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East Chicago’s Housing Crisis, Continued: The Week That Turned the City Upside Down

While a settlement in a civil rights complaint brings some relief, residents are still left wondering why hundreds of homes were built on an industrial wasteland.
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Kamia Edwards holds her son Darrell Jackson inside her apartment at the West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago, Indiana.

Kamia Edwards holds her son Darrell Jackson inside her apartment at the West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago, Indiana.

On a Thursday in early November in East Chicago, Indiana, the body of former Mayor Robert Pastrick lies in an open casket at the front of the room. People shuffle down the aisles of St. Patrick Church, a spacious sanctuary with pearl white walls adorned with ornate carvings. Pastrick was the city’s patriarch from a bygone era of industrial prosperity and he was a central figure in Democrat politics here for more than 50 years; he died the week before at age 88.

Elsewhere in East Chicago, Sherry Hunter remains anxious, her voice rising with emotion while she talks on a cell phone. Pastrick’s death came amid a particularly turbulent month in what’s been a devastating year for her family and friends who live in the West Calumet Housing Complex, a short drive away from St. Patrick Church. Three months prior, Mayor Anthony Copeland told the 1,100 residences of West Calumet that they were being exposed to toxic metals in the ground around their homes. West Calumet was now set to be demolished, but when exactly that would happen remained unclear. At the time of Copeland’s announcement, residents were led to believe they had three months to find new housing. Vouchers meant to offset moving costs were also provided at that time, but are now set to expire in December.

Hunter, who grew up in East Chicago and has lived near West Calumet for decades, worries that her friends and family will now be forced to leave before they have found new homes. So far, West Calumet residents received around $3 million in assistance from federal, state, and local agencies — money that’s supposed to cover some moving expenses, counseling, and health care. But many families say it isn’t enough.

Besides Pastrick’s death, the news that’s on Hunter’s mind is this: The week before, residents and local clergy asked city officials to appeal to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They wanted West Calumet declared an emergency disaster, much like officials did for Flint, Michigan, during its own lead crisis last year. Doing so would unlock more money and resources for residents.

A few days later, East Chicago leaders sent a request to the Department of Housing and Urban Development for an extra $8 million, but the money wasn’t to help families. It was for an emergency demolition, which baffled Hunter. Nearly 300 West Calumet families are still looking for new homes, and it’s unclear when the demo would take place. “When I saw that I said: Wow, the demolition is more important than people’s lives,” she says. “Why not get money for people to get out and then get money for demolition?”

Hunter longs for the days when Pastrick governed East Chicago. She was in high school when he was first elected. The city had a big celebration at an event hall on Alexander and Chicago Avenue, she says. “He came in, and we, a group of girls, escorted Pastrick into the hall. He and his wife. It was awesome,” Hunter says, adding that he was involved in the lives of the people living in West Calumet. “All of the old school people will tell you that,” she says. “I know he was corrupt, but he took care of all of us. Whatever you needed in Calumet, we’d go to him and he’d get it.”


The mood at Pastrick’s wake is celebratory. People who had come to pay their respects stick around, chatting warmly with the late mayor’s family. The scene is reminiscent of an old union hall, past acquaintances catch up, an elderly woman with a shock of white hair looks for her neighbor. A man in a dark suit tells a story about installing a computer system in Bill Clinton’s White House. Outside, men in long jackets smoke cigarettes in the parking lot, putting out the butts in a gray bucket.

Pastrick was an iron-fisted politician, and he led East Chicago for more than three decades. He was a larger-than-life figure, one of the most powerful people in Indiana politics, and, for older residents of Calumet who lived here when the city boomed with steel manufacturing and other industry, a source of great love and pride.

Hunter says he was the “greatest mayor East Chicago ever had.” But court documents reveal a man who operated the city with “little distinction between government affairs, political affairs, and personal affairs.” He was eventually voted out of power amid a racketeering and corruption scandal that roiled his administration. He was mayor from 1971 to 2003, when he was defeated by George Pabey. (Pastrick actually won that election, but the Indiana Supreme Court threw out the results after evidence of widespread voter fraud surfaced. In a revote, Pabey won in a landslide.)

Byron Florence grew up during the Pastrick era. His father was one of the mayor’s department heads — and one of the few black people who had risen to that status. Florence remembers when West Calumet was first built; he says no one knew about the contamination. “They were able to house a lot of people there. No one envisioned at that time that the place was being built on a toxic dump,” he says. During the decades that followed, if residents of Calumet needed anything, all they would have to do is approach one of the neighborhood captains appointed by Pastrick.

Florence admired the old mayor. “He had what he called black captains that actually ran the district like Daley used to do in Chicago,” he recalls. He says residents “didn’t have any problems.” The captains “pretty much ran the neighborhoods,” he adds. It’s different now. The steel mills closed, the job market dried up.

