space instead. Still, BP is playing the long game, and without significant intervention, Marktown will eventually be entirely bought out and demolished.
Marktown has a lot in common with Doel, the small town in northern Belgium where residents are being slowly forced out as the Port of Antwerp expands. The two towns, though very different in history and character, will likely share the same fate of being wiped out by industrial expansion.
Bierschenk, Ed. 2017. “Marktown Slowly Disappearing as BP Demolishes Homes.” The Times of Northwest Indiana. Accessed April 25. http://www.nwitimes.com/news/local/lake/east-chicago/marktown-slowly-disappearing-as-bp-demolishes-homes/article_9a6f9341-a6ed-5264-8046-dc104aaaafeb.html.
“History of Marktown.” Marktown Preservation Society. http://marktown.org/pdf/marktown_history.pdf
“Marktown Historic District – East Chicago, Indiana.” 2017. Accessed April 25. http://www.marktown.org/.
“Marktown May Be Nearing Its End — Chicago Tribune.” 2013, April 16. http://galleries.apps.chicagotribune.com/chi-130416-marktown-pictures/.
Pete, Joseph. 2016. “Historic Marktown Almost 100, but Future Uncertain.” The Times of Northwest Indiana, November 13. http://www.nwitimes.com/business/local/historic-marktown-almost-but-future-uncertain/article_11b906f8-7332-574a-bea7-a91e0995ce60.html.