Sunday, November 15, 2009

New paint over termite-ridden boards

A lot of disparate events in the last few months came together in my mind today as I was reading the Indianapolis Sunday Star's article about revitalization along Martin Luther King, Jr. Street.

It's a touchy subject to be critical of a story about revitalization of an African American neighborhood when one is not African American, but a few things in the coverage of the project to revitalize the area seem wrong-headed to me.

As a downtown resident, and one who had to study some of MLK for impacts that might be caused to historic properties by the Cultural Trail, I have spent quite a bit of time walking and driving on the street. The article in the Star correctly states some of the problems, such as lack of parking and fast-moving traffic, and spells out some efforts that will be helpful in ameliorating them, including creating parking spaces out of one lane of traffic. New signage to direct visitors to local places of interest, banners "depicting figures such as [Martin Luther] King and local basketball legend Oscar Robertson" will line landscaped medians where the traffic lane once was, and the intersection where MLK meets I-65 will be "marked with two decorative pillars."

That all sounds fine. And it sounds a lot like the sort of ideas that Storrow and Kinsella, the landscape design firm in charge of the project, offer up for most of their downtown "revitalization" projects. Slow traffic, put something in the middle of the street, and create an environment that feels like something special is going on.

I have a few issues with this. First and utmost is that these are all just glossy paint over the much bigger issues on this corridor and in much of urban Indianapolis, which are abandoned derelict buildings and the crime and fear that comes with the broken window syndrome. Murals of Barack Obama and King are not going to make those problems go away. I have to wonder how much bigger an impact there might be if the $2 million spent on these cosmetic issues were put into making those empty buildings occupiable or even giving incentives to businesses and homeowners to move into them.

As a neighborhood activist in a working-class neighborhood with its own large set of abandoned buildings, and as one of a half-dozen neighborhood leaders invited to tour the southside with city department heads to talk about how we are trying to address this issue, I'm well aware that the issue of abandoned buildings is a primary problem in most neighborhoods and almost insurmountable for private citizens or citizen groups to tackle alone. The long waiting period while buildings sit empty before the city will place them on tax sales, and the city's own foul-up after the last tax sale, which voided the purchase of hundreds of these buildings, force neighbors to look elsewhere to try to address the problems that arise from having empty buildings around.

That's where beautification efforts come in. The thinking goes that if we make our neighborhoods look better in other areas maybe the folks we hope will make their homes here will overlook the broken windows and boarded-up doors in the 5 other houses in their block. As I toured the southside and heard the various stories of each of the neighborhood leaders on the bus the one thread that we all wove our tales around was abandoned buildings. Most of our neighborhood groups had coalesced around that issue, but none of them had been able to make any headway in solving it or even improving it much.

And that's why I think this revitalization effort is misdirected. Creating parking spaces for businesses and slowing traffic are laudable. But adding banners of Oscar Robertson and building up landscaped medians are not going to fix what's wrong in a neighborhood where a good portion of the buildings are sitting empty. And until those empty buildings are filled, no amount of makeup is going to cover the blemishes that mark the neighborhood.

The Star article neglected to mention where the funding for this effort is coming from or how much of it is going to the planners, but I strongly suspect that a different approach might render better results in the long run. I'd like to see the city make a real effort to fill up these empty buildings. And I'd like to see the monies that go into prettification go instead into incentivizing real people to take a chance on a troubled neighborhood.

A friend of mine just took me on a tour of a termite-infested house he's recently purchase for a song. His plans for rehabbing the house don't start with paint on the half-eaten boards or with a flower bed outside the front door so you won't notice what's missing in the beams and rafters. He's going to take out those termite ridden boards and put new ones in their place in somes spots; in others he can treat the board with insecticide and inject filler into it so that it reinforces the board from the inside out, making it strong once again. Painting and primping comes much further down the road for his house. He knows he has to have strong posts and beams first.

No matter how nice it is to have the city pay some attention and throw some money at a troubled neighborhood, unless the city helps do the real work of restoring the neighborhood and getting home owners and business owners into the abandoned buildings, it's still just painting over termite-infested boards.


  1. Absolutely--crude though it may be, this is lipstick on a pig if ever such a thing existed. If you want a similar example of a city that invested in its Martin Luther King Drive through extensive beautification and streetscape improvements, look no further than New Orleans. At least before Katrina, the street essentially played connect-the-dots to some of the city's largest housing projects--the area was completely devastated, far worse than Indianapolis. Most of the projects have been demolished since Katrina and the area is redeveloping, mostly with new subsidized housing. The area's reputation as impoverished and crime-ridden remains, though the street itself remains an important conduit from Uptown to Mid-City. Though the images on Google Streetview is by now old and dated (since the housing projects are mostly gone), you can see the beautification efforts at the intersection of MLK Drive and Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard.

  2. yes, there are much bigger issues at play. And $2 million seems like it could make a more substantial improvement than just a cosmetic one. Thanks for the N.O. info.

  3. Why is "slowing traffic" a laudable goal? The purpose of streets is to carry traffic at speed. I moved to the city to be in a city, with commerce, hustle and bustle. These suburban-planner types are ruining our downtown traffic grid, one constriction at a time. What's next, giant "traffic calming" planters in the middle of interstate lanes?

  4. Slowing traffic is laudable if you are a merchant trying to get folks to look at your business. Or a pedestrian trying to get across the street. But, slowing traffic to give drivers a chance to see the empty buildings won't do much good in terms of development.