31 Jul 2012
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'm 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.