Bil Browning

Photos: Indianapolis' forgotten east side

Filed By Bil Browning | June 20, 2010 2:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Indianapolis, photography, street photos, urban blight

I've mentioned before that our neighborhood in Indianapolis isn't the nicest. We bought into an area that was gentrifying, but the downward economic spiral really hit this area hard. We've had a surge in prostitution in our area, the vacant house across the street was torn down to keep the Indianapolis_urban_blight3.jpgmeth-heads out, and just last weekend a drug dealer was chased down the street and tased within a few feet of our front porch.

The east side of Indianapolis is dying a slow and horrible death; it's chock full of closed shopfronts, abandoned houses, and potholes. The only thriving businesses are fast food joints, cigarette stores, and the Mexican restaurants and groceries that have sprung up like mushrooms after a forest rain.

While the sections closer to downtown (including our neighborhood) has a large African-American population, the further east you drive the more the mix changes to predominantly poor, uneducated Appalachian whites and newly immigrated Mexican workers. These are not the people who will be staying in Indy's fancy new five star hotel, going to our new convention center, or sitting in box seats at our new football stadium; these are the people who will be working at those facilities - usually for low wages and without any union representation.

Washington Street, which runs right through the center of Indianapolis, was one of Indy's major thoroughfares. A streetcar ran up and down the length of it carrying workers and shoppers from what was then the suburbs into the downtown area; you can still see the tracks, paved over in the middle of the street, in some sections of the road that have worn away from poor maintenance.

The city has ran radio ads for years touting Indianapolis_urban_blight7.jpg"I am Washington Street" to try and lure tourists and citizens downtown; the ad mentions the zoo, shopping, and other middle class interests that are all located in the middle of the city. Step outside of that small area though and things aren't nearly as rosy. No one is going to make a commercial encouraging visitors to come enjoy the east side's urban blight and dying retail.

Since Indianapolis is such a spread out city, we have to drive to go out to eat; there are no restaurants within walking distance of our home and some of the neighborhood streets don't have sidewalks. (Hell, some of them are still brick streets that have never been paved!)

As we drive down Washington Street going east, I often feel sad for the city and, especially, for the street that was Indy's crown jewel. What was once a thriving portion of the metropolitan area - including Indiana's first indoor mall - now feels abandoned, forgotten and, almost as if it is waiting for someone or something to give it new purpose and a new life.

Even at 8pm on a Saturday night, the streets are mostly empty, neglected, and lonely. And so, we ate dinner at a small Mexican restaurant and drove home quietly after - only stopping so I could buy smokes from a dilapidated convenience store where a hooker was begging with the clerk not to throw her out so she could enjoy the air conditioning just a little longer.

Indianapolis has forgotten it's east side. And so I took some random photos last night while we drove to dinner, because someone needs to remember before it's too late.


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Regan DuCasse | June 20, 2010 2:48 PM

Hmmm...I'm struck by the demographics you mentioned who are poorer and 'newly immigrated Mexican WORKERS'.

Although there is so much blame to go around when it comes to corporate greed in our country, I think it's fair to wonder why the poorer masses from Mexico aren't demanding economic justice from THEIR President.
To have every Mexican president since Carter (when the first amnesty was debated in my memory), there has been no end to what that government demands from US, but they have no shame in how bald faced they are with the unspoken subtexted that they fuck over their own.
And are cruel to any immigrants that come to Mexico.

But when it's all said and done, it's inappropriate to just keep a large stream of people coming into this country as if there are no limits to housing, medical care, jobs and other support structures that Americans will need in the meantime until things reach a level of efficient absorption.

Why does anyone think we're a bottomless well of infrastructure for ANOTHER country that chooses to squander and abuse it's own wealth of commodities?

When Calderon showed up here complaining about SB1070 in AZ, our entire government capitulated.
MY answer would have been: when the fuck are YOU going to take care of YOUR OWN people, and shame of you for not doing it!
Now get the fuck out and take responsibility for them. WE'VE DONE ENOUGH, and a lot more than YOU are willing to.
YOU give them what they need!
Obviously, there are people in our country who are struggling terribly and it seems very cruel to make them compete for jobs, and all the rest when there isn't as much likelihood an immigrant (legal or not) will find a job either.


I don't want to distract from Bil's haunting series of photos but it feels necessary to clarify a key point: It's simplistic to paint the issue of immigration as one where the Mexican governnment is somehow to blame. If anything, I would look at the wider context of neoliberalism and geopolitics, most recently the effect of NAFTA on Mexico's economy. To give you one example: I know of a Mexican textile businessman who operated a small but successful shop of his own. After NAFTA, faced with relentless competition and other burdens, he found himself having to migrate to make a minimal living.

Furthermore, I would admonish you to remember that the U.S would be nowhere without the apparently limitless supply of cheap and exploited labour that it squeezes out of Mexico. Without the undocumented labourers in the orange groves, you'd be paying a lot, lot more for your daily glass of orange juice (and the same is true for pretty much every food item you and millions of other Americans consume at such ridiculously low prices).

Btw, the other charge often hurled around is that Mexico is responsible for a massive drug industry - which completely ignores the more pressing issue, that the U.S. is the biggest drug *consumer* in the world.

If you're looking for a primer on the effects of NAFTA, here's a useful link:

Immigration is a complex issue that requires complex discussions. Let's have them (but not in this thread), instead of engaging in the usual reductive blame games.

twinkie1cat | June 21, 2010 5:37 PM

It always bothers me when the gay community does not stand up for the human rights of other minority groups. IfI don't have them, you don't have them. The priority should be equal rights for everyone, regardless of where they were born or how they got here. Being anti undocumented workers seems to make the GLBT community as hypocritical as a gay Republican. Just as white, gay and Jewish people embraced civil rights for African-Americans in the 1960s, so should today's gay community embrace immigrants, support their freedom, and cease complaining about them. Prop 8 in California would not have become law if the Hispanics in California had not listened to the Catholic priests and voted for it. We need their support.

