Don Hutchinson remembers when high-paying industrial jobs were so plentiful in Michigan City that a worker could job-hop by the week.
“Now I have to go to the other side of Chicago to get a good-paying job,” said Hutchinson, 515 Porter St.
Joanna Anderson works part time but wants a better-paying, full-time position. To make ends meet, she lives at home with her mother. “That’s the only way I’m hanging on,” said Anderson, 505 Hobart St.
The two express a sentiment that has been echoed through the 5th Ward and indeed the rest of Michigan City: a sense that the kind of jobs that once enabled people without specialized educations to prosper are in painfully short supply.
The lament came up repeatedly in recent door-to-door interviews conducted across the 5th Ward, an area bounded roughly by Springland, Carroll, Coolspring and Tilden avenues. Though residents also mentioned crime and education when asked what they regarded as the most pressing issues in the city, employment was cited most often as the number-one concern.
Michigan City has changed dramatically from the days when the Pullman-Standard Co., the railroad-car manufacturing giant, formed the backbone of the city’s economy. The factory, which employed thousands of local residents, closed in 1979.
A city in transition
Where the plant once stood is now another enterprise that many see as synonymous with Michigan City: the Lighthouse Place outlet mall and The Works specialty shops. But while the sprawling complex may have put Michigan City on the map, many local working people say the job opportunities it offers are paltry compared to what was there before.
Some see the development as a visible symbol of the city’s transition from an industrial town to one that caters to a seasonal crop of tourists and shoppers, as opposed to its residents.
“I don’t think this town should rely on out-of-town people as heavily as we do,” said Randy Dibble, 402 Jackson St. He said the city would be “a lot better off” if the building occupied by Joy Manufacturing, which employed about 700 before it closed in 1988, had a new industrial tenant.
Dibble, who is employed by the Fire Department, said a number of his school friends have left the city for better job opportunities elsewhere.
“There’s no way I’d stay if I weren’t with the Fire Department,” Dibble said. “Unless you work at Sullair or the Anderson Company, or commute to Chicago, there’s no other way. There just really is no place to work. I got my degree in business, and it’s very limited here.”
“Michigan City is turning into an area with service jobs, and that’s OK, but you’re not going to get your high-paying jobs,” agreed Anderson. “Unless you have a real skill, it’s pretty difficult. Look at how many fast-food places we have here. What kind of advancement can we make at a fast-food place?”
Concerns about crime
In addition to concerns about employment, Fifth Ward residents voiced fears about the city’s crime rate.
Like residents in other wards, they draw a parallel between unemployment and crime, which Catherine Jones, 232 Porter St., said has increased to troubling levels in some areas of the city. Jones said the city would be safer if more young people were occupied. “The teens don’t have anything to do to keep them out of trouble,” she said.
Jones spoke of the need for a youth center to provide children and teens with a place to socialize. The Elite Youth Center, on Michigan Boulevard, next to the Harborside Homes housing project, was not in a sufficiently safe area, she said.
“I wouldn’t go down there, and I wouldn’t let my kids (8 and 15) go down there, “ she said.
Freda Johnson, 211 Porter St., expressed fears that violence at Harborside Homes was out of control.
“It’s getting bad,” Johnson said. “Just look at how many people have gotten killed there. I wouldn’t set foot in there, and it’s not because I think I’m so much better. I avoid trouble.”
Johnson said she would feel safer if the city’s police concentrated their efforts on high-crime areas. She wondered if police were avoiding Harborside Homes because “it’s mostly black, and I think police avoid black people,” she said.
Another recurring concern was the city’s educational system, an issue that has struck a chord of anger among residents of other wards as well.
“I don’t think we’re getting our money’s worth” on education, said Edwina Lewis, 416 Jackson St.
Frustration with the School Board
John Poehl, a 1938 Elston High School graduate, said he is troubled by the schools’ decline since he was a student.
“At the time I graduated from high school, you could get into almost any college without an entrance exam because of the education you got at Elston,” said Poehl, who lives at 411 Fir St. “It was top quality.”
Many residents targeted their frustration at the School Board, which has been haggling with the city’s teachers over a labor agreement for nearly a year and a half.
The board recently hired an Indianapolis security firm to protect students, employees and school property in the event of a teachers’ strike.
“I don’t like this situation with the School Board,” said Roy Jackson, 326 Cole Court. “I don’t think they’re doing anybody any favors. They seem to have money for everything except settling with the teachers. And I don’t understand how they can spend all that money on security. If they would get it settled, they wouldn’t need security.”
Residents also voiced gripes about insufficient enforcement of speed limits and flooding on streets, and a desire for curbside recycling.
Meanwhile, some residents said they felt people tend to come down too hard on the city. “I’ve lived in Michigan City all my life, and I feel they’ve been doing a decent job,” said Norm Jones, 329 Jackson St.
“You can’t agree with everything they do, and I feel they’ve been doing a decent job of keeping things going. We’ve got art centers, and we’ve got the city band … we’ve got lots of good things going for the town.”
Joanna Anderson agreed. “I have no major complaints: I like Michigan City,” she said “But the only thing I wish was that there were more good-paying jobs.”