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Mean Streets: Evan West on His Own Indy Neighborhood
My old neighborhood used to be a nice little place to live. But since I moved back, rampant crime has made it a desperate, dangerous wasteland. It just took a botched burglary at a friend’s house for me to wake up and see it.
I was walking the cracked and crumbling sidewalk along the street where I grew up, on the near-east side of Indianapolis, with my dog, a basset hound named Roscoe, when we heard two muffled claps. Someone in the neighborhood occasionally sets off makeshift, window-rattling bombs for fun, at odd intervals throughout the day. So we’re used to bangs. But this clap-clap was different, as if a pair of heavy wooden doors had fallen flat on a bare floor. The dog stopped, perked his ears a little, and then walked on.
It was just after lunchtime on a cold Wednesday in December 2009. I had moved back into my old neighborhood a little more than a month before and had already settled into a fairly regular routine. Self-employed and working from home, I often walked Roscoe after lunch through Spades Park, a serene patchwork of grass and trees that flanks Pogue’s Run creek west of Rural Street. Or, as on that day, we would go up the street to my old house, the one my dad and mom bought nearly 40 years ago, and Roscoe would sniff around the backyard, where the sandbox and swing set used to be.
When we arrived at Dad’s, he was in his garage, rummaging around in boxes and coffee cans. My neighbor from across the way, a longtime friend named Maciej Zurawski, was there, too. A few days earlier, Maciej’s home, a quaint Arts and Crafts bungalow atop a steep hill, on an enviable double lot obscured by soaring pines, had been burglarized. He was going to install a new steel security door and came to my dad for drill bits and screws. We chatted as my dad dug through hardware. This, I thought, this is why I moved back to a neighborhood otherwise plagued by blight and crime. I had family on this street, and friends, the kind of neighbors a guy can pop in on, hit up for hardware, and, from time to time, crack a few beers with.
Maciej and I left my dad’s house together and walked across the street. He opened his gate and started to climb the long series of cement steps that led to his front door. The dog and I continued down the sidewalk. Just moments later, after walking the half-block that separates my house from Maciej’s, we heard the clap-clap. The phone buzzed in my pocket. Dad was calling. My mind jumped back to the clap-clap. Something must be wrong. I flipped open the phone and held it to my ear. Hello?
“Ev …” The pitch of my dad’s voice was urgent, and the words came fast. He was panting. “Maciej’s been shot.”
When my parents discovered this two-block section of East 16th Street in 1975, in an area known as “Brookside,” it held a lifetime of promise. A farm boy and small-town girl, the two had dated at Indiana University and then moved to Indianapolis when Dad became a public-school teacher. At a time when bank foreclosures and vacancies were still rare in this corner of the near-east side, they found a handsome, HUD-owned home in good repair, with brown siding, a broad front porch, and a big backyard. They bought the place for $8,400, moved in, married, and, in 1977, had me.
The neighborhood, a mix of well-built Craftsmans and neat bungalows with tidy green lawns, still had a lot to recommend it in those days. Most of the residents were kindly empty-nesters who had raised families here, spent their lives at good-paying factory and civil-service jobs—machinist, postman, fireman, trucker.
“I remember driving down the street and thinking, ‘Wow, this looks great,’” Mom says, recounting the first time she and Dad visited. “It looked like a mature neighborhood. It looked settled-in, stable. There was a warm, friendly feeling.”
Unlike the vast, flat grids of crowded houses in much of the inner city, this neighborhood conformed to the contours of winding Pogue’s Run and the attractive greenspaces and playgrounds along its banks, with gentle hills and curving parkways. “This tract 25 years ago was a dense forest,” wrote prominent attorney, businessman, and politician Calvin Fletcher in 1854, of what was then his working farm and rural retreat. Later, entrepreneur Michael Spades donated the acreage that would become Spades Park, and in the early 1900s, nationally renowned urban planner George Kessler took a hand in the design, with the notion that fresh air and attractive landscapes can enhance quality of life, even for modest-income families. A postcard from the era shows a gauzy, pastoral image of carriage horses trotting past a shaded brook.
