Calumet Lead Crisis Archive

Aggregating local and national news coverage of the lead crisis in the Calumet neighborhood of East Chicago, Indiana.

December 2016

November 2016

October 2016

September 2016

August 2016

MaiaCo in Gary Update – 1 Feb 2017

After 4 months of silence, MaiaCo is back in the news.

The Gary Redevelopment Commission has voted to approve the MaiaCo action plan for obtaining 3000 tax-delinquent properties in portions of Aetna, Midtown, and Black Oak. Details of the plan were never made public and the promised community liaison position has yet to be filled and announced. The 30 year deal requires MaiaCo to contribute a mere $15 million towards redevelopment in Gary. The NWI Times was first with the story.

NWI Federation of Interfaith Organizations: Development vs. Displacement: The Maiaco Story

October 4, 2016

AN OPEN LETTER to The Honorable Mayor Karen-Freeman-Wilson, City of Gary, Gary Common Council, the Gary Redevelopment Commission & the Citizens of Gary
Development vs. Displacement: The MaiaCo Story

First, let’s clearly state that we, the members of the NWI Interfaith Federation, are not opposed to development. As a matter of fact, we embrace, encourage and urge development in Gary. MaiaCo, a consortium of investors, has been granted a great opportunity to develop 3,500 plots in Gary. Since the plan has involved little to no public participation or voice, we are concerned that current residents are being excluded from opportunities to benefit from the MaiaCo development initiatives.

When we vote for city officials, we do not give up our rights to influence or oppose city policies and practices. Voting should be only one of many ways we engage in governance. According to our understanding of government, we have a representative form of democratic government, which means we get to elect our representatives. Our Common Council members then pass laws and ordinances, provide oversight, approve budgets and hear citizens’ complaints. We then can influence, support or oppose these public policies or practices.

In the case of urban development in the City of Gary, the voice of the people has been totally silenced through the creation of the Gary Redevelopment Commission (GRC). This Commission is appointed and not elected. As a result, the GRC cannot be held accountable by the people or the Common Council. Its jurisdiction is as follows:

The Commission is responsible for the acquisition, disposition, and conveyance of property in the City of Gary, pursuant to IC 36-7-14. The Commission’s powers are prescribed under state statute and further dictated by Gary Redevelopment Commission By-Laws. As primary custodian of land in the City of Gary, the Commission is empowered to pilot economic development, remediate blighted or environmentally hazardous conditions, and utilize public financing mechanisms to redevelop underutilized areas in the City of Gary.

That is a lot of power over public resources without any specified public oversight. It appeared that the Gary City Council had almost no information about the deal with MaiaCo until after everything had been negotiated. The terms of the contract, moreover, did not fairly represent Gary’s interests.

In the negotiations on the Gary-“Chicago” Airport AFCO contract, in addition, Chicago seemed already to be in the driver’s seat. How else can you explain the contract’s language, describing the Airport as a “reliever” for O’Hare and Midway airports? The contract states that the

Manager intends to develop the Airport primarily as a general aviation, MRO, research and development –oriented airport with limited scheduled passenger service, which acts as a reliever (both emergency and potentially for integrated long-term planning) for Chicago O’Hare and Chicago Midway Airports.” (AFCO Contract, Recitals, section H, p. 2.)

Why would Gary have agreed to that limitation, when passenger service would create more jobs and convenience? After all, our Gary Airport is closer to downtown Chicago than either of the Chicago airports.

By the time that former mayor Richard Daley and his MaiaCo team went to Delaware in the Spring of 2016 to incorporate MaiaCo, the contract had already been worked out and set in motion. The purpose for MaiaCo’s existence is to take over and decide how to develop some of the best land in Gary. [“MaiaCo was selected to assist the GRC with economic and revitalization development efforts, including development of real estate in the City.” Agreement, Recitals, (c)] Would former mayor Daley incorporate a business to do work without first knowing what the terms would be? Unlikely.

