A century ago, East Chicago, Indiana drafted its ideal future. Here’s how that went.
By Emiliano Aguilar
In 1919, Ignacio Garcia Maravilla and his two brothers arrived in East Chicago, Indiana, to work for Inland Steel. Originally from Guarachita, Michoacan, they had most recently been picking cotton in Tempe, Arizona, and, whether they knew it, or not, they were now scabs, brought in by Inland Steel to break the Steel Strike of 1919. The company took them by train to Chicago, then across the Illinois-Indiana border via boat, to avoid the strikers. The Maravilla brothers and others slept on cots in the company barracks and ate through the company’s commissary, alongside hundreds of other Mexican laborers brought in during the strike.
The company’s plan to break the strike by pitting immigrants against native-born residents worked, and, in 1920, the strikers, who had been holding out for union recognition and an eight-hour workday, went back to work without either. But, according to Maravella’s son, Frederick Maravilla, who told the story for the Indiana Historical Society’s Be Heard: Latino Experiences in Indiana, the temporary immigrant workers stayed on too, becoming part of the permanent labor force.
After a few years, the Maravillas returned to Michoacan to get their families and bring them back to East Chicago to stay. The return of the Maravillas and thousands of other immigrants and migrants from across the globe created a problem for East Chicago. The city, like many boomtowns, was growing faster than the pace of its housing. (Father Clement Mlinarovich, recalling his arrival to Indiana Harbor in 1915 to establish a parish for the city’s Slovakian community, noted that “most of the original congregation lived in tents.”)
In 1925, the East Chicago Chamber of Commerce, facing a massive housing crisis, commissioned a report to plan for the development of the city, specifically residential development. The city hired Chicago Consulting Engineer James Walker, whose firm had previously conducted a survey about transportation in East Chicago and neighboring Whiting (home to Standard Oil). In its July meeting, the Chamber’s Chairman, C.H. Truce of the Superheater Company, noted that Walker and his colleagues would work “for the purpose of finding out what is wrong with the community.”
The next year, Walker and his colleagues released “Planning for the Future of East Chicago, Indiana: A General Survey of Its Social and Economic Problems.” The comprehensive report included a description of the city’s population (approximately fifty-one thousand residents), industrial and housing characteristics, information on various housing plans, vacant homes, wages, local markets, transportation, streets, waterways, parks, schools, churches, and zoning.
The Walker Report also drafted an ambitious vision for the city’s future—a town of one hundred thousand people in just a few years, made possible by development and a drastic “re-birth.” In the process, it noted several impediments to that idealized vision, including problems stemming from the industrial character of the city, which included railroad issues, cement dust, and smoke. However, one section, nestled between a conversation about transportation and the importance of a new street network, stood out. It was labeled “Negroes and Mexicans.”
In many ways, the story of the Walker Report and East Chicago is not new—residential segregation and racialized space have defined communities across the Rust Belt. According to the U.S. Census’ dissimilarity index—which measures the extent to which different groups of people live in other neighborhoods in a city or metropolitan area—in 2000, the Gary Metropolitan Division, which consists of Northwest Indiana’s four counties and cities such as Gary, Hammond, Portage, Merrillville, and East Chicago, was the most segregated metropolitan area of the United States. Hammond ranked the third-highest city in the state overall. Sometimes included as a part of the Chicago Metropolitan Division (IL-IN-WI), which has been credited with inventing residential segregation and remains one of the most segregated today.
The origins of this segregation date back to the industrial development of the region. What started as a slow trickle of industries quickly snowballed into massive industrial development. Industries arrived in a flurry of land purchases and groundbreakings, starting with Standard Oil Company in 1889. William Graver Tank Works, which manufactured tanks for oil companies on the east coast, was the first industry to pave the way in East Chicago. After the incorporation of the city in 1893, a real estate boom occurred. Companies like the Standard Steel and Iron Company chartered trains to transport possible developers from Chicago to East Chicago, where boosters, the East Chicago Company, held picnics with free food and alcohol to win over potential investors. Passenger boats provided tours along the developing lakefront.
They succeeded. Corporations such as Grasselli Chemicals, Hubbard Steel Foundry, Superheater Company, Sinclair Refining, Youngstown Sheet and Tube, and Roxana Petroleum set up shop in East Chicago. At its height, nearly fifty companies produced more than four hundred products and shipped them across the world. Such massive development laid the foundation for the housing crisis because those facilities needed workers, and those workers needed someplace to live.
Boosters, industrialists, and workers couldn’t agree on who was responsible for housing. At first, companies built small, dedicated neighborhoods for their workers; subsidiaries of Inland Steel, like the Indiana Homes Company, constructed many of these first settlements; the Indiana Homes Company built a hundred duplexes in the newest East Chicago neighborhood. But this had mixed results, as some companies only produced enough homes for a fraction of their workforce, or only for specific workers, such as foremen and management. All the while, working-class communities slowly expanded out from the immediate area of the factory into new, developing neighborhoods, and the gaps between communities like East Chicago, Gary, Hammond, and Whiting got smaller.
