Residents decry BP's planned demolition of historic Marktown homes

BP says it wants to create more green space around its massive refinery

May 9, 2014

When Juan Laureano invites friends to his home, it usually comes with a warning.

“In the invitations I have to explain to them not to panic,” Laureano says. 

That’s because to get to Laurano’s home, you have to pass through one of the most heavily industrialized corridors in the country.

“BP on side, Safety Kleen on the other, USG, Arcelor, so it’s imposing. But once you arrive here, it’s very peaceful, very quiet. It’s home,” Laureano adds.

‘Home’ is kind of an island.

Marktown’s roughly 200 buildings are within the City of East Chicago, Indiana – but cut off from everything around it. With no grocery stores or schools nearby, it’s never been high on “must see” lists for realtors. But five years ago Laureano moved to Marktown from Chicago’s West Side.

“You know it’s like someone planted a tudor-style English village in the middle of all this industry. It’s very unusual,” he says.

So unusual that people park their cars on the sidewalks because the streets are too narrow. Marktown was originally built by industrialist Clayton Mark in 1917 so workers could live near his factory.

The factory didn’t last very long but Marks’ homes did.

By the 1970s, Marktown was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The planned worker community is often compared to Chicago’s Pullman, yet it rarely gets the same attention from preservationists. But with the planned demolition by nearby oil giant BP, that may be changing.

The 10 structures slated for demolition on Monday are private property and not protected. They’ve been vacant for years.

BP spokesman Scott Dean says they were voluntarily sold by the owners of a local tavern called the George Michel’s Bar – the only business in Marktown.

“Over the past many, many years, we have acquired property all around the perimeter of the refinery to increase green space. Property owners have a right to sell their properties,” Dean told WBEZ this week. “It’s a completely voluntary process and being open about the process and we have been very open about it for years.”

Still, Laureano says he can’t believe BP would do this.

“It’s kind of sad that BP, being a British company, would want to demolish an English-tudor style village and knowing the bad PR that BP has received, they should use Marktown as an example and revitalize it,” Laureano said.

In fact, the City of East Chicago hired an architecture firm a few years ago to figure out how to do just that.

Architect Ed Torrez, who used to head the Chicago Landmarks Commission and now sits on the Board of Advisors of the National Trust of Historic Preservation, led the project.

 

“I think (the houses) are a living museum, if you will, on how these were designed by a very talented architect, Van Doren Shaw,” Torrez, president and principal of BauerLatoza Studio of Chicago, says.

Howard Van Doren Shaw was one of Chicago’s most famous architects in the late 19th and early 20th century. Torrez once brought a bus load of urban planners from around the country to see Shaw’s unique Marktown design in 2010.

“We walked around and they saw the buildings. When we were driving back to Chicago, they were so amazed about this little town,” Torrez said. “I couldn’t believe that it was still there and it was so intact. Pictures do not do it justice. You have to go visit it.”

Torrez said it’s a wonder that Marktown has been around this long.

“One of things I’m always amazed at it has survived for so long with all the industry that has expanded around, it has stood there as a testimony to how strong and how significant this area is,” Torrez said. “It’s been threatened before, a lot of times, lots of money and lots of investment. but It has stood there.” 

Still, Marktown faces many challenges.

Torrez says the area lacks publically-owned land and a business base to generate taxes. His plan called for the city to capitalize on the area’s history to attract more visitors.

“I think a number of the homes could be salvaged. I’m saddened to hear about the current [demolition plans] for Marktown,” Torrez said. “You’ll never get it back.”

But while the City of East Chicago is moving forward on revitalizing other areas, Marktown is being left out.

Some say, despite its history, the neighborhood still has air quality issues.

“I imagine (pollution) could be a factor but I’ve been here for 55 years,” says longtime resident Kim Rodriguez. Rodriguez also serves as a Democratic precinct committeeman in East Chicago. “My brother used to come from Indianapolis and he would always tell me that he could smell the difference in the air.”

With nearly 200 structures still in place, BP’s bulldozers won’t mark the end of Marktown, but Rodriguez worries about its future.

“How long is it going to be before they’re coming after you, and your home and your land because that is going to happen,” says Rodriguez. “BP could do so much for us, instead of destroy us.”

Meanwhile, East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland has offered residents incentives to move to other parts of the city where new development is taking place.

Rodriguez says she’s not going anywhere.

“My heart is here,” Rodriguez said. “I can’t imagine walking out of this door and never coming back. I don’t know anywhere else.”

Michael Puente is WBEZ’s Northwest Indiana Bureau reporter. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews or visit the WBEZ NWI Bureau Facebook page.