And it was still a fine place to live when my parents moved in—“kind of idyllic,” says my mother. “We sat on the front porch at night, talked to neighbors who walked by.” There were two mom-and-pop corner groceries and two baseball diamonds within a few blocks of the house. A pretty blond teenager up the street, a granddaughter of the elderly couple two doors down, babysat me when I was a toddler. By the time I was 2, I had learned that whenever the widow next door was planting flowers, I could stand at the picket fence, point at her back door, and say “cookie,” and with a raspy, chain-smoking laugh, she would guide me into the kitchen, letting me reach my chubby fingers into a ceramic jar. In my early childhood, the near-east side had the trappings of a typical lower-middle-class suburb.
“It was all quiet and peaceful,” Dad says. “Good neighbors. People had been here most of their lives. Well-kept yards. Nice houses. Back then, people weren’t thinking about the neighborhood being insecure or unsafe. There just wasn’t the thought of anything bad happening.”
Police lieutenant Bill Meyers started patrolling the area after joining the force in 1963, and did so until the early ’80s. He used to sit on a porch swing across the street from Beulah’s Market, a few blocks east of my house, and sip lemonade and iced tea with the owner of the store. There wasn’t much serious crime to speak of, aside from the odd garage break-in or car theft. “It didn’t have the muggings and physical attacks a lot of other areas had,” he says. “If you heard a bang, you thought it was a firecracker.”
Even so, it was still a city neighborhood, in good ways and bad. Eccentrics found refuge here, like the man at the corner store who regaled my mom with stories of his overseas adventures as a mercenary. And Ed, the nephew of our other next-door neighbor, who seldom bathed and spent late evenings in the garage painting, smoking cigarettes, and playing loud opera on the radio.
And it was diverse. White kids, black kids, and brown kids, the poor and not-quite-as-poor—we all played and scuffled together. When a Mexican family moved onto the block, we added soccer to our sporting repertoire. We knew to avoid the kids who came, literally, from the other side of the railroad tracks—the ones that separated us from rougher neighborhoods like Brightwood and Hillside, where crime and blight had already started to take hold.
But the neighborhood did have problems. Thanks to outdated sewers, once-pastoral Pogue’s Run, the creek sentimentalized in that old postcard, reeked of shit, a running cesspool littered with tangled shopping carts and flushed condoms. And while the first phase of single-family homes had been built shortly after the turn of the century, by the 1930s investors had squeezed duplexes and triplexes into remaining lots. By the ’80s, a lot of those were showing neglect, and the renters tended to be a more transient, hardscrabble lot than the long-timers.
“I feel bad saying this, but it was almost always the renters,” Mom says. “I don’t know how many times we called the police because there was screaming over there, loud domestic disputes.” Strange neighborhood kids too young for kindergarten would show up, hungry and unsupervised, at our backyard to play, and then remain for hours. They would return day after day, for weeks, without my mom ever seeing their parents. And then one day they’d just be gone.
Five years into my parents’ homesteading, crime was already becoming more common. Nearly everyone who parked on the street had a car battery stolen, including my dad, who took to securing the hood of his Chevy with a padlock and chain.
“And then there was this one night when I got a deeply uneasy feeling,” Mom says. “It was late, and we heard dogs barking outside. We looked out the window and saw a wandering horde of what appeared to be older teens. They looked like zombies—skinny and dirty. Five or six of them. They were cussing and trying to open car doors and banging on hoods. They seemed to have a blatant disregard for whether anyone would see them or if the police would come. I remember thinking then that the neighborhood would never be the same again.”
I kept the phone to my ear and bolted back out my front door, rushing up the street toward Maciej’s front gate, where we had parted ways just moments earlier. I dialed 911, waited in the street, and then waved wildly when a firetruck appeared at the top of the block.
Firemen and EMTs rushed through the front door, and a crowd of bodies crouched over Maciej in the kitchen. The inside of the house appeared to have been ransacked. I cleared a path through the debris to make way for the gurney.
As the medics worked, Dad and I stood in the yard, surrounded by police. After hearing the gunfire, he had seen a hooded figure dash across the alley and into a neighbor’s backyard. Then he had gotten a phone call from Maciej: “Kenny, I’ve been shot.” My dad found him lying face-up on the kitchen floor. “I can’t feel my legs,” he said.
