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To Grandma’s House We Go

September 8th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

East Chicago Indiana, August 30, 2009

On August 30, 2009 our family took a bike ride (white dotted line in above map) from our house in Indiana Harbor to Grandma’s house on the East Chicago side of town. The ride is ~2.2 miles through a variety of landscapes including heavy Industrial. There are only two ways to get from the Harbor side to the East Chicago side. You either take Columbus Drive or Chicago Avenue. Neither are very friendly toward bikers or walkers, not to mention children. Besides the occasional metal scraper lugging overly large qualities of metal on bikes it is very rare to see anyone walking or riding through these corridors. We tend to ride our bikes within the neighborhood or load the bikes in the bed of the truck and ride elsewhere. But on this day it was gorgeous we took a tour down Columbus Drive.

Google map tour of our bike ride with photos from the above slideshow.

Background / Strengths / Weaknesses

Regardless of what officials say, East Chicago is not community or child focused. There is no access to nature within the community, nor are there any friendly corridors for children to travel on to get through the community. In fact the community is so fragmented by industrial interests that I have begun to compare it to the land fragmentation in Palestine. Granted the comparison is limited. A sure sign of public corruption is the lack of community focused planning and development.

Local environmentalists, particularly Mark Reskin of IUN, often argue that industry was the first to settle East Chicago and housing encroached on the industry, as if that would be an argument for the kind of environmental devastation that has occurred under his tenure. The fact is the earliest settlers were not industry, but pioneers and hunters. Later in the 1800’s  wealthy Chicagoan’s built large vacation homes on the East Chicago shores, and highlands. I realize it is difficult for many to recognize any of the regions natural features, but this was once a region of ancient dunes and swales and natural marshlands.

When industry first came to these shores, they brought with them worker villages, such as Sunnyside and Marktown, to attract a stable workforce. They also demolished or moved the large homes. During this period housing and industry went hand in hand, as they looked to build a workable community. Industrial and community leaders went to great efforts to hire some of the countries best landscape designers and architects, and built a world-class library system and recreation facilities.

It is often thought that industry constructed these villages adjacent to their factories in a hap-hazard manner, so that workers could walk to work. When you review these early settlement patterns you can see how natural buffers and distance had been used to separate housing from industry. In fact Marktown’s original designs were based on Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City concept. Thus Buffering between these two incompatible adjacent uses goes back over 150 years and was written into East Chicago’s early city plans. I’m not suggesting that these buffers, with our present understanding of environmental hazard, were adequate, but it does reveal how the original intent of the designs and concepts acknowledged the need for them.

<slight tangent>
I find it remarkable to see the development of suburban corporate headquarters around Chicago (down the I-80 corridor, I-90, and the northshore), provide generous buffering between their office complexes and the surrounding community. In recent years many of these developments have become LEED certified. Yet in East Chicago some of these same corporations provide no buffering between their industrial complexes and the surround community. I don’t have to mention that none of the facilities are LEED certified. An interesting case is the BP campus in Naperville, which used to be located in Whiting until they could no longer attract professionals to the area do to the lack of quality of life, and yes BP’s campus is LEED certified.
</slight tangent>

What actually occurred here over the last hundred years was the continual encroachment of industry interests on residential quality of life, and the taking of community and private residential wealth. Each new industry involved not only a taking of public and private property, but a taking of community values and visions. Every successive period involved a massive taking of community wealth in the service of industrial benefit. It must be noted that this taking of the public and the personal wealth of the residents could not be done by industry alone. It required the participation of local, regional and state governments, and later included environmentalist.

This encroachment continues today as BP expands its facilities, by placing six cokers just across the street from one of our neighborhoods. Local tif districts had to rewrite their schedules to take into account the future increased assessed value that would be lost due to the BP project – a clear demonstration of the taking of private homeowner wealth for industry interests. In the 1980’s a whole neighborhood was demolished to make way for Pollution Control Industries (PCI). Praxair sits on what was once public property with plans developed for a central park uniting the East Chicago and Harbor sides.