Those pictures spark so many memories for me. I grew up in an east side exurb of Indianapolis, and seeing these pictures instantly call up memories of the streets, the buildings that used to be there, the businesses that used to be vibrant and profitable.

Driving from Washington and Meridian out past German Church just makes me sad. I can point to each building and say "That used to be," each time with wistful nostalgia. The memories, much like the buildings, are now in disrepair, replaced with check cashing and cash for gold schemes. The word "that place is" never comes out of my mouth on the East side anymore, save for the two or three restaurants that have weathered the storm.

Thanks for sharing this. The East Side is one of Indianapolis's sadder stories, in my opinion.

Chris Daley | June 21, 2010 10:49 AM

Like Austen, I grew up on that side of town as well (WCHS '89). Moving back last year, I drove east on Washington from Shadeland and couldn't process what had happened during the 15+ years I was gone.

It may seem odd to be wistful about the deterioration of the strip mall nirvana that this section of town had become in the '80s/early '90s, but I really got sad to see growing patches of what looked like bombed out sections of retail space block after block.

I've just scratched the surface of the community economic development work that is being done in Indy since I got back, but all reports are that the Boner Center (not pronounced like it is amusingly spelled unfortunately) is doing some good work a little further west (around Irvington or so).

Bil, are you hooked in with any neighborhood revitalization efforts? I know too often those efforts can be problematic but I do feel like there is nearly inexhaustible opportunity to do some really interesting, progressive development on the Eastside. Whether that is possible given the current economic picture or Indiana's (and to a lesser degree Indianapolis's) small government mentality is another question.


A. J. Lopp | June 21, 2010 2:39 PM

Everything you say about the East Side, Bil, is true. (Is Jockamo's Pizza still in business?)

But just so out-of-towners don't get their signals crossed, I'd like to clarify that, in contrast to the "due East" side of Indy, the Far Northeast side of Indianapolis is vibrant if not booming. Anywhere from Binford Blvd/I-69 and couterclockwise along the north side of the I-465 loop is considered prime real estate --- not to mention that Carmel, the suburb that lies due north, is the Beverly Hills of the Indy Metro Area.

By the way, I believe the mall that you mentioned recently became a huge data storage center, showing that things are not totally bleek --- some businesses do find east Indy a good place to locate; however cyber-businesses such as this do almost nothing to create local jobs.

Can't believe what I read here--when was the last time A.J. actually visited parts of the east side? Jockamo is not only "still in business" but thriving, and is next to two more established restaurants (Dufours and the Legend). More and more good things are happening in parts of the east side. The Steer-In is nearly always filled with local residents who are young, vibrant, and all the things you seem to have written off. Don't sell our side short, folks, and don't believe what you read in the comments from northsiders who clearly don't make it down to our parts very often.

I'd beg to differ, Gob.

Jockamo's is still in business and, as you say, is next door to two other restaurants. They're also in Irvington. While Indianapolis surrounds Irvington, they do a lot of their own planning, streetscaping, etc and have long been the only gentrified area of the east side.

As for the Steer Inn, I live blocks away and I'd also differ about how busy they are. Do they have a good breakfast, lunch and dinner crowd? Yup. But at other parts of the day the only cars you see in the parking lot are the 20 or so cop cars from where all the local cops hang out there instead of actually patrolling our streets and lowering our crime. I know this because I eat there at least once a week. It's also, for what it's worth, not on Washington Street. It's on Michigan - two major arterial streets north.

So, while I can't speak for AJ's length of time since a visit, I can speak for my experiences with the very establishments you mention.

I'm not a northsider. I live here.

twinkie 1 cat | June 21, 2010 6:26 PM

If the gay people in East Indianapolis will become URBAN PIONEERS, buy houses for pennies in the blighted areas and fix them up and get their friends to do the same, these neighborhoods can be re-vitalized. That is what happened in innercity Atlanta, neighborhood by neighborhood, rundown community after community rebuilt into some of the nicest areas in town. Often it would start with one or two couples and then there would be 5 and then 20. they start festivals and have a street dance where EVERYONE is invited. Then they open a nice convenience store, a bar, a restaurant. After the gays come openminded young couples. Then come the families, white, black, mixed, Hispanic. It takes time but a small neighborhood can revitalize in a couple years, a big one 10. The prostitutes and dope boys go away. It has happened all over Atlanta, starting with Midtown in the 1970s and heading Southeast. Jane Fonda lives in a community that was once mostly rooming houses and hustler boys. It just takes a few gay couples with two incomes who don't like the suburbs and, hopefully, with some remodeling skills. But if you don't have the last, I am sure some of those poor Mexicans would be delighted to help at reasonable prices.

A. J. Lopp | June 22, 2010 3:43 PM
We bought into an area that was gentrifying, but the downward economic spiral really hit this area hard. ...

As Bil pointed out, such an outlook is a bit Pollyanna-esque in today's economy --- it's very difficult for a gay couple to re-hab an old house when one is looking for work and the other is working two jobs, or both this or both that, and the household income barely covers the mortgage and the grocery bill.

In Indiana, unlike San Francisco or a more southern city such as Atlanta, one of the first things you must do when acquiring an older home is make it energy efficient ... the gingerbread above the front porch does little to increase property value if the house leaks heat as fast as the furnace can burn.

Bil, you are wrong. The Steer-In is on 10th Street at Emerson. Only a true eastsider knows this.