Now, the two of us watched as police congregated in a gravel parking lot by the duplexes directly across the street from Maciej’s house. In the commotion, we caught a split-second glimpse of someone running and ducking between two of the buildings. Before long, officers were gathering on one of the porches, going in with a dog, and leading a man out in handcuffs. They questioned another man in a hooded sweatshirt in the parking lot, put him in cuffs as well, and took them both away.
When I was 3, my parents divorced, and my mom moved us to Bloomington. But Dad stayed behind, in “Brown House,” as we affectionately called it, and I never really left, either. Weekends and summers were spent there, and the comparatively grittier streets of Indianapolis held a lurid attraction in my boyhood imagination. I got into fights and had my bike stolen. Rough and tumble.
In 1999, I graduated college right as the house next to my dad’s went vacant. The opera-listening neighbor had carried on there after his elderly aunt died, one of the last links to the neighborhood’s old guard, and his departure marked the first time the home had been vacant in decades. Dad bought it for $10,000 and taught me the rudiments of renovation. After clearing out the garbage and dead roaches, I moved in.
A couple of years later, I decided to relocate to a new house in a recently gentrified area north of downtown. In the meantime, I had become pals with the boyfriend of a co-worker at Indianapolis Monthly, a bohemian Polish national named Maciej who shared my far-flung curiosity and love of outdoor adventure. He needed a place to live, so my dad and I rented him the little house we’d fixed up on my old block.
The neighborhood was showing wear by then, but also signs of improvement. First-time homebuyers and speculators, encouraged by easy mortgages and downtown redevelopment, installed new siding and fresh carpets and sold houses for double what they’d paid. When the home across the street went up for sale, the one on the hill with the trees and big lot, Maciej bought it.
Another house I admired on the street became available, one facing the park, with picture windows and hardwood floors, and I invested there as well, thinking it might someday be as attractive to urban pioneers as it was to me. Dad and I bought three more properties nearby in quick succession, one of them at the other end of the block, and fixed them up.
“The outside perception of the neighborhood was always worse than how I perceived it,” Dad says. “People I worked with would say, ‘You live there?’ And I’d always say, ‘It’s not as bad as you think.’”
As we marveled at how cheap the houses were, and that each property we bought cost less than the last, it probably should have occurred to us that we were sledding on a downhill market. So many properties were available that the owners—primarily banks that had taken possession in foreclosure—had to sell them cheap to unload them, often to investors like us.
As the 2000s wore on, entire blocks became rental slums. Not a quarter-mile from where my dad lived, a street where two of our rental houses were located rapidly went to hell: A crack house next to one of them was serving a former grocery-turned-flophouse nearby and a whorehouse a few doors down. The first tenant we had after fixing up the place, a young single mother, had her door kicked down shortly after moving in. The robbers held her at gunpoint until she convinced them she had neither drugs nor money.
Dad and I went home and waited for Detective Peter Perkins to take our statements. We agreed to meet him back at Maciej’s house later that evening, to let him in for a look at the crime scene.
It was past nightfall when we returned to the house. Maciej’s new security door was laid out on a picnic table in the backyard. Inside, we saw the debris of the day scattered across the floor of every room, as if the house had been lifted from the foundation, given a quick shake, and then placed back atop its cinderblocks. In the kitchen, cold air blew in through a broken window.
From what Detective Perkins could gather, Maciej had walked in on two burglars, and one of them shot him, most likely with the .40-caliber semi-automatic Ruger handgun police found outside the window. One slug tore straight through the soft tissue of Maciej’s right arm, and another slammed into his back and stayed there. The police had found the two suspects in one of the du-plexes across the street; a police dog sniffed out one of them hiding in the attic. He had a deep gash across the bridge of his nose, probably from scrambling through the shattered kitchen window. When he was found, the suspect asked “if that guy who was shot had died,” according to the police. They also found foreign coins and a laptop computer that likely had come from Maciej’s house.
In the middle of the kitchen floor, on the beige vinyl tiles, was a tight pool of thick, black blood. After Detective Perkins left, we secured a board over the window and quietly wiped it up. We didn’t want Maciej’s girlfriend to see it when she came to collect belongings he would need in the hospital.
