Sins of the Fathers: East Chicago’s Poisoned Water and The Weight of History

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East Chicago, 1972, around when the present began to crumble. Image from blog.hemmings.com

East Chicago is one of those strange places that most of us only glimpse while driving past it, along its southern end, on a road trip that takes us through the rundown broken-factory grime of northwestern Indiana. If we’re going toward Chicago, it’s the last in a string of scary and polluted cities before you approach the rusted majesty of the Skyway, looming at imposing and strange angles, like a bridge out of Hell. More recently, East Chicago is the home of a booming casino. You get off 90 to get there, on what is essentially a designated highway, skirting the town itself. East Chicago just exists as a string of industrial lights and smoke glowing through the darkness.

It isn’t that, of course. It is a real city, where people live. It’s still a fairly-thriving Lake Michigan port, a beneficiary of this vast body of water, so crucial to the American experiment. It’s proximity to the lake, and to the Calumet and Chicago rivers, gave East Chicago some prominence in the steel industry, and its factories provided jobs and a living, even if a dirty and difficult one. Other industries bloomed in the area, in the days where Gary was a town to behold. But that legacy crumbled, leaving poison in its wake. This poison is metaphorical, but also terribly literal: East Chicago is facing a massive crisis in its drinking water, the weight of the past seeping into the present and darkening the future. It’s a reckoning with which we all have to deal.

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