East Chicago’s Legacy of Corruption

2020-07-30T08:27:48-04:00July 17, 2020|

Landmarks in Indiana’s Steel City still bear the names of corrupt officials

By Emiliano Aguilar

My grandfather, a lifelong East Chicagoan, checked the obituaries in the morning paper every day. When my grandmother, a teacher, asked what he was doing, he would reply that he was making sure he was still alive so that he would not vote for Bob Pastrick, the city’s longest-serving mayor. When I was a child, I never got the joke. But later in life, I understood exactly what it meant: the only way my grandfather would vote for the machine was if he was dead. In a one-party town, Grandpa Vogt would simply not vote. His opinion on East Chicago politicians never changed—and neither, he believed, had the politicians. To him they were all the same.

East Chicago, at the southern tip of Lake Michigan, was once a booming, midwestern, industrial city. Posters along the South Shore Line used to claim that it was the “Workshop of America.” Before deindustrialization, it was. More than seventy percent of the city was zoned industrial, and fifty companies produced more than four hundred goods for companies like Inland Steel, Youngstown Sheet and Tube, Sinclair Refining, Grasselli Chemical, and Roxana Petroleum. This large industrial sector provided the city with a significant tax base, and, subsequently, room for a corrupt political machine to thrive.

Many of these industries have since closed, or become shells of their former self, but the politicians who thrived and personally profited from their role as elected officials remain, immortalized in the city’s infrastructure. Their names adorn landmarks like the Jeorse Park Beach, the Robert Pastrick Branch of the Public Library, the John B. Nicosia Senior Building, and many more streets and parks across the city. Each belongs to a man that at one time or another served as mayor, the head of the city’s Democratic Party machine. For some residents of East Chicago, their names invoke the supposedly bygone glory days of a booming steel town and machine politics. For others, they represent monuments to an era of rampant political corruption.

Walter Jeorse was the first of the three. Elected mayor in 1951, Jeorse staffed his administration, and the Lake County Democratic Organization, with his “young men,” a group of East Chicagoans representing a new, college-educated politician. In doing so, he ensured that his loyalists occupied political positions in East Chicago and across the county. This established the first inklings of a centralized machine in Northwest Indiana. With the support of Jeorse and the Lake County Democratic Organization, machine-endorsed candidates filled positions across the city.

Jeorse’s machine left little room for dissent. Those that pushed back against his agenda found themselves removed. In the race for the city’s first elected school board, Joseph Maravilla became the city’s first Mexican-American elected official, with Jeorse’s blessing. However, as Maravilla and other dissenters began to refuse to support Jeorse’s friends for contracts and positions in the School City of East Chicago, the Mayor took to the State Legislature to remove the elected board and to replace it with one appointed by his office with the Anderson School Bill of 1957. This effectively removed the only elected Mexican-American person in the city’s administration—and left the board as a part of patronage politics until the second elected school board, in 2013. When Jesse Gomez, a health inspector, sided with Jeorse’s competition, he received a pink slip.

In 1963, Dr. John B. Nicosia, who framed himself as the reform candidate, beat Jeorse for Mayor of East Chicago by a narrow margin of 107 votes. Dr. Nicosia’s administration was committed to a ten-point program for civic improvements. Nicosia’s urban renewal program oversaw millions of dollars funneled into city improvement projects, for which his administration took bribes and kickbacks. The hasty destruction of Anaconda White Lead, and the construction of the West Calumet Housing Projects on the same property, later revealed lead contamination up to 237 times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s allowable limit. Meanwhile, when the community protested the reinstatement of an administrator who allegedly remarked that Mexicans were “lazy and ignorant,” Mayor Nicosia made headlines across the state for hitting a young Latino photographer on his lawn.

Nicosia’s scandals were not limited to his tenure. In fact, after deciding not to run for reelection, Nicosia found himself in legal trouble stemming from his term as mayor. As a part of his ten-point program, his administration began a $17 million water pollution abatement sewer project. After leaving office, Nicosia and members of his administration were accused of diverting nearly $2.3 million of this money to public officials in East Chicago and contractors involved in the project. After a fifteen-hour deliberation over two days, Nicosia was found guilty of the bribery charge, sentenced to five years in prison, and fined $10,000. Eventually, his sentence was reduced to eighteen months in prison and a $5,000 fine. In the end, he served no jail time.

