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From 71st St. to the Circle and back — walking Indy

The promise and problems of Indy's 'Open Road'

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Last summer, I was sitting in what was my old bedroom, staring out the window, distracted from what I was writing by a man with a briefcase walking down 71st Street. I watched him stop to let cars go by and then continue on his way to the bus stop. Every day, morning and evening, I saw him, as well as teenagers with basketballs, a young Black woman with a Kroger t-shirt, and other young people no doubt also heading to work or school along a road never designed for human beings who might want or need to walk along it. When I last lived here in my teens in the late '70s, only those with a flat tire or people peddling the Lord or poor souls with dementia would you find walking on 71st Street.

But since I moved back to Indy to help my sisters care for my mother, everywhere I go — now, of course in a car — I see people making paths on the side of the road or walking in the streets: young, old, Black, white, women with strollers, Hispanic guys on bikes.

So the next time I saw this guy walking by my parents' home, I got off on my bike to talk to him. "I walk as much as I can," he told me. "Everywhere I've lived I've walked, New York, Miami, and now Indianapolis. It's how I deal with stress of my job." But isn't that dangerous? He rolled his eyes. "I've been hit more than once — in Miami, and once here." Last year, in fact, he'd been hospitalized and pointed to his leg. "The police can't do anything, they say, because, like the guy who hit me, they never stop."

Then this spring, I didn't see him anymore. But what I did see were city workers and engineers building something for the long term health of me and my neighbors and the citizens of this city: a six foot wide, two mile long path along 71st to Binford Ave. And so when it was completed I decided to christen it, by exploring on foot a city I never really knew nor ever believed I'd once again call home.

WILLIAM DENTON RAY
  • William Denton Ray

Leaving home

I began on the day of the lunar eclipse, thinking that I could use whatever pull the planetary forces could provide to make my pilgrimage to Monument Circle and back before nightfall. I knew that now with the new 71st trail I could essentially walk almost all the way to the Circle on one continuous trail thanks to the city's master plan to connect its greenways both through and eventually around the city. But on my return, I would zigzag along streets in neighborhoods that suffer from years of neglect and account for most of the city's alarming number of pedestrian fatalities, 82 in fact, from 2010 to 2014.

By eight-thirty I finally made it out the door and onto the trail, crossing 71st and heading west, stopping only once before Shadeland, noticing two rows of morning doves sunning themselves on the electrical wires running over a church parking lot — a good omen.

Walking under I-465, I had to pause just to be reminded of just how close I live to this rumbling monster that rings this city, spinning in some stretches upwards to 200,000 vehicles per day including tens of thousands of trucks.

Turning at Johnson Road, I walked along tidy sidewalks through Avalon Hills to reach Skiles Test Nature Preserve, a corner of wildness along 465 with a real dirt trail that winds down through woodlands and a meadow of goldenrod into Fall Creek gorge. In a car you don't notice much the variation in topography, but walking you can imagine how Fall Creek was formed, sculpting out this valley as ice melt surged, tunneling under the receding glaciers carrying rock and soil with it.

A trial links the nature preserve to the Fall Creek Greenway, and through the trees I saw a statuesque blue heron doing its best impression of a log sticking up out of a shadowy swamp. An African-American couple passed in serious conversation as they got in their morning exercise, though like almost everyone I met until the Monon, they made sure they caught my eyes to greet me.

To the east, the Greenway now extends into Fort Harrison State Park, where I've come so often in the past few years, walking alone or with my mother, before she no longer could walk. But today I was heading west, and strolled under the large old cottonwoods crawling with the annoying but brilliant scarlet poison ivy vines. Dads in their overly-stretched spandex buzzed by on their bikes, kindly if not a bit too loudly reminding me not only that they are "on my left" but also that they are clearly of another tribe of trail-user. There's tension here between walkers and cyclists as everywhere on urban trails. But except for those who believe they're in training for the Tour de France, most cyclists seemed aware that these trails are for all —wheelchair users, mothers with strollers, dog walkers, and the growing legions of baby-boomers. And this is one of the reasons why urban trails are so valuable, as they can remind us of the democratic spirit of cities Whitman sang about in his poem the Open Road: "You road I enter and look around! I believe you are not all that is here; I believe that much unseen is also here; here the profound lesson of reception, neither preference or denial . . ."

In my younger days, the route along Fall Creek up to 56th St. was pretty much a wild area with marshes that flooded in spring where you could see thousands of birds, but it was disparaged as a place that "gays" and dope-smoking teens hung out, as well as the those diehard dudes who didn't give a shit about anything except for drinking a few beers and catching catfish. So it was somewhat ironic to see that now there's an enclave with an artificial body of water—called Lake Charlevoix. Forgive me, but if you're going to erase a wetland crucial to the health of a river basin and the wildlife it supports, could you at least give it a name that bears some respect to the actual natural history that it replaced?

