City in the Spotlight: East Chicago

By: Tim Moran Last Updated: May 7, 2014

Marked as a city of “Hope and Progress,” East Chicago not only boasts a rich history, but has made strides in recent years to improve quality of life and lower crime.

East Chicago is a bit of a “twin city” in itself, says Steve Segura, the city’s multimedia director who runs ECTV, the news access television station focused on informing residents of government happenings in the city.

“We have two downtowns: one by the harbor and another near Indianapolis Boulevard and Chicago Avenue,” Segura said. “Our main focus as of late has been revitalizing the harbor downtown area and bringing it back to its glory and we have a plan in place that is going full steam.”

That plan includes the addition of retail shops that will be constructed on Broadway and Main Street as well as an “artistically infused square.”

“The possibilities are huge,” said Segura, an East Chicago native who has worked for the city for more than two decades and four three Mayoral administrations. “We could have Farmer’s Markets, concerts, fun events. We want a place where you can walk and have some coffee, shop and enjoy life in East Chicago.”

Lakefront development is also expected to be in the works, which would be tied to quality of life improvements, Segura added.

“We need to tie the harbor to the lakefront, which is now inaccessible,” he said. “We want to create that access because you should be able to walk to the beach.” The first phase of this project, which will cost about $17 million, is expected to start this year.

Click here for more photos of East Chicago!

But while the city is active in improving the design and amenities offered to its residents, there is no shortage of interesting people who jump at the chance to provide a positive outlook on life in East Chicago.

Christine Scott, the greeter/clerk at East Chicago Central High School, has been with the school system since 1985 and at ECC for a decade. Just by the nature of her role in signing visitors in to the school, Scott has seen “numerous” positive stories walk in and out of the doors at the high school.

“There have been so many great people,” she said.

Scott, who was born and raised in Gary and now resides in East Chicago, tells the story of Denzel Smith, a recent high school graduate who is tutoring musicians currently at the school, “following in the footsteps” of Dr. Leon Kendrick, the retired long-time choir director.

“If we could clone Dr. Kendrick, we would,” Scott said. “He made all the difference in the world to the students that learned from him.

Keon Brown, a current senior at the school, recently saved a woman and her son while their car hit his home on Indianapolis Boulevard last month.

“The lady was having a seizure, so Keon got her out of the car and did everything he was supposed to do,” Scott said. “He helped them both get out of the car and assisted them all the while babysitting his siblings at the time.”

Another longtime fixture at East Chicago Central is maintenance director Victor Sanchez, who Scott calls “a life saver.”

“You couldn’t find a better maintenance person anywhere,” Scott said. “He helps everyone."

Sanchez recently spearheaded an effort to provide Christmas gifts to a special-needs student by surprising him with three bags in the cafeteria one day.

Sanchez has been at the school for nearly 30 years, but says he is “too young to retire.”

“I like what I’m doing and keeping myself busy,” he said. “I’m very blessed to be able to care for everyone here.”

Scott says she “loves” the food scene in East Chicago, noting the city’s high reputation for local Mexican restaurants.

Segura calls the food in East Chicago “one of our best features.”

“We have great, great Mexican food,” he said. “There are so many options you can almost never go wrong.”

Some of the highest rated Mexican cuisines in East Chicago include El Ranchero, Casa Blanca, El Michoacano and Taqueria Los Comales.

But paying a visit to Big Frank’s Sausage, 1417 Carroll St., is never a bad idea.

“We have the best quality polish food in the area,” said Stan Stefanski, owner of the popular sausage joint that has been present in the city’s Roxanna neighborhood for nearly three years. “We have beer, wine and a dine in area as well.”

Stefanski recommends ordering the ‘Big Frank’ polish (named after his brother, whose recipe it is) because that is the specialty.

“We have good pierogies, cabbage and noodles too,” Stefanski added.

Ranked highly on tripadvisor.com for places to dine in East Chicago, Big Frank’s Sausage hopes to expand their restaurant in the near future as the space adjacent to the eatery recently opened up.

“We love being here in East Chicago because of the very friendly people and clientele - all of whom are supportive of small business,” Stefanski said. “We have a lot of loyal, repeat customers and get a lot of support from the workers at the mill and the people of Roxanna have been great.”

Stefanski praises the city of East Chicago and Mayor Anthony Copeland for having the city headed in the right direction.

“The mayor and city were very helpful and cooperative in helping us set up here,” he said.

Segura pointed out that Indy Cafe (located right across the street from the East Chicago South Shore Line stop) is also a good stop for a quick bite.

Big Frank’s isn’t the only small business that helps form an increasingly vibrant community.

The husband and wife team of Ruben and Mary Alamillo own neighboring businesses ‘Bomb - One Stop Shop’ and ‘MJ’s Fashion & Accessories.’ Both are located right across Indianapolis Boulevard from City Hall.

“I grew up in East Chicago, so it’s convenient to know people who shop here,” said Ruben, who owns ‘Bomb’ - a shop that sells CDs, DVDs, men’s apparel and has a barber shop. “We like to keep re-inventing ourselves. You need to keep stuff fresh if people are going to keep coming by.”

Mary, owner of ‘MJ’s,’ says a lot of East Chicago residents find her place by walking through town.

“It’s nice to operate a business here,” she said. “By keeping our clothes updated, people keep coming in.”

City’s best “hidden gem”

The “East Chicago Room,” located on the lower level of the East Chicago Public Library, 2401 E. Columbus Dr., is one of the city’s best hidden gems, holding nearly every tidbit of information from the city’s incorporation in 1889 to the late 20th century.

Located within the room is a timeline of historical events in East Chicago on one wall, with a picture mural of several notable athletes hailing from the city - including James Bradley, E’Twaun Moore and Kenny Lofton.