This last time I decided to move back to the neighborhood, in 2009, I was sanguine at the prospect. I had come to realize that I bought the house on my old street—the one facing the park, with the picture windows and hardwood floors—not so much because it was a good investment, but because I loved it. I began to daydream about sitting on the front-porch swing in the morning, sipping coffee and gazing at the white sycamores and flowering redbuds across the park. I downplayed the encroaching decay. It seemed as though this two-block stretch, at least, was clinging to stability. So I sold the gentrified place north of downtown, and my girlfriend and I packed up and moved east.
We set up housekeeping in mid-November. On December 23, two days before Christmas, I was cleaning up my friend’s blood.
Afterward, my outlook was darker. Since I’d moved away and returned, conditions in the neighborhood had taken a desperate turn. I just hadn’t wanted to admit it. The vacant houses had multiplied, and no one was fixing them up. Scrap thieves, after ripping away the aluminum siding and carting off air-conditioners, were now breaking down doors and scouring interiors for plumbing, wiring, and even the iron weights inside antique double-hung windows.
“It is heartrending to go through there now and see, remembering what it was,” says Lieutenant Meyers, the cop who patrolled the neighborhood as a young officer all those years ago. “It has really, really changed, like a blight came through. It looks like a war zone.” This is what years of suburban flight left behind, he says, after the children of the old folks who had planted fruit trees in neighborhoods like these left to sow seeds in newly turned dirt outside of the inner city.
At the time of the shooting, the local high school, Arsenal Tech, was routinely graduating less than half its students, class after class of young people with no viable prospects for the future and little to do but look for opportunities to commit crime. The idle, scruffy men wandering the streets, a nuisance before, now seemed menacing—together with the kicked-in doors, busted windows, and burned-out houses around me, it all resembled the landscape of Mad Max, with roving bandits picking the last shreds of flesh from a charred carcass. “It’s almost like they’re frantic,” says Dad.
“I drove through after you first moved back and had this really sad feeling about the neighborhood,” says Mom. “That something tragic had happened to it. That it was lost.”
I installed security doors and an alarm.
After the shooting, Detective Perkins asked me to meet him and a crime-scene specialist at Maciej’s house.
The detective walked through the particulars of the incident. He stood in the hallway leading out of the back bedroom and faced the kitchen, and then held up his arm, index finger and thumb extended, and fired an imaginary shot at the now-boarded window. He explained that the shell casings would have been ejected off to the right of the pistol, and then he looked down at the detritus underfoot. “Maciej wasn’t much of a housekeeper, was he?” he said. I handed him a yardstick, and he poked around.
“Aha,” the detective said, reaching with a gloved hand to pick out the little brass tube from the mess on the floor. “The shooter might have left a fingerprint on here.”
Next, the three of us pried at the stove, where Dad and I had found a bullet hole. We lifted off the sheet metal until the exit point was exposed. Squinting, the technician peered into the guts of the oven, reached in, and removed a flattened projectile.
A call came in to Detective Perkins. He held the cell phone to his ear and looked at me while nodding and shaking his head at the voice on the other end of the line. “Uh-huh. Yeah. Permanent injury. Uh-huh. Okay.” He put the phone back in his pocket. “That was from the hospital,” he said. “They say Maciej is going to be paralyzed.”
I had regular visits with Maciej at Wishard and Community East hospitals, as he struggled to recover from his injuries. He had arrived with three shattered vertebrae, a collapsed lung, and a neat round hole—almost exactly the diameter of a .40-caliber bullet—that went straight through his upper right arm. Doctors showed him the MRI, and he could see the slug under the skin, and bone fragments, and waves of tissue damage radiating outward from the entry wound, as though he’d been hit square in the back with a sledgehammer.
Maciej, now 44, remembers the day vividly. He had left me and walked into his house, noticing that the French doors separating the living room from the side bedroom were ajar. The bedroom had been ransacked, the mattress tossed. He heard a noise in the kitchen. As he stepped into the hallway, a stranger was standing right there, not six feet away. The man leapt headfirst through a closed window. It exploded in a cascade of glass. Thinking this must have been the burglar who’d hit his house a few days before, Maciej lunged and grabbed the man’s ankles, and the intruder teetered on the bottom edge of the window frame, half inside and half out.
