Land Use Part II – Building Places We Love and Place That Love Us Back

In the first installment of this series, we discussed neighborhood identity. However, it is paramount to clarify what this means. What is neighborhood identity and why does it come about? Neighborhood identity is more than just a name. It’s a sense of pride in a neighborhood and a sense of communal responsibility. Indianapolis once had that, but much of it was destroyed with shifts in federal housing and transportation policy, urban renewal, and race-based local land use practices.

Indianapolis – 1941

Indianapolis – 1962

Indianapolis – 1972

Prior to 1972, Indianapolis a numerous, dense communities which fostered strong neighborhood identities. Residents of the communities had immense pride in where they lived, whether they were renters or homeowners. However, which the shifts in policy and white flight, the populations of these neighborhoods were gutted and that sense of identity was lost.

No more is this more apparent than in the neighborhood of Brightwood. Station Street was the neighborhood village’s Main Street. There were shops on the ground floors, housing above, theatres, restaurants, and goods stores to meet the neighborhood’s needs. The primary street was a gathering space for the residents; a place where they could meet their other neighbors, network, support one another, and, at time, celebrate themselves. With the arrival of I-70 in the late 1960s-1970s, a large swath of the population was forcibly displaced and the northern side of the neighborhood was cut off from the southern side. The population shriveled and the neighborhood quickly spiraled into an unstoppable decline. Today, the neighborhood’s residents continue to grapple with the loss of a support network, a lack of a common gathering space, and totally lacking resources within walking distance like the neighborhood once provided. The neighborhood is bordered by overbuilt streets with minimal sidewalks, is chock full of vacant lots and homes, and land use has shifted to favor industrial developments and storage on what was the Main Street.

At Left: Martindale – Brightwood in 1940. At Right – The same location photographed in 2017. 

Another example of this loss is in West Indianapolis. The primary street here was Oliver Street, boarding the General Motors stamping plant. It would be common knowledge to think that the decline of the neighborhood began with the loss of General Motors, but GM did not vacate the space until 1996. The neighborhood’s decline began well before that, with the introduction of I-70 and shifts in aforementioned policy.

Once a separate municipality, West Indianapolis is a neighborhood that sits just across the White River. At its peak, it was home to multiple hotels, two theatres, twelve saloons, apartments, and moderately-dense single-family and duplex housing. In the mid-20th Century, the decline began. All of the former establishments are now gone and the 19th-Century buildings are beyond repair (but some are still standing).

Land use since the loss of these neighborhood centers has been focused on the suburbanization of Indianapolis. Since the 1960s, Indianapolis’s zoning laws have mandated that buildings replacing the older stock have large setbacks and minimum parking requirements; something that none of the older building stock had. Where there has been redevelopment, it has been automobile-oriented in nature; encouraging people to drive to their destinations and forcibly placing resources farther apart from one another, as well as constraining available commercial space for the sake of dedicating more land to parking.

So how can we re-establish our neighborhoods as places where walkable access to resources is paramount and foster places that residents can be proud of? IndyRezone was a good start, but now the City of Indianapolis is working through the process of “changing the land use map” through the Marion County Land Use Plan. The Marion County Land Use Plan is an element of Plan 2020, Indianapolis’s first comprehensive plan to be adopted for the city’s bicentennial. The plan takes the zoning codes implemented as part of IndyRezone to work. The change to the land use map means that the zoning districts that support transit-oriented development, parking reductions, and infill development can actually be applied.

The impacts of these changes certainly wouldn’t be felt overnight. Changing the urban form in a city such as Indianapolis will take years, perhaps decades. However, the results will be neighborhoods that can be loved and love us back. These will be neighborhoods that can be access by foot, public transit, bike, or, dare I say it, scooter. Creating a city of neighborhoods starts with policy; policy that orients the places we need and places we want to the scale of the human foot and publicly accessible transportation services.

Then, and only then, can we begin to regain what we lost. However, we must do so in a manner that is equitable; a manner that is accessible to everyone.

Posted by StrongIndy

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