When Walker and his colleagues came along in 1925, they wanted to determine why, despite their workplaces being in East Chicago, some workers were opting to move to Hammond or Whiting, or in some cases Gary. They distributed approximately twenty-five thousand surveys to English-speaking (read: mostly white) industrial workers in East Chicago and received more than ten thousand back. A fourth of the respondents claimed that the presence of African-Americans and Mexicans in the city was to blame. Some respondents used veiled terms, such as “Not enough English speaking people.” Others were more pointed, stating “Too many Negroes and Mexicans,” or “Wife refuses to live in East Chicago on account of negro and Mexican element.” One respondent, in particular, was unabashedly clear: “segregate races to make them a desirable place.”
So, how could you get white people to stay in East Chicago and create the booming, hundred-thousand-person utopia the report envisioned? Walker and his colleagues concluded, “In our opinion, the untoward influence of [negroes and Mexicans] can be minimized by segregation to particular portions of the city. If this can be accomplished in such manner as to assure persons contemplating taking up their residences in East Chicago that such segregation is reasonably permanent, the objections to their presence will be minimized.”
In fact, housing patterns already showed clear signs of segregation. For example, East Chicago segregated Black communities resettling in the city during the Great Migration. As African Americans arrived in the Calumet neighborhood, The Lake County Times proclaimed, “The colored race is invading East Chicago very rapidly and a great number of them are settling in Oklahoma. They are congesting in large numbers in small quarters and some little friction has occurred in this locality between the whites and blacks. The police are exercising a close watch in this particular locality.” And, as the historian Tamsen Anderson notes, the city prevented Black people from moving into specific neighborhoods by renting at significantly higher prices.
Paul Schuster Taylor found a similar trend for ethnic Mexicans in his three-volume study Mexican Labor in the United States, conducted between 1927 and 1930. Distinctly ethnic neighborhoods were evident, and Taylor discovered that “The housing of Mexicans in Indiana Harbor was generally agreed to be the poorest in the region.” A decade later, The Indiana Writers’ Project produced The Calumet Region Historical Guide, in which it briefly discussed “Little Mexico”: “Here, in the shadow of the Inland Steel Company, in predepression days lived several thousand Mexicans, in unpainted, dilapidated hovels, built on stilts because of the marsh, and little more than boxes.” Other scholars have claimed that the colonia of Mexicans in the Indiana Harbor represented the densest community of Mexicans in the United States, consisting of approximately five thousand people in less than a mile in any direction. In the summer of 1932, East Chicago’s American Legion oversaw the removal and repatriation of approximately twenty-five hundred residents from “Little Mexico.”
It wasn’t actually illegal for Black and Mexican residents to live alongside white people, but such neighborhoods were constructed by de facto forms of segregation within East Chicago—the same kinds of segregation recommended by Walker and his colleagues in their 1926 report. These strategies were necessary, Walker pointed out, because you couldn’t just make it illegal for ethnic minorities to live near whites anymore, and how else could you make sure white people would still live in your community?
The clear demarcation of housing extended into the growing community as well. In 1943, Mayole Nelson, a Black woman, wrote Walter White, secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, to complain of the predominance of “Whites Only” signs in East Chicago and Hammond’s commercial districts. Movie theatres segregated Mexicans to backrows or balconies until the postwar era. Even when work or school took these segregated communities beyond their immediate neighborhood, their lived experience was still defined by segregation in the developing community. This deliberate exclusion led to the rise of businesses and stores that catered to the groups within the community, such as pool halls and grocery stores.
My hometown of East Chicago never became the city Walker and the East Chicago Chamber of Commerce envisioned, especially not within a few years of the completed survey. The city did reach and sustain a population around the mid-fifty-thousand mark for about thirty years. But the industrial utopia that they sketched out in “Planning for the Future of East Chicago, Indiana” never came to fruition.
The industrial character of the region developed almost exclusively in the first decades of the century, and various racial and ethnic groups provided employers ample workers. However, these white workers brought with them biases and racist attitudes, which the report considered reason enough to encouraged firm racial barriers in housing. If the city hoped to become a bustling lakefront city like neighboring Chicago, the thinking went, the housing would have to become segregated to insure the happiness of some workers over others.
The segregation recommended by the report did persist, even as residential patterns shifted and the city’s population plateaued. In 1940, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, a federal agency established in 1933 to refinance home mortgages during the Great Depression—and well-known as one of the forces behind redlining—wrote in a description of the east side of Indiana Harbor: “Good neighborhood twenty years ago; over-run by Mexican and negroes. Trend of desirability over the next 10-15 years: Downward.”
The Walker Report provides an illuminating snapshot of the then-still developing Calumet Region. It shows how industrial expansion became intertwined with a particular white vision of the city and the region. The study remains not only a roadmap to what could have been but a crucial document highlighting the stakes of this utopia. A utopia that—the nearly ten thousand people surveyed made clear—left no room for “foreigners, Mexicans, or negroes.” ■
Emiliano Aguilar is an East Chicago native and PhD candidate in History at Northwestern University.
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