Maciej didn’t know there was another man in the house, behind him. A deafening blast rang against the walls. Just before blacking out, Maciej thought for an instant that he might have been shot in the head, until he noticed there was no blood splattered on the wall in front of him. He came to a split-second later, midway through collapsing on the floor, and smelled gunpowder—not from the first shot, he now knows, but from the second shot, which hit his arm. He felt searing pain in his back, and as he lay on the floor watching the second burglar jump out the window, he tried to struggle and kick. That’s when he realized his legs wouldn’t move.
“Hiking the Appalachian Trail—I know that ain’t gonna happen,” he says. “But at least my head wasn’t blown off.” Getting over the idea that he won’t ever hike again is easier than it was in the first year after his injury. “I miss it, but not as bad as I did,” he says. “I guess you forget over time.”
As Maciej recovered, the wheels of justice turned—slowly. Neither of the men charged with the crime, Terry Laderson and Terrance Turner, both 19, lived in the neighborhood. Evidently they had come to visit a young woman renting the duplex where the police had apprehended them.
One of the suspects, Turner, had a warrant out for his arrest, for burglary and theft, issued a month before the break-in on my street. He had a previous arrest for theft, receiving stolen property, and carrying a handgun without a license. The police monitored the phone calls of Laderson, the suspect who had hidden in the attic, in Marion County Jail and overheard him talking to his mother. “They found the missile, Mama,” he had said. According to Detective Perkins, in criminal parlance “missile” means gun.
After a year, the man who had hidden in the attic agreed to a plea: The prosecutor dropped the charge of attempted murder, and in exchange Laderson copped to felony burglary and illegal possession of a handgun. But he wouldn’t implicate the other defendant. At an emotional sentencing hearing, in February 2011, Maciej’s father, in precise but heavily accented English, recounted moving his family from communist Poland to America as political refugees, with dreams of opportunity for his son. The defendant’s grandfather also took the stand. He said that Laderson hadn’t “been in much trouble, any trouble, before this terrible day,” and then looked out at the gallery and apologized for what his grandson had done.
Laderson sat impassively at a table, next to his attorney, in the center of the courtroom. He looked small and alone. And young. The judge sentenced him to 45 years, and a bailiff led him away. Justice prevailed. But it was difficult to feel satisfied.
Turner, the second defendant, held out as court dates were scheduled, rescheduled, and rescheduled again. (In the interim, one of the prosecution’s witnesses, a woman who had lived on my street when the shooting occurred, was arrested for murder in connection with a liquor-store robbery.) The judge in the case eventually acquitted Turner for lack of evidence. A month later, a different judge gave him an eight-year sentence for robbery and burglary, crimes committed before Maciej’s shooting.
The chapel in the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility’s maximum-security wing, near Terre Haute, is a smallish room with gray carpet and white-painted cinderblock walls. Terry Laderson, the man convicted of burglarizing my friend’s home, walks in. He is two years into his 45-year sentence, which, with good behavior, should come out to about 20 years.
Laderson has just left the segregation unit—the “hole,” he calls it—for what he describes as a misunderstanding with a guard. He is wearing slippers and, under his khaki jumpsuit, a white long-john top with tattered sleeves. We shake hands, and then sit facing one another across a table placed in the center of the room. A large wooden cross hangs on the wall behind him. He looks at me inquisitively, a little nervous.
Maciej is a friend of mine, I say. I am writing a story about what happened and need to hear both sides of the story. I want to keep an open mind. He says that is okay.
What was his childhood like? He never met his father, he says, his mother was on drugs, and he lived in foster care until he was 4. Then he went to stay with his grandparents, along with siblings, uncles, an aunt, and a cousin, in the couple’s modest home on the near-north side of Indianapolis. His grandfather works at the unemployment office, and his grandmother stays at home. They go to church.
I tell him that I saw a handwritten letter in his court file, the one he sent to the judge expressing his intentions to file an appeal over his sentence. Is he an artist? The script was precise and stylized—elegant. “Yeah, all through my life, people told me I could write real good,” he says. “I can draw and stuff.”