“There’s a lot of history here, especially from the time when East Chicago was a melting pot,” said Debra Powers, administrative reference services associate at the library.

Powers holds a wealth of information, including an uncanny ability to recall who donated certain items to be preserved forever. The randomness of such donations, such as a coach’s daughter turning in all film of East Chicago Washington football practices and games from 1957 or boxes of information on the Katherine House (which turned into the Boys and Girls Club of East Chicago) handed over by Col. Walter Riley, the founder of the First National Bank of East Chicago who has a painting of himself hanging from the wall of the room.

“We get a lot of history buffs that come in here and share facts on the history of the area that I didn’t know,” Powers said. “A lot of school groups come in here to see old newspapers that show that we see the same news stories today that we saw in the 1930s.”

Powers said that while a lot of the photos and artifacts located there are from the pre-1970s era, the library is looking for donations from recent years as well.

“We would like to begin preserving recent history as well,” she said.

A unique neighborhood

Once featured on Ripley’s Believe it or Not!, East Chicago is home to a neighborhood where residents park on the sidewalks and walk on the streets.

Marktown was formed as a planned worker community by Clayton Mark in 1917 for families of those who worked at the steel mill.

“We are a family-oriented community,” said Kimberly Rodriguez, a lifelong Marktown resident and member of the Marktown Preservation Society. “Our children play in the streets. How many places can you live where you can yell your child’s name out the door and they can hear you wherever they are?”

Rodriguez raised six children in Marktown, a neighborhood that also was the childhood home of her grandparents, parents, and now grandchildren.

“We have lots of families here where there are generations of children being raised,” she said. “The community has always stood strong and fought for what was good for the community,” pointing out that in the 1930s the neighborhood fought a city plan to bus children to other schools in the city, eventually winning that battle and keeping them in Marktown. In 1955, Marktown negotiated with the nearby steel mill to build a park in the community that would serve as a buffer between the neighborhood and mill.

Despite being listed on the National Register of Historic Places and being designed by renowned American architect Howard Van Doren Shaw, the future of Marktown is uncertain due to British Petroleum’s recent requests to demolish homes in the area.

“We are trying to put a historic review board ordinance in place that will help us get people to realize that we are an asset to East Chicago because we are historical,” Rodriguez said. “We would love to discuss with BP on ways to revitalize, instead of demolishing. We know it’s possible for us to stay put and flourish.”

“This is a part of East Chicago’s heritage and should remain so into the future. I can’t imagine walking outside of my home and not being here. It’s about family here.”

A pro-active police approach

It’s no secret that East Chicago has struggled with crime over the past few decades. But with the addition of Police Chief Mark Becker (former Portage Police Chief and FBI member in various locations), the city has begun to turn the corner from 2011, when the Unified Crime Report named East Chicago as the most violent city to live in.

“That report was released right when I took the chief's office in 2012, and we used it as kind of a wake up call,” Becker said. “We knew we needed to figure out how do better.”

Two years in, East Chicago is doing better on the crime watch. When the 2013 uniformed crime report was released, the city saw its lowest numbers in most of the seven major categories since the UCI began in 1995.

Becker says that is a result of “increased traffic enforcement” and the creation of the “East Chicago Stop Team,” whose efforts saw a 185 percent increase in traffic stops from 2012 to 2013 (3,317 to 10,600).

“We don’t demand that the police write tickets, but we want to see blue and reds lights,” Becker said. “It sets a good example for good people to see we are active and doesn’t allow the bad guys to get to where they want to go, which means they will probably go elsewhere. They may find a place to commit the crime, but it won’t be in our city.”

‘Shot Spotter,’ a resource that can detect a gunshot going remotely off within five seconds of its occurrence, allows police to know where the shots came from before a call comes from the public.

“The perception might be this is dangerous city, but we have turned back the clock 20 years on crime and have had a 33 percent lower rate this first quarter from last year,” noted Becker, who says his favorite part of East Chicago is “walking the neighborhoods and meeting the people who run businesses in the community.”

“Recently, I rode the bus through the city and people were amazed to see a police chief get on the bus,” Becker said. “I had great discussions with the other riders, who informed me on some things going on in the area. I enjoy listening to what people want to tell us. That gives them a face to put with the department and personalizes things. It is a big help to us and the community.”

TOP RESTAURANTS:

Heritage Buffet, (inside Ameristar Casino) Ranked No. 1 on tripadvisor.com. Reviewer from Williamsport, Indiana states: “Any day you go the food is just OUTSTANDING. The weekends however they lay out all you can eat Crab Legs (Friday),all you can eat shrimp and prime rib. From pizza to crab legs - everything is soooo darn GOOD!”

Big Frank’s Sausage, 1417 Carroll St. - (219) 378-9556

Indy Cafe, 5654 Indianapolis Blvd. - (219) 397-1878

Zel’s Great Roast Beef, 1318 E. Columbus Dr. - (219) 397-6167

Leonardo’s Pizzeria, 918 Carroll St. - (219) 397-7711

ATTRACTIONS:

Marktown neighborhood, 405 Prospect St.

Ameristar Casino, 777 Ameristar Boulevard

Did you know?

-East Chicago provides free bus service to its residents. They have done so since 1973.

Segura says East Chicago is “one of the few places in the country” that still provides the service for free.

“And if you can’t make it to the bus stop, the Transit Department will pick you up,” Segura said.

-The Olympic torch was carried by East Chicago resident Pete Smith through the city on June 3, 1996 ahead of the Summer Olympics held in Atlanta that year.

-East Chicago is home to Block Stadium, a classic baseball park with old wooden bleachers still in place. The East Chicago Central High School baseball team plays there.

 Visit MacArthur Golf Course - another hidden gem in East Chicago!