Hurting from neglect: Election Day mattered in historic Indiana worker community

Kim Rodriguez at the polling place in Marktown, Indiana on Nov. 8.
Lifelong resident and precinct committeewoman Kim Rodriguez in front of the polling place in Marktown, Indiana on Nov. 8. (Cloee Cooper/MEDILL)

By Cloee Cooper

Out of nine congressional districts in Indiana, two re-elected Democratic congressmen on Nov. 8. One of those was in the 1st Congressional District, where East Chicago’s historic community Marktown is located.

Democratic Rep. Pete Visclosky who has been in office since 1985, was re-elected.

Although Marktown voted Democratic, as it usually does, 57 percent of the state voted for president-elect Donald Trump.

Leslie Guajardo, mother of two, lives in Marktown,  which is a worker’s community. Tucked between Arcelor Mittal, which boasts “the largest integrated steelmaking facility in North America,” and British Petroleum oil refinery, it serves as a home to about 250 families most of whom formerly worked in the nearby industrial area.

For this small community, the elections mean little in terms of hopes for a better life. At the time she was interviewed, Guajardo said she hoped the next president will improve health issues and health insurance access.

“As long as healthcare is better,” said Guajardo, as she stepped out of her car in Marktown with her two sons still inside. “I would hope they would do something with Medicaid insurance ‘cause with Obamacare, you are paying for a lot of stuff. A lot of people are struggling,” she added.

Outside polling station in Marktown on Nov. 8
Marktown residents Carina Arroyo and Evelia Munoz spend the morning outside the polling place in Marktown, Indiana on Nov. 8. (Cloee Cooper/MEDILL)

Marktown was a planned worker community in East Chicago, built in the early 1900s to provide housing for up to 800 families who worked for Marktown Manufacturing Co., a steel pipe and water well manufacturing company. Today, it is known as East Chicago’s historic district. Most of its residents are hurting financially.

Guajardo’s father, Billy Hicks, moved to Marktown from Kentucky when he was 17 years old to work in the steel mills. After working there for 30 years, he was diagnosed with lung cancer.

“My father just passed away a few years ago,” said Guajardo. “He was a Cubs fan his whole life. It would have been nice for him to see this World Series,” she said. Adorned in Cubs t-shirts, she and her two sons were on their way to bring balloons to her deceased father’s grave to celebrate the victory.

Residents of Marktown view it as an extension of Chicago. Cubs flags lined the streets after the Cubs won the World Series.

Christine Rodriguez with daughter in Marktown
Marktown resident Christine Rodriguez holds her daughter Mariella in Marktown, Indiana, on Nov. 3, the day after the Cubs won the World Series. (Kelly Wang/MEDILL)

Marktown resident and precinct committeewoman Kim Rodriguez has lived in Marktown her whole life and voted in the Marktown Community Center in every election since she was 18 years old. This year, she said, she was just waiting for the election to be over, but said she would vote anyway.

“They are both idiots. I won’t vote for Trump. But neither of them are going to help us,” said Rodriguez.

On election day, voters turned out in larger numbers than previous elections.

“Considering our last three-to-four elections, 111 votes was awesome,” said an exuberant Rodriguez. In recent elections, her precinct would be lucky to have 70 people vote on Election Day, she added.

The turnout mattered to her. She had been told that Marktown’s polling place (its only one), would merge with another if the town didn’t field at least 100 voters.

“I actually wanted to cry when we broke 100 people,” Rodriguez said.

Marktown has lost much of its population since the 2000 census. In 2014, BP started purchasing and demolishing homes in Marktown. Rodriguez became a vocal leader in the community to save Marktown from BP encroachment, saying that Marktown was historic and that residents who lived there for generations were not going to let BP make them leave. She said politicians haven’t done enough to support the preservation of her community.

'Save Marktown Stop BP' sign in Marktown on Nov. 3
This ‘Save Marktown Stop BP’ sign was taped inside Kim Rodriguez’s home in Marktown, Indiana, on Nov. 3, indicating her fight against BP buying homes in the area. (Cloee Cooper/MEDILL)

“None of them really stood by Marktown,” said Rodriguez.

Emiliano Perez, chief of staff for East Chicago’s mayor, said the biggest issues for Marktown are the same issues they have been for years – good jobs and ensuring health care.

“Poverty is hard on the residents of this city,” Perez said.

Perez said the median home value in Marktown has plummeted to under $20,000, relative to $56,000 for East Chicago, $105,000 just 10 miles away in Whiting and $117,000 for Indiana.

For Rodriguez, her least favorite part of elections is when people give empty promises that they will never fulfill. The results of the election were disturbing to her, but the threat of BP tearing down more Marktown homes is what weighs on her.

“There might be more people that move but there are still people who are staying here. It’s just one day at a time,” she said.

Photo at top: Lifelong resident and precinct committeewoman Kim Rodriguez stands outside her polling place in Marktown, Indiana on  Election Day, Nov. 8. (Cloee Cooper/MEDILL)