Monday, April 26, 2010
Marktown Historic District
This is the strange, surreal world of the Marktown community, a neighborhood in East Chicago, Indiana that is completely surrounded by heavy industry.
In this region of northwest Indiana, there are plenty of neighborhoods that abut manufacturing plants. Marktown's interest goes well beyond that, as it is a rare and unusual example of a planned worker's community, with a scale and charm that defies its inhumanly sized surroundings.
This strange attempt at a charming hamlet amid furnaces and smokestacks began as the brainchild of Clayton Mark, a steel manufacturing magnate who controlled a steel firm and was involved in the building of the harbor and the landfill that today holds Inland Ispat Steel's vast plants. Seeking to provide his workers with quality affordable housing, Mark planned a sizable community next to his plants.
Mark recruited renown architect Howard Van Doren Shaw to design the new workers' community in 1916. Shaw drew on the model of an English village, with streets so narrow that today, residents park their cars on the sidewalks. The charming plaster-sided houses were made to be fire-resistant. They ranged from a boarding house for single men (abandoned and deteriorating today) to modestly large houses for mid-level managers.
Due to financial troubles with Mark's steel firm, however, only a relatively small fragment - 4 sections out of a planned 30 - were ever built. Plans for shops, a market, a theater, and other amenities were largely scuttled, as was a vision of a more extensive park system enveloping the community. Marktown today contains about a hundred residential buildings, the boarding house (abandoned), one commercial building (also abandoned), and three generous park spaces.
Presumably owing to its less than ideal setting, Marktown struggles to maintain a population. Immaculately kept houses alternate with abandoned and deteriorating ones, sometimes within the same structure. Perhaps 1/4th of the core buildings are vacant. One has lingered in a state of half collapse since at least 2007.
I wonder if a completed Marktown might have had the critical mass to sustain itself more thoroughly than it does today. You can't point a camera in Marktown without hitting a massive industrial structure, but a larger development might have meant a core that was better-insulated from the unpleasantries of heavy industry.
The Marktown Preservation Society hosts a very informative site about the neighborhood, which is a designated historic district and on the state of Indiana's 10 Most Endangered Places list.