The first public forum sponsored by the Gary Redevelopment Commission was held Wednesday July 27th under duress. This session was forced by a public outcry, following the leak of a video posted by architect Peter Ellis that informed people of the MaiaCo plan “to tear Gary down.” Clearly there had been no transparency, back-room deals, and substandard negotiating! Just 1 ½ days later, on Friday July 29th, without alerting the participants at Wednesday’s session, the GRC unanimously passed the contract, denying anyone the right to speak until after the vote. At both open events, the Executive Director took questions, but answered almost none.

Now MaiaCo is a done deal, but we still know very little about the Company or its plans, even though we can read the contract. We do know that MaiaCo will NOT abide by any local hiring ordinance in Gary. We do know that the City will pay for demolition, already well under way. But do we know how many Gary residents have been employed to do this work? We have no idea. How many local residents will have to be hired by the contractors MaiaCo selects? There is NO requirement, just a phrase encouraging MaiaCo to ask the contractors to consider local hiring.

MaiaCo will be expected to take those commercially reasonable actions. . . in assisting and encouraging third party developers to achieving participation of Local businesses and residents as well as disadvantaged, minority, women and veteran-owned business enterprises. Section 7(a), p. 12.

When demands for local hiring have been raised, the GRC response has been: “How can you ask a company to come in and do work and tell them who to hire??” The fact is, cities across the country are undertaking major development projects with Community Benefits Agreements which require local hiring and set aside funding for training and education. Why isn’t the City of Gary enforcing its Local Hiring Ordinance? We should not be surprised, then, to learn that most of the contractors hired so far for the demolition work are not Gary-based.

In response to complaints about Gary’s share of the pie, members of the RDC have argued that “we had nothing to bargain with; we had to take what was put on the table.” Really? What about our glorious lakefront, national and state parks, dunes, and marshes, with incredible biodiversity? What about our University, hospital, health centers, Airport and our residents, many of whom are skilled and ready to work? Yes there is blight too, but as a result we have vacant land for expansion; Chicago does not.

How could the GRC settle for the humiliating percentage of funds returned to the city? MaiaCo gets back everything it spends, first. Then they get 65% of all proceeds; Gary gets 35%. Gary gives away the land, does the demolition work, and MaiaCo gets rich.

We the people do not know who the investors are in MaiaCo, who stands to benefit from this lopsided division of proceeds. We do know because of MaiaCo’s “right to first refusal” of all land held by the GRC, that other investors have been turned away, such as 18th Street Brewery. Why don’t we know more? Because that information is being withheld.

Yet the City of Gary is turning more and more land over to the GRC for use, which privileges MaiaCo at the expense of local investors. In the past year, we have been told, 90 acres of prime land near Gary’s lakefront was also turned over to the GRC. Ten acres sit at the foot of Lake St. in the Miller neighborhood, the former site of a charter school. The vast acreage, 80 acres, includes all the dune area west of Lake Street. Is this area not one of the most valuable natural resources in Gary? Why would we give it away for a corporation to develop as it sees fit? A land casino in the dunes, perhaps?

Right now the City has no one in charge of monitoring MaiaCo. The Gary Common Council has been sidelined. MaiaCo has yet to pick a Gary-based representative “to serve as a key contact person to meet regularly and on a scheduled basis discuss community initiatives underway.”(Section 7(b), p. 13)

The GRC Executive Director said he did not know much about who is doing the demolition work and where they live. Yet recently we acquired a list of contractors selected for demolition, most in 2014 and 2015. Very few are based in Gary. The City is using federal dollars from the Hardest Hit Federal Funds for the demolition. We commend Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, City of Gary and GRC for obtaining these funds ($6.6 million) and beginning the removal of blight from existing neighborhoods. Mayor Freeman-Wilson pointed out that, “we felt it made sense to identify structures that are in the footprints where development is already being planned.” (Press Release, May 27, 2014) Does that mean MaiaCo in 2014? The areas specified are, indeed, those covered in the MaiaCo contract.

In the same press release, the Mayor stressed that “the contractors will be required to hire a percentage of Gary residents.” Did that happen? Also, federal funds come with requirements, quotas, for hiring women and workers of color. Has any of the contractors met that quota requirement? We request numbers on Gary residents hired as workers on the demolition.

