By Matt Altstiel

I’ve always been drawn to old places. Given the choice between visiting an ancient ruin, a place where remnants of a long-gone era are still visible, or a trip to an outlet mall, I’ll choose history every time. Of course, I’m not alone in this. Millions of tourists descend on Jamestown, Williamsburg, St. Augustine, Boston, San Antonio, and countless smaller historic sites every year, to transport back in time. We know that people love cities and other places where history can be seen, felt, touched. Old buildings have a vitality to them that a shiny new office tower can’t emulate. But even as we spend billions to experience the past, we also continually destroy that legacy. I’ve always found the simplified narrative of an America always progressing, a Whig history of our development, deeply contradictory. Those of us living in the Rust Belt know very well that progress isn’t linear. Progress occurs in fits and starts, along with plenty of setbacks.

Northwest Indiana is a place where those fits, starts, and setbacks can be read like tree rings. For me, it feels frozen in time. I remember long drives across 65 and 30, marking the passage from urban Chicago to rural Indiana, and landing on an unhappy medium in Fort Wayne. Our trips coincided with the fall and winter holidays, so the whole of Northern Indiana always seemed shrouded by dark, ominous clouds. The same CD of Steve Martin routines, Alice’s Restaurant and Steve Goodman standards accompanied every trip, coming on the stereo just after hitting the first Indiana toll on the Skyway. East Chicago, Gary, and Hammond hugged the lake, mile after mile of refinery or steel factory belching out acrid smoke.

Marktown housesOn each trip, the heavy industry of Northeast Indiana seemed to smell a little less, a little less smoke visible. On the south side of the highway, away from the lake, a new broken window appeared every trip. I remember two occasions where poor planning resulted in detours through Gary in search of a quick gallon or two of gas. Seeing the desolation, I felt like I was witnessing something I shouldn’t have. I sat in wide-eyed wonder, trying to construct a narrative that could explain what I was seeing. The whole while, my mom nervously checked the side and rearview mirrors.

Flash forward to 2009: One of my first dates with my now-wife was a January day exploring the ruins of the City Methodist Church in Gary. Her accompanying me told me I’d found a soul mate, someone up for the same brand of adventures as myself. Since that time, we’ve made exploring much of Chicago’s Southeast and Indiana’s Northwest together. I love exploring, but yet I feel deeply guilty for doing so. I am an interloper, a spectator to the slow decline, snapping photos of places profoundly affected by de-industrialization and globalization. I am not lingering long enough to make any connection to the community, nor am I spending money in the remaining businesses. Instead, I head home to one of Chicago’s safest neighborhoods.

Marktown 2Researching the old company town of Pullman on the far south side of Chicago, I came across another factory town that has received far less attention: Marktown in East Chicago. To say Marktown is isolated is an understatement. The result of an aborted town plan, an eighth of its intended size, Marktown is utterly surrounded by a thick maze of exhaust pipes, flaming plumes of escaping gas, and blinking safety lights. East Chicago’s downtown lies more than 1.5 miles away. Marktown is 100 percent residential, with no retail of any sort. It is not a ruin, people still live there. However, with a 50 percent vacancy rate, often one half of a duplex will be immaculate, but the other side marred by broken windows and trees growing out of the floor. Marktown is a place that does not take kindly to outsiders, and while I was taking photos, I was tailed by a menacing pitch-black Caprice.

Marktown fence and housesThere is an odd beauty to Marktown. Its housing is decidedly European looking, but painted with bright colors more reminiscent of Mexico. Like most of East Chicago, many of the remaining residents are Hispanic. Those still working are largely employed by the factories just outside the gates. Marktown is like a strange dream. Ash trees burn with their autumn oranges and yellow. Green plaster chipping alongside rusting posts. Kids smoking cigarettes on top of their cars as stray cats dart around them. Concrete foundations poking out from the ground, hinting at other structures long gone. Even Gary’s morbid splendor cannot touch the Technicolor dreamscape and parallel-universe feel of Marktown.

I want to return. I want to take more pictures before Marktown comes down. But it’s not for me to be Marktown’s documentarian. That honor is for the people who live, work, and love in Marktown. And I hope that they do document the vanishing beauty of their unfinished world.

Matt Altstiel is a Chicago-based writer/photographer. View more of his photography on his site:

Do you like what we do here at Belt? Consider becoming a member, so we can keep delivering the stories that matter to you. Our supporters get discounts on our books and merch, and access to exclusive deals with our partners. Belt is a locally-owned small business, and relies on the support of people like you. Thanks for reading!