Photo Essay

The Reckoning

Marktown ~ Circa 1920s

I spent the majority of my life in Chicago. Industry was our way of life. It surrounded us and it defined us. After high school, I went to business school to become a keypunch operator. Keypunchers were well paid, in high demand, and were at the forefront of computer technology.

The best jobs for keypunchers were in the steel mills and refineries, so I headed to East Chicago once I graduated. Everyday on my way to work, I passed a desolate track of houses stuck square in the middle of the filth and stench and noise of this industry. I was told it was owned by the steel mill and that it long served as housing for steel mill employees. It was Marktown. I hated driving past it and flatly refused to look at it. There was something oppressive and dark about Marktown. It just sat there in a crumbling heap, completely still and utterly silent.

Recently, we were in Chicago for the weekend. On the way home, we drove through this area to see what had changed and Marktown was located along the route. I had the camera, the time, and now the desire to capture some of these images for a photo essay. I am glad i did. It made me take a hard look at something I refused to look at for many, many years.

Marktown was the brainchild of industrialist Clayton Mark. The land Mark purchased in 1913 for his steel mill was approximately 275 acres created by enclosing and filling in Lake Michigan. I was shocked when I discovered this bit of historic trivia. All I could think was, 'really'? We have been such poor stewards of our natural resources and here was a prime example.

At the time of its construction, the Industrial Revolution was redefining the world. The workers that were a dime a dozen only a few years before now had bargaining power. Industry needed them. Soon, they began refusing to live in the conditions to which they had been subjected. As a result, between 1913 and 1915 the turnover rate in American corporations grew to a staggering 1100%.

Owners who cared little for their workers were now searching for the carrot that would lure them back. Research showed that if adequate housing was provided for the worker and his family, turnover could be reined in. Thus corporate thinking regarding workers was reinvented and went something like this; 'The human tool is not unlike the machine tool; the better it is housed and cared for the greater will be its efficiency and its output'. Industry became landlords, workers and their families became the indentured servants, and Industrial Housing found its place in history.

Initially, Industrial Housing was serious business. Well known architects were hired, cost containment was studied, health issues were examined, and money started changing hands. Marktown was designed by Yale and MIT graduate, Howard Van Doren Shaw, a colleague of Frank Lloyd Wright. Shaw chose the Garden City concept for this endeavor. The Garden City movement was a method of urban planning initiated in 1898 in the UK. The design linked workers, agriculture, and industry in self-contained communities. The buildings resembled English cottages. Two of the defining characteristics of Shaw's work are the roof lines and porches... a Shaw calling card of sorts.

As Industrial Housing was embraced by companies, the issue of rent v. sell entered the fray. Who would 'own' these houses? The consensus vote was to allow workers to buy the houses through 'shared' ownership. A separate corporation was formed within the company to handle these transactions and the reins of power were handed back to industry. Workers, once again, became the underdogs in the game of life.

What was never considered by either side was the future of such communities... the 'what ifs' that are part of the natural evolution of any economic or social system. Marktown was no more than a blip on the radar as these companies were bought and sold and ultimately interred.

In the construction phase (lead image, circa 1917), Marktown was scaled down from Shaw's opulent original plan to just 158 dwellings. By the mid-60s, Marktown was succumbing to an ailing industry and by the 70s, industry had reached its end. Workers left to find jobs elsewhere and many of the Marktown homes were abandoned. Today, most remain in various states of repair and disrepair. Some filled with people; others serving only to shroud the ghosts of what has been.

In 1997, Marktown was placed on the Register of Historic Places and attempts have been made to reclaim and restore this unique 'city'. But the driving force no longer exists and, inescapably, the Industrial Revolution was forced to take its place along side 'presidents who were actors' and 'lunar landings'... just something kids read about in schoolbooks.

Though Marktown was once famous enough to find its way into Ripley's Believe It or Not, no one really cares what Marktown was. Fewer still, care what it has become.

I believe these images speak to Marktown's inalterable destiny.

10 responses

  • Brendan Kelly

    Brendan Kelly (Deleted) gave props (31 Jul 2012):

    I feel like after reading and admiring your photography that I have learned a little bit more. I knew of Marktown but, did not know about it. The little town in the Panhandle of Texas that I lived a great part of my life in (Wellington, TX) the steal mill is what held the town together. Once that closed down the population dropped from Over 4000 to under 1500. Today, well not much goes on there. I miss it at times. Thank you so much for sharing this with us. Once again.........YOU ROCK!

  • Bailey Cooper

    Bailey Cooper   said (31 Jul 2012):

    Thank you Brendan, for the nomination and great commentary. I loved every part of this essay... shooting it, researching it, adding to my knowledge base, putting our country into perspective... just everything. I know this story will have a very small, well-defined group of readers. History, economy, industry, social norms... heavy reading at best. But this is something I can hand down to my children and grandchildren. And they will own it because they love me and they will pass it on.

    Because of your history, you understand the essay. You lived it as well. There is such a sadness that resides in these places and images. I am now ashamed that I pretended Marktown wasn't there those many years ago. That behavior is an insult to those who called it home. My feelings were quite different the day I shot. I wanted to tell their story. And have done just that.

    Again, thank you Brendan for this most unusual aligning.

  • Davide Simone

    Davide Simone (Deleted) said (1 Aug 2012):

    really STUNNING !!!!

  • kil roy metters

    kil roy metters   said (1 Aug 2012):

    once again a well written and informative photo essay by you......the usa is dotted with marktowns due to corporations being allowed to use people and communities as indentured servants and the government inability to stand up to said corporations........the largest one of these communities is detroit........km

  • Bailey Cooper

    Bailey Cooper   said (1 Aug 2012):

    Thank you Davide, for taking the time to read and comment. As always, it is much appreciated.

  • Bailey Cooper

    Bailey Cooper   said (2 Aug 2012):

    kil roy ~ Essays such as this are difficult for me to write. There is so much I want to say... so much of the story that is left out to stay in compliance. When I was doing my research, Detroit was in the reading. I almost feel guilty for not including this information. But, it is what it is. The most difficult info to read were the quotes similar to the one in the story. Referring to workers as 'human tools' speaks volumes about corporate America and not much has changed. Government... business... financial... all are in bed with each other. Equality exists in reverie alone. But we honor their memory.

    Thank you so much for adding to this piece of history and for your comments and kind words

  • Michele Wambaugh

    Michele Wambaugh (Deleted) said (3 Aug 2012):

    There is more than a little Irony that Marktown is now registered. But so it goes. Nice doc work for both story & photos.

  • Thad Zajdowicz

    Thad Zajdowicz   gave props (5 Aug 2012):

    This is perhaps the most powerful photo essay I have seen on JPG, and I have been here for a while. Well done -- gets my vote for story of the week and year, frankly!

  • Bailey Cooper

    Bailey Cooper   said (5 Aug 2012):

    Yes Michele. Like closing the barn door after the horses got out. I understand the desire to preserve Marktown. It should be, but it can't be. The final words speak to this... Marktown's inalterable destiny. Thanks for reading and commenting. So glad you enjoyed it.

  • Bailey Cooper

    Bailey Cooper   said (5 Aug 2012):

    Thad ~ That is quite a compliment. It is exciting for me to have other photographers relate to the purpose and content of this essay. This is who we were once upon a time and we should not forget. Thank you for your kind words and vote. I am truly honored.

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