“When I was in school, I had good grades,” he continues. But around the time he got into middle school, at Shortridge, bad influences from his neighborhood became a bigger priority. His friends were dealing crack. He started smoking marijuana and, eventually, dealing it. When Laderson was in seventh grade, his cousin took a bullet while committing an armed robbery and went to prison, and for Laderson, hearing shots ring out at parties came to be fairly routine. He got his first gun while he was a freshman at Broad Ripple High, “something small,” a .22-caliber Beretta pistol he picked up on the street for $30. One time, when he was 16, he was standing at the end of his street, and someone rolled by in a pickup and opened fire on him, a next-door neighbor, and an older friend of his uncle’s. A blast of buckshot sprayed his face and legs. Recounting the episode, Laderson reaches to his chin and starts feeling around with his finger. One of the pellets is still in there, he says.
From then on, Laderson wanted to carry a gun nearly all the time. By his sophomore year, he was going to school less and less. He got caught skipping class and ran to the bathroom, a stunt that got him slapped with a charge of resisting law enforcement. He dropped out early in his junior year.
Laderson worked briefly at a couple of jobs, at UPS and Goodwill, but mostly just rode around with friends, smoked pot, and dealt drugs. In 2009, a friend from his neighborhood, Lindsay Johnson, moved into a duplex on the near-east side. He’d never spent much time in the area, he says, but he started dropping by.
On December 23, he was hanging out at Johnson’s place with another friend of his from the neighborhood where he grew up, whom he identifies only as “Little D.” Johnson wasn’t there, but a third man was: Terrance Turner, another friend of hers whom Laderson says he didn’t really know.
“Let’s just go burglarize somebody,” said Little D. Laderson had never committed a burglary before, he says, but he didn’t object to Little D’s proposal. “I was being a follower,” he admits, shaking his head. Laderson and Little D singled out a house across the street, the one high up on the hill, with all the trees. They slipped through the gate, walked around to the back, and banged on the door. No one answered. So they climbed in through a window.
A short time later, Laderson was rifling through dressers in the back bedroom when he heard a commotion. He stepped out into the hallway and saw a strange man running through the kitchen toward Little D, who was trying to escape through the window. Laderson panicked. The Ruger was already out. He raised it and “started shooting.”
“Why did I just do that?” he thought as he bounded through the window. He still has a prominent scar on the bridge of his nose from the jagged glass.
Laderson felt the gun fall to the ground under the window, his adrenaline pumping too fast to stop and pick it up. He just wanted to run. He just wanted to get out of there.
He ran down the alley, across backyards, and into a vacant house, but popped back out when he saw some people outside. By then, the police had drawn a perimeter around the neighborhood. Squad cars parked at intersections, lights flashing. He doubled back to the duplex, and, he says, Turner let him inside. He climbed into the attic and waited.
Fifteen minutes passed. He heard the police downstairs. He heard them leave. Then he heard them again. This time they had a dog.
Terry Laderson has had one nagging thought, over and over, a refrain, since that day when he entered my friend’s home and shot him: “Why did I do that?”
He also thinks about what he will do after his sentence is up, when he will be a man in his 40s. He wants to get a high-school degree in prison, and then work a regular job when he’s out. For now, he reads—the Bible helps him stay out of trouble—and plays basketball. He says the time in county jail brought him closer to his mother, the one who was absent most of his life. But after two years in state prison, he has had only one visitor: me.
Laderson maintains that Turner, the second defendant, wasn’t involved. He won’t identify the man who was, the mysterious Little D, because snitching “could make it real hard” on him in prison. If other inmates found out, “I could get stabbed.”
But Laderson does regret that he never told Maciej he is sorry. Until just before the sentencing, he had planned to address the court. He had a prepared statement. But he decided against it at the last minute. He was ashamed that his family had to be there to defend him. Explaining her sentencing decision, the judge in Laderson’s case cited his apparent lack of remorse.
“How’s he doing, though?” Laderson asks now of Maciej. “Is he all right?”
I’m not sure how to answer. Maciej used to go on weeklong hiking trips. He used to drive. He used to take out his own trash.
“He’s doing better”—and I add that he couldn’t live in his house after the incident.
“Why is that?” Laderson asks.