But city documents, court filings, and old newspaper clippings paint a different picture of Pastrick. He controlled politics in East Chicago by doling out favors and money from slush funds. In the late 1990s, Pastrick was infamously involved in a sidewalk-for-votes scheme. In an effort to buy votes in a contested primary election fight, his political allies spent $23 million in city funds to pave sidewalks, driveways, and parking lots, first formerly revealed in a complaint filed against Pastrick in 2004 by the city and the State of Indiana. “The City of East Chicago itself was used as a corrupt enterprise. The governing structure was used for personal gain by the mayor and others,” Steve Carter, a former Indiana attorney general, told the Chicago Tribune.

Robert Pastrick.

Robert Pastrick.

Though Pastrick never faced criminal charges, he and his political allies eventually had to pay $108 million in damages in 2011, and he filed for bankruptcy later that year.

By that time, Pastrick’s captain system no longer existed. Under Pastrick, the city payroll had ballooned when dozens of new employees were hired as political favor, many in the months leading up to elections. This sort of corruption continued into the administration of George Pabey, who was elected on a pledge to clean up the city’s government. But Pabey would eventually be convicted on corruption charges and sentenced to five years in prison for having on-the-clock city employees remodel his home. After Pabey, the city budget remained strained, and some 75 workers were let go. Current Mayor Anthony Copeland took office after Pabey’s conviction and has led East Chicago during a time of belt-tightening.

Pastrick didn’t build West Calumet — the housing complex was spearheaded by John Nicosia, a local physician and Pastrick’s predecessor — but he ran the city for years after it was raised. When he was first elected in 1972, construction had just begun. (Speaking about Nicosia’s time in office one city official recently commented, “he was a doctor, he should have known better”). After leaving office, Nicosia was later indicted on charges of bribery unrelated to West Calumet.

In 1970, East Chicago received $13 million in grant money from the HUD to build West Calumet. Court filings allege long-term discrimination of residents by the local housing authority in the late 1960s. East Chicago badly needed more public housing, but the city was dominated by industry and had little available land. West Calumet was purposefully placed “in vacant areas surrounded by industries, and undesirable residential areas.” The only other option would be to knock down buildings in other neighborhoods, which the city didn’t want to do.

Construction of West Calumet was completed the year after Pastrick was elected. One year after that, another lead smelter — this one located across the street from West Calumet — switched from refining lead ore to processing scrap metal and automotive batteries. Over the years it released toxic lead dust that settled onto the soil around West Calumet, according to the legal complaint. It’s unclear to what extent Pastrick knew about the contamination, but Thomas Frank, a local activist, says he blames both Pastrick and Nicosia for the crisis in West Calumet. “The city held the health and livelihoods of the people in low esteem,” he says. “They cared more for the industry than the people.”


The day after Pastrick’s wake, officials announced a settlement in a civil rights complaint filed with HUD. The complaint alleged systemic housing discrimination on the part of the East Chicago Housing Authority. The agreement ensures residents of West Calumet an extra six months to find new housing, and residents no longer have to pay rent for polluted homes.

The agreement was negotiated by pro-bono poverty attorneys with the Shriver Center, a Chicago-based law clinic. Shriver attorney Emily Coffey calls the settlement “a giant step forward,” adding that it was enough to improve the relocation process and provide residents with money that they desperately needed.

A group of boys ride their bikes through the West Calumet Housing Complex.

A group of boys ride their bikes through the West Calumet Housing Complex.

HUD will also provide more housing councilors to help residents move into so-called opportunity areas in East Chicago and elsewhere — places with good schools and jobs. “They will do comprehensive case management for families to make sure they can find quality housing,” Coffey says.

For 40-year-old Akeeshea Daniels, this comes as a relief. Daniels, who grew up in East Chicago and lives in West Calumet, doesn’t remember Pastrick’s time as mayor, and doesn’t have much to say about him. Her attention has been focused on this housing hunt; she’s been all over East Chicago and nearby Hammond looking at dozens of potential places for her and her two boys. So far, nothing’s quite worked: she says some landlords won’t accept the housing vouchers, or the apartments available are too small. “This is the most difficult situation I’ve been through in my life,” she says. “Ever. And I’ve been living here for 40 years.”

While she’s glad she’ll no longer have to pay rent and will have extra help looking for a new home, she resents the fact that she spent all fall paying rent in the first place — even after Copeland’s announcement that toxic lead levels had been found in West Calumet. She paid out of fear, she says; she was nervous of being put out.

“That money could have helped us toward a deposit and moving out,” she says. “I’m still worried about if we don’t find a place by March.”