Indianapolis Neighborhoods Battle Blight

Blight tarnishes many areas of the city. But there’s hope.

Trashy Neighborhood

A discarded mattress is a sign that this neighborhood on Kansas Street has seen better days. / / Robert Scheer / The Star

Drive east out of Downtown Indianapolis, and signs of urban decay are easy to find:

Boarded-up houses. Crumbling sidewalks. Storefronts ensconced in security gates. Potholes that will gut a car’s underside if hit at the wrong speed or angle. Teddy bears stacked by the roadside as memorials to shooting victims. People selling everything from rugs to baby strollers on their front lawns to help make ends meet.

But something else can be found below the surface: hope.

The Near Eastside — with its striking new community center, pockets of renovated homes, bike lanes, co-op grocery store and an art gallery that offers yoga classes — represents, in many ways, the art of the possible for struggling neighborhoods in Indianapolis.

The neighborhood isn’t perfect, but it’s getting better. Many neighborhoods can’t say that much.

Chipping away at that urban decay is crucial because neighborhoods are the foundation of any city. The condition of our neighborhoods — and the commitment to them from residents who live there — will help determine whether Indianapolis prospers or withers in the years ahead.

“You know why the Near Eastside is doing so well? They were organized, and they were ready to receive the help,” Mayor Greg Ballard said of the residents. “Other people aren’t necessarily as ready to receive it as we would like them to be.”

Of course, not every neighborhood in Indianapolis is in bad shape. Far from it. But as the city prepares to put forward the best possible face for next year’s Super Bowl, visitors won’t have to venture far from Downtown to find neighborhoods unlikely to make it on any postcard.

Travel in any direction from Lucas Oil Stadium and within minutes, you’ll end up in a neighborhood where blight has set down deep roots.

To the northeast and northwest, neighborhoods such as Martindale-Brightwood and Haughville are dotted with abandoned houses, unkempt lots and reputations for violent crime, even though theft and vandalism are more common.

To the southwest, neighborhoods such as Mars Hill and Maywood are stocked with aging, single-family homes. Massive industrial plants, some shuttered, surround these bedroom communities near the South Side Landfill. Until the city recently fixed the problem, flooding wracked the area when it rained.

Decades of decay

The decline of Indianapolis’ neighborhoods isn’t new. In fact, it was decades in the making. But recent population shifts, as shown in data from the U.S. Census Bureau, have made matters worse.

“The problem is, Indiana is cheap,” said Aaron M. Renn, an urban planning expert and former Hoosier.

When it comes to infrastructure, Indianapolis has always done the “bare-bones” minimum, he said. Sidewalks were never built in large swaths of the city. Potholes the size of craters have been allowed to form on roads and in alleys. And, under orders from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the city only recently has begun moving to fix a sewer system that sends raw sewage into rivers and streams when it rains.

“It’s been neglected for so long,” Ballard said of the city’s infrastructure. “It comes under short-term budgetary and political pressure to not take care of the roads and the sidewalks on a year-to-year basis. And I understand that. We feel the pressure, too.”

The city recently surveyed more than 1,100 residents to help prioritize community development efforts.

The results overwhelmingly tagged the demolition or rehabilitation of abandoned properties as a top priority. Residents also cited needs such as assistance for home repair, more home ownership, street improvements, sidewalks, crime awareness, mass transit and more youth centers.

Some of those problems are being addressed as part of the mayor’s RebuildIndy program. The Department of Public Works has in recent months spent $55 million on resurfacing roads, repairing sidewalks and bridges, and demolishing abandoned homes. An additional $32 million will be spent on infrastructure this spring.

But doing everything that needs to be done to repair or replace the city’s infrastructure would cost $1.5 billion and take years to complete. Only a fraction of the money needed is available now.

In the meantime, residents are bypassing Indianapolis’ urban core for the suburbs.

According to census data released this month, the five fastest-growing counties in the state all are neighbors of Marion County.

Hamilton County’s population jumped 50 percent, and Hendricks County grew 40 percent since 2000. Marion County grew about 5 percent.

The shift, experts say, has been driven by jobs, housing and quality-of-life issues such as schools, parks and lower crime rates.

“People are moving out of Center Township and going to suburbs, and that leaves empty properties,” said Olgen Williams, Indianapolis’ deputy mayor for the Office of Neighborhoods.

At last count, there are 9,000 to 10,000 abandoned houses in Indianapolis. Last year, the city demolished 675 of them, and it plans to tear down at least 250 more this year.

How else can Indianapolis stem the suburban tide?

By creating neighborhoods with distinctive personalities, Renn said. Walkable environments with small shops, coffeehouses, bars and grocery stores can make older neighborhoods attractive, especially to young people.

“We really need to create these urban spaces,” Ballard said. “Indianapolis is an urban area. We don’t want to be the suburban area.”

Retaining residents and attracting newcomers is a difficult task, however, for neighborhoods already in a downward spiral.

Residents have to be involved, organized and vocal. They have to come up with a common vision to grab the attention of public officials and business leaders.

“The neighborhoods have to articulate their own destiny,” Williams said.

Near Eastside

Heather McMullen, an unassuming, brown-haired 33-year-old, seems a little out of place on Rural Street. She is, in fact, a longtime suburbanite who moved away from what she calls a sea of “cookie-cutter” homes to a place with more soul.

