Sunday, September 13, 2009
I just finished a piece for the Indiana Historical Society magazine about the Brightwood neighborhood in Indianapolis and one family that called it home for over seventy years. The exercise of researching the history of the neighborhood has been time-consuming, but fascinating.
I began in the Marion County Recorder's Office, going through the old plat books to find the original subdivisions. Most sections of Brightwood (which is on the near north-east side of Indianapolis) were platted in the 1870s with large lots for industrial development and clusters of residential neighborhoods with small lots -- cottages for the workers. There were also segments of the neighborhood that were designed for retail and professional services.
Of course, there was no public planning process in the 1870s and 1880s in Indianapolis -- private owners and developers determined the pattern of land use based on their own interests. The cornerstone of Brightwood was a large railroad repair shop and the railroad lines running into the shop, as well as supporting industry. Many of the developers active in the area were also board members of the railroad.
After a series of railroad company mergers, the railroad repair shop moved to a 100 acre parcel in Beech Grove, Indiana around 1908. By World War II, all traces of the railroad were gone from Brightwood, along with many of the major industrial employers like the Atlas Engine Works, Polk Milk Company, and the National Motor Car Company. Comparing Sanborn fire insurance maps and Baist real estate atlases from 1887 through 1941 is illuminating. These maps of Indianapolis are digitized and on-line here.
In 1880, 40% of the population of Brightwood were born in Europe (mostly Germany and Ireland) or were first generation Americans. There was also a minority of African-Americans. By 1960, Brightwood was evenly mixed. In 1990, 90% of Brightwood's 4,700 residents were African-American.
Today, Brightwood is an economically depressed neighborhood. The jobs long provided by neighborhood heavy industry are gone, although the devastating environmental impact remains. (A lead smelter, for example, operated for decades in Brightwood.) The last banks, grocery stores, and doctor offices closed in the 1980s. However, there is a strong core of families who have lived in the area for generations and are committed to its revitalization. Brightwood also benefits from several strong and activist churches and neighborhood organizations.
Tracing the history of the Brightwood neighborhood has been a thought-provoking exercise. The land use patterns developed 120 years ago by private interests have determined the present and, if unchanged, will dictate the future of the neighborhood. Current zoning reflects past uses. The cost of remediating environmental contamination discourages a change in use from industrial to residential, retail or office. Postage-stamp residential lots discourage redevelopment of modern multi-family housing or larger homes which would raise property values. Like many cities unconstrained by geographic boundaries, Indianapolis sprawls. Redevelopment in a neighborhood like Brightwood is just too expensive and difficult -- it is cheaper and easier to build new in a cornfield 30 minutes east.
I am also interested in conducting more research in the demographic changes in the neighborhood over time, particularly with respect to the patterns of renters versus owners. This exercise has shown me that it is possible (although, again, time-consuming) to reconstruct a detailed history of a neighborhood by using plat maps, fire insurance maps, census records, and deed records. Brightwood's story certainly isn't unique, although each neighborhood in each American city tells a different story. Reconstructing some of those stories could help us better understand what private choices helped shape the present, which may impact how we approach land use decisions in the future.
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