“It wasn’t real accessible for a wheelchair,” I say. “He was down for a while, but his spirits seem to be quite a bit better now.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” he says.
“I guess nothing really good came out of it on either side, did it?” I say.
“No,” he says. “Not at all.”
In the three years since my move back to the near-east side, coping with crime has become a way of life.
When my rental house at the other end of the block went vacant, I twice caught “Charles,” a semi-homeless man who lived in the rundown garage next door, stealing electricity by running an extension cord to an external outlet on the rental. He pushes around a cart with various and sundry used items—tools, building materials, knickknacks—asking if there’s anything you’d like to buy. When a new tenant took up residence in the property, he was burglarized within a couple of days: Someone climbed through a window and stole his computer while he was walking his dog. Since then, nearly every decoration he’s placed around the lawn has disappeared. Last spring, several large potted houseplants disappeared from my front porch. A couple of days later, the tenant up the street confirmed that “Charles” had tried to sell him some potted plants the day after mine went missing.
Neighbors on all sides of me—left, right, and behind—have had their homes burglarized, as have many of the rest of the resi-dents on my street. A few blocks away, the man whose father ran Beulah’s Market—the store Lieutenant Meyers remembers from sipping lemonade in the old days—has had his TV stolen four times. On each occasion, thieves smashed the glass in his back door, grabbed the TV as the alarm blared, and hightailed it away before the police arrived. Up the block from me, the cops raid suspected drug houses every few months. After periods of relative quiet, we can tell when one has opened for business again, because men with dirty jeans stride purposefully through the park and down the street toward it. When authorities rounded up suspected members of the Outlaws biker gang last year, I found out that one of the men indicted lives on my street as well. And he is among the neighborhood’s solid homeowners, someone I wave to when he’s standing in his front yard.
Commander James Waters, who heads up the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department’s East District, explains that the cops are doing the best they can with limited manpower. “We’re so shorthanded, I can’t leave [officers] there,” he says. “They have to move on to the next fire.”
Still, he says crime prevention is a priority. After a spike in burglaries last year, he had “neighborhood reconnaissance officers” go door-to-door in my area and encourage residents to report suspicious activity. Such initiatives might have contributed to the 2 percent decrease in break-ins reported in the district since 2011. In my immediate area, though, at least a half-dozen burglary calls came in during the first month of this year; there’s no telling what that number could have been without the IMPD’s extra efforts.
The commander also arranged for me to go on a ride-along with one of the officers who patrols my street, part of a police zone known as “The Tens,” which stretches south from 25th Street to near Pogue’s Run. After eight hours in a squad car with a laconic young policeman named Kollin, who wrestled a belligerent drunk to the ground and settled an in-home dispute with an unruly teenager, I figured out that my neighborhood was not of particular interest. Not because the officer didn’t care, but because he didn’t have time to lament one little enclave that turned upside down. He never saw the way it used to be. Mine is just one bad neighborhood among many.
“It’s like society is letting things go,” he told me at the end of the shift. “You asked me before why I became a police officer. It was to help people, to catch the bad guy.” He went quiet for a moment. “Now I just want to make it home every night.”
After our interview, my dad called me later in the evening. An important question hadn’t been raised, one that’s probably obvious to anyone who drives through our neighborhood or reads this story.
Why in the hell would you stay there?
Dad noted that he had Brown House completely paid off sometime in the 1980s. No payment for the past 30 years, which allowed him to retire earlier than if he’d bought a more expensive home elsewhere. (My house payment is less than half what it was at the gentrified place.) And could we even find takers if we tried to sell our houses, anyway?
This despite what else Dad told me earlier, that since the shooting, he can’t leave on RV trips, a perk of early retirement, without worrying that someone in the neighborhood might be watching him and then, after he’s gone, climb through a window.
Which leads me to believe that something more than affordability keeps us here, despite our fear that this place we’ve called home for so long might never bounce back. Maybe we’re clinging to the way it used to be. Maybe we’re just stubborn. Or maybe it’s the feeling that if we were to give up on this corner of Indianapolis, where my life began, and where my father helped raise his only son, it might finally be beyond hope.
Some photos by Tony Valainis
This article appeared in the March 2013 issue.