Whatever MaiaCo does with the land, removing blighted structures will automatically increase the value of Gary real estate. New parks or condos will raise tax rates even higher. That will be great for the people who will be able to pay increased property taxes. What about families on fixed income? Unemployed? Under-employed? People who work part-time and temporary jobs? We look to Philadelphia, for example, whose Long-term Owner Occupancy Program (LOOP) will protect residents from sky-rocketing real estate values that come with gentrification.

There must be special consideration for the impact of increased taxes on our residents with economic challenges, seniors and retirees. Shouldn’t there be some kind of tax relief –for example red-circling current property taxes—for those long-term residents who have stood the test of time, waiting for revitalization because they believe in Gary? If Philadelphia figured out a way to share benefits with long-term residents, Gary can as well.

People who have lived in Gary most of their lives will probably not get a paycheck out of MaiaCo, and this is a 20-year contract. Residents cannot wait for accountability, until poor families are displaced and Gary becomes another Chicago suburb. We want sustainable development and not just displacement.

We believe in Gary. We believe in the people of Gary. We also believe that the Gary Common Council, our locally-elected officials, must have the ability to provide oversight, impose regulations, and prevent the displacement of current residents. Current residents must get benefits out of MaiaCo’s development projects, which will require a Community Benefits Agreement. Finally, all the hidden backroom deals must be brought into the public light and evaluated by the City Council and the people of Gary.

We welcome other organizations and individuals to sign on to this open letter and join us in our fight for transparency and accountability, development and not displacement.

Calumet Lead Crisis Update – 23 Sept

The AP report in today’s Post Tribune takes a longer look at factors resulting in the East Chicago lead crisis; they almost name names (referring circumstantially but not directly to former longtime boss Robert Pastrick and even recently convicted former Calumet community councilor Robert Battle.) State Senator Lonnie Randolph, now East Chicago’s elder political-statesman who has held the office not just since 2008 but also between 1993 and 1998, escapes such similar scrutiny.

Indiana Public Media ran a cursory rundown of the crisis, entirely from an institutional point of view. Lakeshore Public Media has a map of Indiana Superfund sites and gives a rundown of decades of inaction. On the EPA’s Hazard Ranking System scored from 0-100 Calumet registered at 58.1, considerably higher than the 28.5 level that makes state and federal cleanup funds eligible. 

Indiana Libertarian Party candidate for Congress Donna Dunn joined an IUPUI professor to take soil samples beyond the Calumet community. They will release their findings at NWI Gazette.

This Saturday the EPA is hosting an open house for residents in zones 2 and 3, at Riley Park from 2-5pm. Residents organizing as We The People East Chicago are working for the creation of a community advisory group.

Bon Femme memories

Bon Femme Cafe in downtown Valparaiso, Indiana announced its closing this week, to be renamed and reconceived as a southern-inspired restaurant. I note its passing as I would the passing of an adolescent friend. We were born the same year (1977), grew up in the same town (Merrillville), and we came of age together at the right formative moment, our teenaged years coinciding with the mid-1990s.

My mother probably introduced me to the place. My father wouldn’t eat there and once I was old enough to appreciate cuisine, probably age 16 or 17, her and I would dine there a few times each season and she would always comment on how dirty the place was, how dirty the chef looked, and how great the food was. And in those later teenage years sometimes I would smirk knowing I’d be back here in a few hours, after dark, smoking Gauloises and getting served. I really shouldn’t glamourize underaged drinking, but when moderated by chicken divan, beef bourguignon, fresh baked bread, and rich desserts… we are now talking life-affirming cultural experience, not the death cults of fratboys, grungers, alt-preppies, or punk rock shambles.

When the main hangouts of the local scene (Denny’s in Merrillville and Golden Bowl in St John) were too bright, too busy, too full with the affected, Bon Femme was a smoky, almost clandestine candlelit respite for our little group. We were broader-minded. One friend spent his junior year in Germany. Another lived nearby with his mother and her Dutch partner. He’d worn flannel since it was nerdy and wasn’t changing now that it was hip. Another ran a comic and hobby shop one plaza over. We discussed the latest films: Pulp Fiction, Four Rooms, Howard Stern’s Private Parts. And we were an exclusive group, rarely inviting ‘outside’ friends to join, this included even girlfriends and bandmates. Bon Femme in the evening was a step out of the bland Midwest suburbs, ‘disaffected’ or otherwise. We knew we didn’t want to ruin a good thing.

