Stairways as an unanswered question.

Urban infill at its essence tends to be one of the less controversial methods of revitalization. I say “at its essence” because the act of replacing vacant land with occupied developments may still arouse concern about compatibility with existing architectural character, depletion of green space, ability of existing infrastructure to support it, and the potential to encourage such far-reaching gentrification that original residents are forced out from escalating housing prices. But urban infill at its purest form replaces nothing with something, promoting economic efficiency when less land is necessary for provision of basic services than in low-density settlements. City leaders also appreciate infill because residential and commercial infill can only help to boost the tax base and increase revenue, and it suggests a renewed interest in land that may have been vacant for years prior, simply because of lack of demand in developing it.

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, Fall Creek Place did not arouse considerable remonstrances of gentrification because so much of the neighborhood consisted of vacant lots (demolished homes) and abandoned structures prior to the initiative. Though the end result has gentrified the area, the project was effectively couched in language of urban infill because it so carefully avoided and attempted to minimize the displacement sometimes associated with gentrification.

The focus of this posting, however, is not on Fall Creek Place—I will reserve that for another essay. Just south of Fall Creek Place is another neighborhood experiencing an economic recovery—a gentrification, if you will, though it is largely taking place pointillistically and organically, through individuals investing in old homes, without a City-sponsored revitalization initiative. Formerly a fashionable residential retreat at the turn of the 19th century, Herron-Morton Place suffered extensive disinvestment as long ago as the Depression, first due to upper middle class flight, so that many of the Victorian and Tutor Revivals could no longer sell and owners had to subdivide them into rentals. As the neighborhood continued to struggle in the 1950s, many homes were abandoned and suffered the wrecking ball; only in 1986 was the area listed on the National Register of Historic Places, at a time when few of the remaining homes were in good repair and many were boarded up. Herron-Morton has revitalized reasonably well since then: over half of the homes have been restored in loving detail, with attractive landscaping carefully painted trim. By most measurements, however, it has a long way to go before it can claim a full return to its days of prosperity, and the best evidence is in the stairs:

Scattered throughout Herron-Norton Place (and much of this section of Northside Indianapolis, in fact) are the last remnants of the homes that used to be. The home has long been demolished, and all that remains are the stairs that once led from the sidewalk to the front porch; apparently the demolition crew deemed it too costly to rip out the pavement here. Metaphorically, these stairs to nothing remind us of the families of Indianapolis’ gilded age, a network of affluence rent apart after decades of racial and economic turmoil, which is slowly patching itself together into a markedly different milieu. Literally, the stairs point out vacant lots and excellent opportunities for urban infill.

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 New Orleans confronted a vast swath of unrecoverable properties that the original owners, in abandoning the city, happily sold to the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA), an agency that existed long before Katrina to eliminate and prevent slums and blight through expropriation of real property. Though the city was no stranger to abandonment and blighted neighborhoods before the storm, after Katrina some previously economically healthy areas such as Lakeview (which received anywhere from 8 to 12 feet of floodwater) faced a glut of moldy structures which have either sat rotting or have been torn down. Recent photographs, courtesy of Michael Duplantier, show the formerly densely-settled Lakeview neighborhood four years after the storm:

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 Herron-Morton Place: landowners purchase the adjacent property, clean it up, and then expand it into a yard or additional off-street parking. In short, they landowners are bringing suburban lot dimensions and characteristics to a formerly densely settled, urban neighborhood. Here’s an example where of a homeowner who has apparently claimed the adjacent lot where a house formerly stood:

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 New Orleans or Indianapolis, I withhold condemnation of this act because I don’t live in the area and most likely cannot fully respect the variety of problems that vacant lots (or particularly vacant houses) pose: dumping sites, enticements for vermin, and criminal hideouts are among the first that come to mind. The example cited in the Times-Picayune article listed above is characteristic of only some of the beneficiaries of the Lot Next Door program, since the homeowners in this instance were dealing with neighboring blight and vacancies for years prior to the storm. But the rationale for buying vacant lots in New Orleans—across neighborhoods both rich and poor—overwhelmingly favors using the new property to expand a yard instead of building and selling a new house on that parcel. Thus, even committed urban residents seem to want to bring a piece of suburbia with them. This of course, is not the case in every urban setting: Boston’s Beacon Hill would lose most of its marketability if every other townhome was demolished to build a side yard, and even in relatively low density cities like Indianapolis, an intact historic neighborhood such as Lockerbie Square thrives on having few vacant lots and small yards.

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.

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