The Man Behind the Monon: Ray Irvin

A chat with the founding director of the Greenways Foundation.

People who use the Monon ponder many things during their straight-line workouts, but how the greenway came to be isn’t one of them. We asked Ray Irvin, its original visionary, to walk (or jog) us through it.

IM: What is really your idea?

RI: I was on the City Council in 1988 and on the council’s park commission. Under [mayor Bill] Hudnut, Indy had commissioned a study about getting the city “fit for tomorrow” and found that Indy didn’t have enough parks to meet its quality-of-life goal. Quality of life is really important when you start doing any envisioning of community and growth and what you want to be.

Indy is unique—we have a whole series of rivers and streams that run out in all directions, from Eagle Creek to Fall Creek to Pleasant Run. Over the years, Indy had declared all of these corridors floodways and floodplains, which diminishes the property next to it. I submitted that we re-designate them as “linear parks” and connect them. I used to fly over the city all the time and look at these possible connections. We identified 14 corridors and 62 parks along them that we could connect with trails. If we could develop a plan to manage them and not let trash collect along them, connect them and improve their native plants and habitats, they actually do become parks. That was how we came to have the greenway system. Literally with a stroke of a pen we corrected a deficit in Hudnut’s quality of life report, without buying a square foot.

IM: How about the Monon specifically?

RI: We needed to start cleaning up the White River. We had dumped millions of gallons of raw sewage from the north side into river, and we had a major sewer system fail by Marott Park [north of Broad Ripple]. The EPA came in and mandated we put in an intercepted sewer system. It was going to cost fortunes to dig up Meridian or a major street to put the 48-inch system under it. About that time, the Monon Railroad was going out of business. We paid about $1.5 million for 10.5 miles of corridor. Within 90 days, we had already started to build the new sewer system [under the railbed]. It saved the city hundreds of millions of dollars and years of inconvenience of construction on major thoroughfares.


IM: So there’s a sewer system underneath the Monon Trail?

RI: Yes, and a lot of fiberoptics.


IM: It’s hard to believe now, but people didn’t want the Monon to be built.

RI: We had tremendous fights with the NIMBYs–“Not in My Backyard” types. I used to go out and meet and talk to everyone. The lumber yard at about the 2200 block, they were terrified. They’d been there for over 100 years. They thought the trail would come through and mess up our operations. I said, let’s figure this out. Let’s look around the country and see what other places have done to accommodate those issues. [We added] 18 tons of reinforced concrete for their driveway across the trail. We have flashing lights. We inform users they are coming into an industrial area. And it’s been a wonderful partnership. We’ve never had any problem.


IM: It’s really amazing how pure the Monon has remained, in terms of advertising on the trail itself, corporate sponsorships, planned activities. It’s kind of untouched in that sense.

RI: You can’t over-program. It was always kind of a contention within the Parks department. I was never overly crazy about my greenways program being part of Indy Parks. They want to program everything. I just want public space open to you when you have the time to use it.


IM: Why aren’t there ice cream carts on the trail?

RI: I never wanted vendor carts on the Monon. They’re a disaster. This came up years ago, and I fought them tooth and nail.


IM: Why?

RI: We wanted to encourage investment in businesses along the trails and greenways. If you allow carts on the Monon, it’s a seasonal business; the businesses there year-round are going to have some of their profits bled off. They pay property taxes, they hire people. Vendor carts do little of that. Then next thing is, mom stops for ice cream, kids stop. You have a traffic jam. You have litter. We don’t have trash cans all along the trail. We have them at strategic places.

I’ve also fought advertising on the trail. You are advertised to from the minute you get up in the morning until you go to bed at night. There needs to be a place in life where you can ride your bike, jog, take a walk, and think about your life and your issues and not have someone in your face about what kind of shoes you should be wearing or bike you should be on. I’m not against free enterprise, but there’s an appropriate place. I see these greenways as offering a community healthy component, not only for physical health, not mental health. It has come up lots of times. “If we could just put up a sign, on shoes, we’ll give you some money.” To hell with them. No.


IM: Your philosophies have been carried on since you retired.

RI: The Monon is absolutely exactly as we planned it originally. We pushed hard to do that.  Unfortunately since I left the city, [the parks] department was kind of abandoned and it has fallen into disrepair. But at least you’re going to have a cricket stadium.


IM: Before you retired, you designed a plan for a statewide greenways system, right?

RI: Yes. It’s called Hoosiers on the Move. We’re looking to connect all major communities and counties with a trail system. Northern Indiana is doing incredible stuff. Southern Indiana is. Fort Wayne is. Terre Haute. The plan is still moving, and the DNR is supporting it. But the Monon was the beginning.

Photo courtesy Ray Irvin

This article appeared as a web-exclusive companion piece to our June 2013 issue’s cover feature package on the Monon Trail.