We didn’t know at the time it was the end of the world as we knew it. We just knew things were changing and Bon Femme in the evening was where we could discuss this. We weren’t on the Internet yet. Starbucks had not yet opened in town. It was a time before cellphones and finding Bon Femme in Merrillville could be tricky amongst the nondescript clumps of shopping plazas down Broadway. We never waited for or mourned those who couldn’t find the place. The only question about smoking in a restaurant in those days was which section you could do it. Bon Femme was too small to make any distinction. After the door was locked the chef would smoke a joint on his perch behind a screen.

I’m amazed the name and concept lived this long, and feel the name probably should have been retired in the last decade, when it cleaned up and became a destination. I’ll end with my favorite memory, one of the only clear and specific ones I have. An ‘outside’ friend, whom I’d known since the 6th grade, joined us one evening and ordered the french onion soup. Two spoonfuls in and a horrible revulsion came over his face. “There’s chewing tobacco in my soup!” We never again asked him to join us.

Calumet Lead Crisis Update – 8 Sept

The East Chicago Housing Authority has finally authorized money to aid soon-to-be displaced West Calumet Complex residents. A resolution passed last evening authorized the ECHA to use $1.2 million in capital funds to help residents put down security deposits for new homes. HUD is looking for another $1.2 million with which to reimburse the ECHA. A second resolution waived criminal background checks for residents applying for housing vouchers.

Think Progress health writer Alex Zielinski spoke to Regional Speaking on Lakeshore Public Radio yesterday.

Calumet Lead Crisis Update – 7 Sept

East Chicago residents are again organizing to share moving supplies with West Calumet Complex residents. Details forthcoming. Although HUD and the East Chicago Housing Authority are responsible for aiding residents during relocation the agencies are not acting in a responsive manner.

NPR’s Morning Edition again featured the plight of Calumet residents. also ran a cursory overview of the crisis. As did the the Chicago Crusader 

Evan Bayh has paid a visit to East Chicago:

Calumet Lead Crisis Update – 1 Sept

Lakeshore radio (89.1 FM) will broadcast both parts of NWI Times’ Byline podcast on Labor Day at noon. Links to Lakeshore’s coverage of the crisis can be found here. Today the Times covered the Shriver Center complaint and John Gregg’s visit to East Chicago.

WFYI in Indianapolis reports on 17 children under the age of 7 with high levels of lead in their blood.

WBEZ has a brief audio update on John Gregg’s visit to East Chicago, with longer text from Michael Puente. Another one minute audio piece from yesterday reports on HUD’s difficulties in aiding West Calumet Complex residents.

International news is still paying attention. Russia Today ran its second article. And from Al Jazeera:

Laborpaste In Gary

While driving through Chicago’s Pullman neighborhood in last days of January 2016 I was delighted to see a familiar face. It was that of Eugene Debs, legendary Hoosier radical, looking triumphant and happy, waving his hat from the first floor fire-escape of a boarded-up tenement. The life-size photograph was from the day of his release from prison in February 1921 after serving three years for sedition for his outspoken opposition to the Great War.

More familiar faces greeted me when I returned to Pullman in May. Dolores Huerta, another Debs, a piercing-eyed Pullman porter (which honestly I first thought was someone peeing in the alley), and even more labor heroes appearing beyond the immediate neighborhood: Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, A Philip Randolph, a young Caesar Chavez, Lucy Parsons, even Debs’ beloved hunting dog Babe.

I was in the neighborhood that day to help with an art-build for the upcoming Break Free Midwest protest. Some kind Pullman artists offered us space in the massive former Pullman Administration Building, now a national park. As I explained how excited I was to see Debs to the man unlocking the building he turned to me and said, “Well I put them up!”

His name is JB Daniels, the project is called Laborpaste, and it has since expanded to Terre Haute (Debs’ hometown) and now Gary, Indiana. Here’s JB at his home studio in Pullman:

In the spirit of the project we’ll let you find these for yourself and we’ll enjoy watching them fade away over time.