Pastrick, the longest-serving Mayor in the city’s history, rose from one of Jeorse’s “young men” to become nearly synonymous with the Democratic Party in Indiana. In 1971, Pastrick beat his former boss, Jeorse, in the mayoral race. He served until 2004, and, during his tenure, perfected the machine. Things did not end well for Pastrick. After charges of voter fraud in his 2003 victory over George Pabey in the Democratic Primary, the Indiana Supreme Court ordered a special election to be held. Pastrick lost. Shortly after his defeat, judges labeled Pastrick and his administration a “criminal enterprise” for a 1999 “Sidewalks for Votes” scandal, in which they diverted public money to pave concrete work and tree trimming in exchange for votes. Pastrick and two allies were ordered to pay $108 million in restitution to the city. The former mayor served no time in jail.

As a native of East Chicago, I admit that for a long time, the only name that held any meaning to me was Robert Pastrick. I grew up two blocks from City Hall, and my family frequently talked about him. My grandmother would walk my siblings and I across the railroad tracks next to our home on Baring Avenue to the Pastrick Branch of the library for story-circles, and to attend its Summer Reading Programs. We would regularly pass the Nicosia Senior Building on Railroad Avenue. Jeorse Beach and Callahan Park were places that I would go to with friends. I never questioned the names behind these frequent landmarks of my childhood.

However, as I began to devote my dissertation research to writing about my home, my curiosity and frustration grew. These places I visited a child, that I still pass and visit now, bear the names of individuals that represent everything I have come to resent. These men ran East Chicago in true machine-city fashion. They engaged in patronage politics, back-room deals, and petty retaliation against dissenters.

The corrupt antics of Jeorse, Nicosia, and Pastrick are not unique in the city’s history. Since East Chicago’s founding in 1893, fifteen men have held the mayoral office. Not all of them participated in illegal activity, nor was every mayor the subject of federal prosecution. But many of these men perpetrated a system of politics that allowed them to profit at the expense of their constituents. Several mayors who faced public scandal in office bear no mark on the city’s landscape. But, in the cases of Jeorse, Nicosia, and Pastrick, the city renamed public spaces in their honor.

Jeorse, Nicosia, and Pastrick are all mayors of the postwar period, characterized by increased development for the city and region—an era still often considered the heyday of East Chicago. When Pastrick passed away, in 2016, many East Chicagoans offered condolences to the same man deemed guilty of robbing them. The Indiana Democratic Party Chairman, John Zody, released a statement proclaiming: “Mayor Pastrick was a legend in Indiana politics through his service to his city, his county and his state- and of course in our Democratic family. On behalf of the entire Indiana Democratic Party, we offer our condolences to the Pastrick family. We will miss the Mayor.”

Ron Blake, a former councilman in Hobart, Indiana, a city several miles from East Chicago, once quipped that “If Bernie Madoff had a building named after him in New York, I’m sure people would be very upset about that.” The current Mayor, Anthony Copeland, has made plans to demolish the Nicosia Building and replace it with new senior housing. However, no plans exist to remove Jeorse and Pastrick’s names from their present landmarks. In fact, these mayors are remembered relatively favorably in the city and region. As a historian and native of the city, I am left wondering why.

Each of the commemorative sites was constructed during its namesake’s administration, symbols of the postwar prosperity that made many of their legacies so popular and often positive. As some East Chicagoans, both past and present, remember fondly these “glory days,” the rest of the city must contend with the scars these men and their administration left on the community—and these daily reminders commemorating their corrupt legacies. ■

 

 

Emiliano Aguilar is an East Chicago native and PhD candidate in History at Northwestern University.

Cover image: Postcard featuring East Chicago City Hall, circa 1965. Belt Magazine collection.

*Opinion and commentary columns are the work of their authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Belt Magazine or its parent organization, Belt Media Collaborative.

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