Sunday, September 13, 2009

Tracing the History of a Neighborhood

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.

Tanya Marsh

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This narrative contains some errors regarding the railroad repair shops in Brightwood. It states the Brightwood Shops moved to Beech Grove in 1908, and all traces were gone by the 1940s.

The Interstate Car Company continued operations in Brightwood (perhaps under other names) into the 1950s. I have a photo of the workmen at the shop taken about 1920, more than a decade after the article says the shops relocated to Beech Grove. There are 75 or so men in this photo, including my wife's grandfather. He didn't move to Indianapolis and begin working at the Brightwood location until the mid or late 1910s. He continued to work at the same location in Brightwood until his retirement in the mid 1950s. I recall seeing the site myself as a youth in the early 1960s, with abandoned buildings but clearly a railroad operation.

Page 153 of "The Railway Age" (date: Aug. 4, 1905), a railroad trade publication, contains a paragraph stating the Interstate Car Company had just purchased 20 acres of land in Brightwood, and planned to move into their new location on Sept. 1, 1905. It's unlikely they would have moved to Beech Grove only 3 years later.

The Sherman Drive-in was built on this site in 1965 and continued operating until the mid 1980s. Until it was built, remnants of the railroad shops could be seen there.

Posted by: Allan H Roberts | Feb 23, 2013 1:40:48 PM

Our family moved to the Brightwood area on Dearborn st. in 1942. I attended School #51 and Arsenal Tech Hi School. My father worked on the N.Y. Central RR for 40 years. I remember my mother pulling me in a wagon down to Mass. Ave railroad tracks to wave to my father on the caboose. Some of my fondest memories are of the community in Brightwood, i.e. Rusch's Drugstore, Brightwood Jewelers, Bowling Alley, "Dream" Theatre and more. It was a great time to grow up in Brightwood.

Posted by: Manon Marquis | Feb 27, 2013 8:44:21 AM

I lived in Brightwood during the 50s and 60s. We first lived on Stuart Street,then Gale Street. My father and all of his siblings were born in Brightwood and they lived on Station street, just a door from Cohen's Clothing store. My dad, as well as his father and his older brother, worked at the railroad yard (Big 4). The railroad left Brightwood in the early 60's and moved to a new yard in Avon, Indiana. At that time we moved to the west side of Indianapolis. Brightwood was a wonderful place to grow up, it was very much like a small town right in the middle of a big city. I attended IPS #51 and remember it as a beautiful building full of art. There were beautiful murals and frescos throughout the building. My mother worked at the Merchants bank on Station Street. There was a bowling alley, a five and dime store, a little wood floored library, a cafeteria called Fe-Ja-Well, a jewelry store, a diner called Heath's, a Methodist church, G & G Clothing store, two drug stores with compete soda fountains, a shoe repair shop, and a furniture store, among many other businesses. It was a close-knit community where a child felt safe and loved by all.

Posted by: Becky Davis McCoskey | Jul 7, 2013 11:16:52 AM

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