Today’s challenges:

  • High concentration of heavy industry
    • More than 80% of East Chicago is zoned heavy industrial with ~14% zoned residential.
    • 40% of industrial properties are out of production and considered to be a brownfield
    • About 15% of residential properties are apart of the USEPA Superfund site – Calumet neighborhood.
  • Fourteen fairly isolated neighborhoods with little to no linkage between them, cut off by industry. Several neighborhoods suffer from incompatible adjacent uses, such as chemical, oil, or manufacturing plants. The result is that many neighborhoods have their own identity and community center.
  • Little or no access to natural areas
    • East Chicago has 7.3 miles of lakefront Exposure with only 100 yards accessible to the public – Joerse beach.
    • Yet Jeorse Beach is such an impaired asset that it ranks 3rd in the country, and 1st on the great lakes, for beach closings due to hight bacteria level.
    • Dupont prairies, with ancient dune and swales is highly contaminated and not accessible to the the public.
    • No bike trails
  • Lake County ranks as the 7th most polluted county in the country (out of 3141 counties). The pollution is mainly attributed to three major industries which reside in or within a half mile of East Chicago: BP (largest oil refinery in the midwest, second largest in the country), ArcelorMittal (largest integrated steel mill in the country), and US Steel. These industries represent tens-of-billions-of-dollars of interests in East Chicago. I suggest Lake county aim at being just average – ranked 1570 out of 3141 counties.
  • Location of 2 (Kemira, Dover Chemical) of the top 101 most dangerous chemical facilities [ Link to report ]
  • The Indiana Harbor Shipping Canal is also considered to be the most polluted waterway in the country.
  • Depressed downtown with many vacancies, making most residents auto dependent for shopping.
  • Blighted neighborhoods and housing stock. The medium home value in several of our neighborhoods is less than $25,000
  • No sustained cultural institutions.
  • High Crime
  • Poor Educational system – ranks last in the state of Indiana on ISTEP test
  • Political/industrial/environmental corruption

East Chicago is a clear and obvious point source to our shared environmental challenges. I truly believe the extreme nature of East Chicago’s environmental impairments qualify it to be ground-zero in the environmental and sustainability debate. Repairing the land use practices that are allowed to occur here would go a long way in repairing what ails the world.

The Good (Strengths):

  • There are still remnants of East Chicago’s heyday. I live in one such place, across from Washington Park, which was originally designed by Jens Jensen, with a greenhouse.
  • Good recreation facilities including an old minor league baseball stadium
  • There are still remnants of great talent and people of good intention. We have families whose tenure goes back to the 1920’s, but they are becoming fewer.
  • Faith Based Organizations. As a port of entry community East Chicago has always been known for its churches. Today most of the remaining talent are associated with faith based organization.
  • Lakefront: although it is highly impaired, it is a repairable asset
  • Riverfront: although, again, highly impaired the riverfront could become the cities strongest natural asset and provide a way to knit the neighborhoods together with bike paths. Includes access to the dupont prairies and another parcel (~200 acres) of untouched land right in the middle of east chicago (with Praxair to the east, the canal to the west, the CSX rail line to the south and a tank farm to the north).
  • Industry continues to play an important role in this community. We just need to raise their environmental performance to a minimum level that is compatible with a sustainable community. Industry is also a link to our past history.
  • Historic Landmarks: including industrial housing communities such as Marktown and Sunnyside, and an array of other buildings. We just have to stop the Mayor from demolitioning them.
  • Proximity to Chicago. Despite our proximity, if East Chicago does not have fluid access to Chicago, it might as well be hundreds of miles away.
  • Opportunities for a downtown commuter rail system, with direct access to Chicago.

In my mind no project ought to move forward in this community if it doesn’t address the challenges we clearly face and/or build the capacity of our strengths. This is the position I took when the BP project was first considered and I hold to it today. So how is it that East Chicago can be the recipient of a $3.8 billion investment by BP and NOT receive any of the benefits to address our obvious impairments (while spreading the wage and economic development benefits to middle-class communities in the southern part of the county)? Under this scenario why would a poor blighted community like East Chicago provide BP with a $165 million dollar tax abatement?

UPDATE:

Added video tour.

Categories: Case Studies, East Chicago
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