Marktown 

Most city maps tend to obfuscate the reality of geography, instead showing us a diagram of political boundaries, representations of streets, and the occasional prominent geographical feature. A cursory perusal of maps of southeast Chicago and northwest Indiana will reveal a disproportionate amount of space that is neither latticed with streets nor defined by geographical features such as bodies of water, the bodies of water themselves seemingly grotesquely disfigured by this undefined interstitial space. A satellite view of these areas can start to answer some questions or lead one to conclusions about what is happening (privately owned industry?), but this still leaves much to be revealed. In an attempt to better understand this region, I began exploring by bicycle, which generally allows more access than a vehicle, and which eventually led me to stumble upon the neighborhood of Marktown.

Technically a neighborhood in the city of East Chicago, Marktown lies just over the Illinois/Indiana state border along East 129th street. To the pedestrian, it appears as a ghostly residential oasis nestled amongst the sprawling refineries of BP to the northwest, ominous steel mills to the southeast and southwest, and Indiana Harbor Works to the Northeast. It is this condition of industrial insulation that has in many ways preserved Marktown as a living museum of industrial housing. While only a fraction of the planned community was ever built, every building that was completed is still intact in some form, ranging from near-complete decay to careful restoration.

The beginnings of Marktown lie in the purchase of 190 acres of land in 1913 by Clayton Mark, who was a manufacturer of steel products looking to produce his own steel. Mark was also a prominent member of the Commercial Club of Chicago, an organization that remains to this day one of the most powerful in affecting policy in the region. According to research coincidentally provided by the Commercial Club, a way to help retain employees during the this time of unprecedented industrial growth and employee turnover was to provide adequate housing for both the worker and their family. As a model, industrial housing had been attempted, most significantly and relevantly in the 1880’s and 90’s, by George Pullman for his own Calumet area industrial neighborhood of Pullman. In the case of Marktown, employees were able to purchase their homes, priced between $2500-4000, over the course of five years, after which they were offered a bonus for remaining employed by Mark Manufacturing.

Designed by noted and prolific Chicago architect Howard Van Doren Shaw, Marktown was originally intended to accommodate 8000 employees, with the first phase accommodating about 800. The design is significant for many reasons. With the homes themselves placed along lot lines instead of having more traditional setbacks, there are large communal garden spaces formed between neighbors as well as a dense yet porous fenestration along the sidewalk. There are almost no front lawns, but many open front porches. The neighborhood has no alleys, and the majority of streets are about 32’, including sidewalks. The intended effect is a vaguely “old world” feel, like an English cottage village scaled to pedestrian proportions. With street car lines originally running along two principle streets connecting Marktown to the rest of East Chicago and Whiting, the plan seems to preclude the use of automobiles. There are no driveways or garages, and the streets are so narrow that people park their cars on the sidewalks, leaving the streets themselves as a defacto pedestrian mall.

Marktown is said to have been modeled after Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City concept, an idea with its own complex history. A short definition adopted by the Garden Cities and Town Planning Association in 1919 states that “A Garden City is a Town designed for healthy living and industry; of a size that makes possible a full measure of social life, but not larger; surrounded by a rural belt; the whole of the land being in public ownership or held in trust for the community.” One important point missing from this definition is the Garden City’s proximity to larger, existing cities. The Garden City, as a Utopian idea, is imagined as a new town built from scratch at a considerable distance from any major urban area, so as not to be confused with or threatened by urban/suburban/exurban sprawl, as well to provide enough space for the agricultural production for the city itself.

Indeed, even with its progressive social ideas, plans like Howard’s were criticized by socialist groups at the time as being unrealistic and unsympathetic to existing cities: “His plans would have been in time if they had been submitted by the Romans when they conquered Britain. They set about laying-out cities, and our forefathers have dwelt in them to this day. Now Mr. Howard proposes to pull them all down and substitute garden cities, each duly built according to pretty colored plans, nicely design with a ruler and compass . . . We have got to make the best of our existing cities, and proposals for building new ones are about as useful as would-be arrangements for protection against visits from Mr. Welles’s Martians.” – Fabian News, Dec. 1898.

It is interesting to note that, while Howard’s ideas had a much more direct influence in his home country of Britain, with the actual development of the “official” Garden Cities of Letchworth and Welwyn, it was his brief tenure in America that most likely had a key influence on his ideas. After arriving and failing as a farmer in Nebraska in the 1870’s, Howard, an inventor more than a planner, worked as a reporter in Chicago during the period just after the Great Fire before returning to England in 1876. Howard was to return to Chicago several times before the publication of his 1898 book Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, which, in 1902, became in the oft-cited but less oft-read Garden Cities if To-Morrow. At the time, nowhere else had the same opportunity to rethink urban design at such a scale than Chicago.

Ironically, and while most towns planned in the Garden City fashion were eventually swallowed up by sprawl or morphed into the bucolic residential suburbs that endlessly encapsulate cities, Marktown remains intact, not because of the protective agricultural greenbelt specified in the Garden City design, but because of the relentless industrial rustbelt that surrounds it. This rustbelt was the result of many changes in hand of the land originally planned for the remainder of Marktown. After merging with another company following WWI, Clayton Mark ended up selling the land containing both the Marktown site, as well as the adjacent manufacturing district in the 20’s. Eventually, all the land around Marktown was developed by industry, and two attempts at taking the neighborhood – one by private industry in the 50’s and one by a federal road expansion project in the 70’s – have been blocked, resulting in the neighborhood being placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Thus Marktown stands today as a sort of time capsule, seemingly half-unoccupied by private owners who don’t live there, and with none of its residents actually employed by any of the surrounding industry. In a way, it seems poised to finally take on its opposing utopian roots; that of the ideal industrial housing neighborhood, a hyper-corporate environment where residents live and breathe the company, and that of the Garden City, where the land is indeed set in the public trust, and corporations instead lease the land from the people. Of course, neither of these are possible in those terms, but the question lingers: What happens if the residential neighborhood eventually outlives all the descendants of its original creator? There may still be operational steel production surrounding Marktown, but that clearly has no more use for the industrial worker housing at its doorstep.

As we continue to re-interpret our industrial cities for the post-industrial age, sites like Marktown become an increasingly important case study. Attempts at attaining money for preservation using a more traditional welfare model have been slow and somewhat unproductive, while we can look at specific areas of Chicago to see the pitfalls of neo-liberal privatization efforts for reform. Having warded off the wrecking ball at least twice in its relatively short history, Marktown is clearly capable of initiating autonomous actions for its own survival. However, like many similar areas, it’s going to have to use that autonomous energy for more than mere survival to affect positive change. As a tiny, house-shaped island of green surrounded by a sea of brown on a map, it’s all Marktown can do to keep from being drowned.

  first published in   Proximity Magazine #2 ,  Fall 2008

first published in Proximity Magazine #2, Fall 2008