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Back in the late 1800s, Indianapolis, like most cities in the industrial north, was a dirty, smelly place. Horses still pulled carts and carriages around the Mile Square, and people burned coal for heat, creating clouds of soot and ash. The housekeeper who hung out white sheets to dry at noon gathered in gray ones an hour later.
Well-to-do citizens sought to escape the grit of the city for the fresh, clean air of the country—or so Woodruff Place and Irvington were considered at the time. Families in these first suburbs lived in gracious homes on tree-lined streets and took streetcars to work.
Residential development continued slowly, then stalled during the Depression and World War II, when both money and building materials were in short supply. Then came the Baby Boom. “Suddenly, all these servicemen were coming home, getting married, and starting families,” says Robert Barrows, professor of history and co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis. “They were doubled up with relatives and friends and desperate to have a place of their own.”
Inspired by the country’s first mass-produced homes in Levittown on Long Island, developers bought up cheap farmland on the outskirts of cities. In Indianapolis, zoning laws separated housing from retail—no more hardware stores or restaurants with the owners living upstairs. Thousands of affordable single-family dwellings sprouted in Washington, Warren, and Wayne townships. Half of the American dream was owning a home. The other half, which fit into this new lifestyle, was owning a car.
The suburban migration wasn’t limited to whites. Middle-class black families moved up the Michigan Road corridor. “We tend to focus on so-called ‘white flight,’” Barrows says, “but it’s well to keep in mind there was ‘black flight’ for many of the same reasons—a desire for better housing and schools.”
In 1970, when Unigov popped out Indianapolis’s boundaries overnight to the Marion County line, homeowners began looking to the contiguous counties, where taxes were lower and lots were bigger. When Judge S. Hugh Dillin ordered Indianapolis Public Schools to begin busing black students to township districts in 1973, the pace quickened. Hamilton County doubled its population between 1970 and 1990.
Developers like Pulte, Drees, and Estridge bought up land in outlying counties for subdivisions, offering homes in a limited range of styles and prices. As a result, homogenous developments lined crowded collector roads like Hamilton County’s Springmill. Town and city planners struggled to keep up with schools, roads, water, and police and fire protection, though most did well thanks to property-tax revenues from newcomers. But long-term planning has been a luxury. When he was elected in 1995, Carmel Mayor James Brainard became one of the first and most outspoken advocates of new urbanism as a more sustainable alternative to this suburban sprawl. Now other Indy suburbs are looking at ways to ensure their own futures when the open land runs out.
And that’s a good thing, says Frank Nierzwicki, a city planner since 1985 who now teaches at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. “Change is sometimes not easy,” he says. “But if you do nothing, you’ll still have change. You just won’t be able to control it.”
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