For better or worse, industry and East Chicago, Indiana have gone hand in hand for more than a century.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the city’s historic, planned worker community: Marktown.
The neighborhood is sandwiched between a massive steel plant and one of the nation’s largest oil refineries — BP, which has been buying homes and buildings in Marktown for years and clearing them away to create more green space. Marktown once had more than 200 homes and duplexes, but many have been torn down over the years and their occupants relocated.
Some of the remaining, mostly Hispanic and working class residents want to sell to the oil giant, but they say the amount BP is offering isn’t nearly enough for what their homes are worth.
“This house, I pay $30,000. I put [in] $20,000 because I fixed it,” said Marktown resident Ricardo Maldonado, who bought his home 14 years ago. “I don’t think it’s fair that they offer me $30,000. I think something fair is $50,000 or $60,000. Something like that.”
Built more than a century ago by industrialist Clayton Mark so workers could live near his factory, Marktown’s unique, Tudor-style homes are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s often compared to Chicago’s historic Pullman area that’s just 10 miles away, but it’s never received the same effort toward preservation.
While some like to romanticize Marktown, it can be hard living there.
It’s isolated from the rest of the city of East Chicago, with no nearby grocery stores or schools within walking distance. And some residents say the air quality is terrible due to the nearby steel plant and refinery.
“Who wants to live with so much contamination?” asked resident Olivia Xelhantze. “The contamination and the odor.”
Xelhantze moved to Marktown with her husband, Juan, and two children seven years ago.
The air pollution is so bad that Xelhantze doesn’t let her children play outside in a nearby park. She and some of her neighbors want to move, but they contend the offers they’re received from BP are too low.
“BP has offered, in my opinion, a very unjust and unfair value that goes from $20,000 and in some cases $30,000,” said Juan Villarreal, a licensed real estate broker who’s representing 26 of the remaining 65 or so homeowners in their dealings with BP.
“What was once Marktown, a vibrant community, has now dwindled because of the devastation that the pollution has created, and people have been forced to sell their houses.”
Villarreal said some homeowners feel pressured to sell to the company.
“Sometimes we’re given an ultimatum by brokers that represent BP suggesting that if they didn’t take the offer now, which would be on average of 20 to 30,000, that they would be lucky if BP would even offer them half. And so there’s a lot of scare tactics,” Villarreal said.
BP Director of Media Affairs Michael Abendhoff said the company has been purchasing property around the refinery for more than 20 years in an effort to create more green space. That means clearing away historic structures, putting the future of Marktown in doubt.
“In all cases, the properties were purchased from willing sellers who owned homes that had been vacant or in disrepair,” Abendhoff said. “Where there were safety hazards, BP had the purchased properties demolished or removed. BP always negotiated in good faith and will continue to work with willing sellers to purchase properties around the perimeter of the plant as opportunities arise.”
East Chicago City Councilman Robert Garcia, who represents the neighborhood, thinks otherwise.
“BP just don’t understand,” Garcia said. “These homes probably aren’t worth much, but a lot of those residents and homeowners have their homes paid off and that’s priceless to them.”
Garcia accused BP of “shortchanging” Marktown residents.
“They make a billion dollars every quarter. If you want them out, give them a higher amount,” he said.
BP hasn’t explained why it wants to clear the homes, beyond saying it wants to create more green space. But local environmental activist Thomas Frank has an idea.
He said after a fatal explosion at BP’s Texas City, Texas refinery in 2005, the company may want a buffer between its facility and Marktown.
“They are mitigating against the potential for a blast,” Frank said.
As BP continues to make offers for Marktown homes, owner Juan Rivas said the money isn’t enough to make it possible to move.
“Where are we going? With $20,000, we won’t get anything,” Rivas said.
Michael Puente is WBEZ’s Northwest Indiana Bureau reporter. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.