That led her to Englewood, a Near-Eastside neighborhood near Rural and Washington streets. She owns a house that has been there for decades and is surrounded by neighbors who’ve been there almost that long.

“There’s nothing ornate about my home,” McMullen said. “But I live in a community. I live where people know my name.”

Increasingly, community is a buzzword on the Near Eastside. Long given a bad rap for having an inordinate number of abandoned houses and all manner of crime, the neighborhood is making a comeback.

It started in 2008, when hundreds of residents met to figure out the best way to use community development funds from a tax increment financing, or TIF, district.

“What do we call a good quality of life for our community? What does that mean for us?” said James Taylor, executive director of the John H. Boner Community Center.

They came up with a list of seven priorities, from housing redevelopment to education to connectivity to economic development.

The results of their efforts are readily visible.

Bike lanes run along New York Street, houses are being redeveloped off North Jefferson Avenue and a string of stores have opened along the new East 10th Street business corridor.

There’s McMullen’s shop, the Little Green Bean Boutique; the Made for Each Other community art gallery; The Turntable Shoppe; and Pogue’s Run Grocer, the city’s first food co-op.

“I couldn’t have asked for a more successful opening. Business has been steady,” said Greg Monzel, general manager of the co-op, who also lives on the Near Eastside.

The residents’ efforts have been recognized and rewarded.

The neighborhood is the home of the 2012 Super Bowl Legacy Project — a distinction that will help lead to the building of a community recreation center on the campus of Tech High School.

“There’s a saying in community development circles that perceptions of a neighborhood have to change before the neighborhood changes — and there’s some truth to that,” Taylor said. “This is a place that’s on the move, that’s up and coming. And all of sudden, reality begins to follow that.”

Fountain Square

The Near Southside neighborhood of Fountain Square knows all about perceptions. It’s been up, down and is rising again.

The neighborhood was once a thriving center of retail, dining and entertainment. Its decline began in the late 1960s, and the construction of the interstate compounded matters, dividing the neighborhood. For years, residents left and businesses closed.

Today, though, Fountain Square is a haven for artists, entrepreneurs who live above their businesses, and an eclectic mix of bars and clubs.

There’s a palpable energy here, and much of it has emerged recently with the opening of businesses such as Pure Eatery, White Rabbit Cabaret, Square Rootz Deli and Siam Square.

The neighborhood is one of the city’s designated cultural districts and soon will become a stop on the Indianapolis Cultural Trail.

Catherine Esselman, who has lived in Fountain Square for nearly three years, describes the neighborhood as a place where she can walk to a local coffee shop and run into people who know her name. And despite stereotypes about crime, she said, people tend to look out for one another.

“It’s our ‘Cheers,’ ” the 29-year-old commercial real estate agent said. “It’s a great neighborhood. All my neighbors are awesome.”

But with housing, Fountain Square remains hit or miss. Street after street is lined with small, single-family homes. Some are well-kept, down to precisely placed decorations on the front door. Others have yards strewn with trash, old furniture and children’s toys. Some are abandoned.

“When we moved in, the Realtor said, ‘Well, this is one of those neighborhoods that could go either way,’ ” said Elizabeth Ryan, who moved to Fountain Square with her family about 13 years ago.

Today, she and her husband are pleased. The neighborhood has gone from a place with a lot of noise and fights to one where neighbors sit on each other’s porches and help each other move furniture.

Even her mother-in-law, who for years refused to visit because she envisioned Fountain Square as crime-ridden, is a convert.

“Ask her now, and she’ll say, ‘This is such a great neighborhood,’ ” Ryan said. “But ask her 10 years ago, she was crying.”

Mars Hill/Maywood

On the Southwestside of Indianapolis, conditions aren’t as promising.

As in other neighborhoods, residents of Maywood and Mars Hill tend to live in older, single-family homes. Some houses are well-maintained; many are not. Abandoned properties are common. The potholes are so bad that driving is a jarring, rim-rattling experience.

Rows of industrial plants add dreariness to the landscape. Blasting at the Kentucky Avenue Mine unleashes noise, shaking and dust.

“It’s just like an earthquake,” said Willie Mae Cooley, a Maywood resident for nearly 50 years. “It moves the pictures on the wall and moves things on the mantle. You kind of have to make sure that nothing is on the edge of the shelf.”

She’s concerned that a planned expansion of the mine would mean even more dust and noise. The Maywood Manor Neighborhood Association is fighting the proposal, but Cooley says not enough residents are involved.

Farther west, in the depressed neighborhood of Mars Hill, residents say property crime is a constant concern.

The VFW 908 along Kentucky Avenue lost more than $10,000 when a burglar stole the post’s safe — twice. Appliances also have been stolen from the post.

Still, most people in the neighborhood are nice, said Dave Spaulding, the post’s commander.

“If you need assistance and they see it, they’re the first ones there,” he said.

Despite the struggles of Mars Hill and other areas in the city, Cathy Burton, president of the Marion County Alliance of Neighborhood Associations, sees reason to hope for a revival of more neighborhoods.

Residents are beginning to care about their neighborhoods again and show it. People, she said, are looking for an anchor in rough economic times. They’re looking for something they can control and change.

“For several years, there was kind of a feeling of almost helplessness,” she said. “We have to believe that (neighborhoods) will improve. We have to.”

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One Response to “Indianapolis Neighborhoods Battle Blight”

  1. Nov 16th, 2011 :


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