Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Walking in Suburbia: Indianapolis Steps Out, Slowly

This past summer I took up residence at my parent’s home in the suburbs of Indianapolis so as to put the home up for sale after my father’s recent death and my mother’s failing health from Alzheimer’s. I spent my high school years at their odd wooded two acre residence just off of one of the city’s main east west streets—71st. More of a road than an actual street, it served for years as major throughway for the first suburbs of Indianapolis’ Northeastside along with the many farms that were still very much a part of the landscape when I lived there. But now, some 35 years later, where there were cows and corn, there are mega churches, business ‘centers,’ strip malls, fake lakes, and a proliferation of track housing, and with all of this, of course, more traffic along 71st,, and something else—people walking down the street.  
Churchgoer walking on 71st (literally) 

Almost every day I see them, walking to catch the bus at a stop up the road at a newish business complex, men in briefcases, teens in backpacks staring at their cells, women going to work with their uniforms on, and often a group of boys dribbling basketballs to a court down the street behind a large Methodist Church. One Sunday along with the teams of cyclist who now buzz by in their fluorescent gear, I saw a woman in high heels with her purse and church clothes trying to make it the same church.   

I’m happy to see them but remember from my own days as a teenager before I had a car that 71st wasn’t the safest road to walk or jog on, let alone ride a bike. And it’s no better today, in fact it’s much worse with the high volume of traffic, with half of the people trying to text or talk to someone, not to mention the steady stream of the usual lawn care and service trucks that race around trying to make deadlines.  The street is only 22 feet wide, including berm.  In most stretches there is no berm at all, just a drop off into a grassy pitched culvert (that fills with water and becomes impassible for days after a good rain). Other places, there are fences of thicket that branch almost into the road, forcing walkers to cross to the other side or risk walking in the road. On a bike, I can tell you, it’s a nightmare.  

Woman walking along 71st, notice the complete lack of berm on left.
When I watch the walkers morning and evening, I wonder what it’s going to be like for them during the winter when it will be dark and snow and ice make not only driving hazardous but walking a nightmare.  I marvel how they navigate, though, moving onto the road and then back on to the grass, using drive ways and lawns where they can.  When I see them, I have an image of my mother during that awful period when the slow deterioration of her brain made her feel as if she were lost and desperate, at times convinced she needed to walk home or so angry at losing her independence that she often took off and walked until she was found by the police or my panicked father. I wonder just how close she came from being struck by a car as she drifted along 71st.   

For many reasons, citizens of suburbs are coming around to this problem as are politicians. And 71st is earmarked for a paved path, but the little colored flags come and go and still there are no signs of any backhoes or city workers, and it’s been now a two years. Why? Homeowners are balking, I was told by my late father, who wasn’t so happy about it himself, until he learned it would be on the other side of the road.

There’s still a stigma to walking in the suburbs, if not a subtle discouragement. Oh, they are fine within a set off housing development of curving streets and cul-de-sacs, but not necessarily outside these sealed off zones.  Here, sidewalks invite unwanted outsiders. The word “pedestrian” has a pejorative connotation because of its historical association to those of lower status.  In some wealthy suburbs people are routinely stopped by police and queried about where they’re going and most importantly where they live. Sidewalks cost too much is the usual argument given by politicians and taxpayers alike. Those who live in subdivisions might enjoy them for their children and weekend joggers, but there’s no need to have them for anyone else. A sidewalk is a unifier, a truly public pathway and free space open to all, and for that they are quite radical. 

Indianapolis has an award-winning bike and walking path called the Monon Trail. It stretches some 15 miles, connecting to other trails in the city and then out to an extension in the city of Carmel, as it follows the old Indianapolis-Chicago Monon Rail line.  The trail is wildly successful and has become trendy, as it passes through some of the city’s most sought after neighborhoods from its revitalized down town along the White River out to its northern suburbs. But it wasn’t the case at first, according to its champions like a friend of mine who uses it to cruise to work each day on his bike. The city of Carmel wasn’t all that excited that a trail would run from the city out though its exclusive neighborhoods.  But now the city has a handsome greenway that uses the trail as a commons where people can enjoy recreation, meet friends, have dinner, hang out, or take those last walks with parents before they no longer can remember how to move one foot in front of the other, as I did last year in Carmel with my mother holding on to my arm.

It’s very encouraging, yet for those who don’t live in and around these converted train to trail urban parks, one wonders when and if cities will find the will and funds to offer the same to neighborhoods where not only are trails needed for recreational and social cohesion, but are a necessity for many every day who need to ride a bike or walk to catch a bus to get to and from work or buy food. 
Walkway along 62nd St in Broad Ripple, Indianapolis

Change comes slowly. But a movement is a finally a foot here in the city famous for its sports and high class facilities for athletes, but now, too, for its awareness of the everyday needs of everyday athletes who live in all sectors of the circle city.