In Indianapolis, the most prominent example of a widespread urban infill project is Fall Creek Place on the Near Northside, in which, within the past decade, the City of Indianapolis used a HUD grant to transform an economically devastated, almost completely vacated neighborhood (once nicknamed “Dodge City” for its notorious crime rate) by filling it with residences, largely echoing the existing urban character of that portion of the city. Locally and nationally regarded as a successful urban revitalization initiative,
The focus of this posting, however, is not on
Scattered throughout Herron-
At this point, such stairs embody much of the character of the Herron-Morton neighborhood. They are the “missing teeth” of a neighborhood restoring itself through a general fidelity to the original architectural vernacular, with a few interesting deviations, as this photo gallery can attest. The inclusion of some overtly contemporary architectural styles suggests that existing residents (and their neighborhood association) do not aggressively enforce the historic district status here at Herron-Morton. My suspicion is that, as the neighborhood becomes more intact, its residents will push more vigorously for greater cohesion in design standards, but until all the existing houses are restored, the prevailing sentiment seems to be that any infill respectful of the urban grid pattern, with garages or carriage houses tucked in the back alley, makes for a desirable newcomer.
Returning to those stairs to nowhere, they offer a strong portal for an investigation into what comprises true urbanism in a previously devastated neighborhood that is trying to recover. In some cases, they lead to a shaggy, largely overgrown lots with relatively mature trees:
The stairs are difficult to see without my identification through the red circle. Ostensibly the home here was demolished quite some time ago, judging from the size of a trees growing precisely where the home’s foundation might have once stood. And it is highly unlikely that owners would have planted the smaller tree (more like an overgrown shrub) so close to the stairs that it impinges upon movement. Whether it is the neighbor in the large Queen Anne to its left who has planted trees and maintained the lawn to a relative degree, this property would appear rife with development potential. Here are two other strong examples:
Again, the size of trees suggests that demolition predates the 1986 historic district designation. The stairs to nowhere simply reinforce the regularity of lot lines and the possibility for continued urban infill.
But crumbling old concrete stairways do not leave a compelling enough thumbprint to convince everyone to abide by the earlier standards of urban living. Urban residential parcels in Midwestern cities tend to emphasize depth at the expense of width, with a prevailing compactness that does not appeal to many of today’s homebuyers, as manifested by archetypes that have exploded in suburban growth everywhere. Homes in the cities are close together; curb cuts for driveways are non-existent since garages are in back alleys (if they exist at all); and building footprints often occupy well over fifty percent of a parcel, leaving little room for spacious front or back yards. This impels some residents to take advantage of the versatility of vacant lots in neighborhoods such as Herron-Morton:
The original home clearly didn’t have such a sprawling side yard, but the owners bought it and built the lush garden here. Such a gesture is good for reducing the potential visual blight induced by vacant lots, but from the perspective of a broader urbanity, it doesn’t offer much benefit. It would appear that the owners of this house prefer the patina and stylistic gestures of a formerly classy turn of the century neighborhood, but they have created a buffer to mitigate the characteristics of city living that they dislike. The wrought-iron gate is handsome and possibly justifiable (it’s still a neighborhood of slightly above average crime) and the garden is well-maintained, but if everyone made this decision with an adjacent vacant lot, would Herron-Morton of the 21st century come close to honoring the heritage of the Herron-Morton of the 19th? Few urban neighborhoods today are as densely populated as they were a century ago, even without blight and disinvestment. The milieu supporting Herron-Morton has changed: fertility rates are lower, households are smaller, and nearly all of these homes used to shelter families of at least six. Today it is frequently a childless couple putting the down payment for a mortgage one of these stately homes. When they buy a house and the adjacent vacant lot, they are diluting the urban character one would ostensibly think they are seeking in making the decision to live in a neighborhood just a mile north of downtown.
Yet this phenomenon happens all across the country, sometimes expedited through municipal policy. After Hurricane Katrina, the City of
Like the stairways to nowhere in Herron-Morton Place, the pavement is often all that remains, though flat New Orleans usually just relies on a walkway instead of a stairway to the front porch. What should be obvious is that the demand to live in Lakeview post-Katrina pales in comparison to its desirability before the storm. Many of the most badly damaged parts of metro New Orleans such as Lakeview suffer the “Jack-o’-lantern effect”, in which intermittent homes on a block have been fully restored and the rest of the block (sometimes over 50%) remains abandoned or vacant. Replacement homes are often jarring. To the far left in the photo below is a house with a massing and height that seems out of character with the neighborhood. Sure, it's big, but it's also been elevated on piers of over 12 feet to protect it in the event of a future potential flood.
After Katrina, the City of New Orleans initiated the Lot Next Door Program, which gives adjacent property owners with a homestead exemption the first opportunity to purchase NORA-owned properties at fair market value, if the property is to the left or rear. The owners may then develop the property as they see fit. First sales began earlier this year, and the most common result is a widespread imitation of what has taken place only in select locations at
Whichever homeowner has the title on the fenced-in space now boasts a side yard where he or she once had a neighbor, thereby de-densifying the area when this technique is applied in aggregate. While I am not fond of this in either
Planners and neighborhood activists will most likely have to find a negotiable middle ground in addressing urban infill. Forbidding people from using adjacent lots as expanded yards may hinder demand for the old neighborhood, thereby slowing its development. Yet if every vacant lot becomes a private recreational playfield, the historic integrity becomes significantly compromised and it often loses the qualities that make the neighborhood quintessentially urban. Ideally Herron-Morton will find its niche as a sufficiently large urban-loving demographic sees those stairs to nowhere and seeks to replicate the closeness of the homes, using infill capabilities to retain the original lot dimensions, with only a few compromises. In this regard, the stairs to nowhere serve as the optimal reminders to those prospective buyers of what the neighborhood once was, and what it hopefully soon again will be.