Obviously, my crankiness was a sign that I needed to get to my first planned stop — my father's favorite diner, Lincoln Pancake House off Emerson. But I could see a line at the door, so I settled for a croissant and double espresso at a Starbucks, and without even stopping was marching on through Wal-Mart's parking lot and around their little retention pond where a Hispanic family were setting up for a morning of fishing.

Under Emerson Ave., I passed a party of middle-aged cyclists, smiling broadly, as their tires crackled over the fat sycamore leaves. Here I found the City Parks Department restoring a strip of land along the trail giving native wildflowers room to flourish along with future oaks and cottonwoods. This not only adds to the beauty and buffers traffic but it creates a continuous habitat for plants and animals. Rewilding cities is not just for our pleasure and health but in some cases for the very survival of species that everywhere continue to lose precious habitat to agriculture and unchecked urban sprawl.

The demographics on the trail changed somewhat as I headed toward 38th Street. Now there were more people of color — a family biking, people fishing — as well as apartments across the river and those nondescript, concrete-block buildings housing small businesses that were so much a part of my Midwestern childhood; places where something was made or repaired or sold or all three.

At 38th Street, the river becomes off-limits and purposely disappears. This stretch is the outlet for storm water overflow from the city's sewers, which compromises the health of this part of the river during heavy rains. Not surprisingly, this is also one of the poorer areas of the city and, as I discovered, one of the most dangerous for pedestrians.

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Back in August, I spent an afternoon with an assessment team, comprised of the U.S. Dept. of Justice, the police and Public Health Departments and the YMCA, in an effort to study and develop a plan for the city to address pedestrian safety in parts of the city that suffer not only from a whole host of health problems from gun violence to inadequate sources of healthy and affordable food but also from pedestrian traffic accidents. The assessments are part of a tool designed by the Indy-based non-profit Health By Design. HBD works with cities and community organizations across the state to create safer neighborhoods and public spaces by advocating for better land use and transportation infrastructure to encourage physical activity and healthier lifestyles. Health By Design along with their partners discovered through studying police records that Marion County from 2010 to 2014 had 82 deaths attributed to auto accidents with pedestrians. And one of the locations of concern was right here on 38th Street.

I crossed over a railroad track and then the river, looking back down treeless 38th Street before finding my way back to the serene shade of the greenway, where I could see the red bridge, announcing that I'd made it to the Monon.

The traffic now is almost all bikers though there are a few runners and fewer exercise walkers (but almost no dogs). The Monon is the well-traveled trail in the city not to mention the Midwest, and one of the longest urban trails in the country. What can I say? It has changed the city — but to attract young people to this city, it's not nearly enough. The numbers of commuters are well below the average of other big cities. I'm partial to the sections that move through abandoned factories and what's left of Indy's old industrial areas and the efforts to repurpose buildings and enhance some of these neighborhoods. And I found myself marveling and completely alone under the massive sculptures of concrete and hope someday they will be just that with decades of unofficial art left from this age of the auto. But I probably won't be around to see it.

A few more hundred yards next to the thunderous traffic and I finally reached 10th Street and the city's celebrated Cultural Trail.

After a few blocks down Mass. Ave. following the inlaid brickwork, sleek aluminum amenities, artworks, and reminders of the generosity of the Glick family, I got lost somewhere as the trail disappeared between buildings, but there was Marilyn and Gene, so I knew where I was. Like the Monon, kudos to the city for creating another means to encourage walking and sew together the city's cultural institutions, IUPUI, and the blooming neighborhoods around its core.

Ceremoniously I walked around the Monument Circle, noting the buffaloes with water coming from their mouths and the black bears holding up the fountains, not to mention the awkward historical boast chiseled in pure Indiana limestone of how my Hoosier ancestors "Conquered the Indians." I can't help it but every time I think about this monument I think of that page in Breakfast of Champions that has left the literary world with one of the funniest images given to us by the city's most famous author that's not James Whitcomb Riley.

What I needed now was some serious food — with no option to drink alcohol, as I knew that after one microbrew I'd have to call someone to pick me up. The City Bistro let me sit outside and cool my feet off with their hose while I ate and stared at my map.

Turning back, I met a couple walking their dog and they were among the new generation who'd made the move to downtown. Semi-retired, they told me they walked everywhere and raved about what these trails have meant to them and the city.

It gets dangerous

Up 10th Street, back under 1-70 and the second half of my walk began. I'd planned to take another trail—Pogue's Run, a trail that when it's finished will link parts of this East Side neighborhood with the downtown. I tried to follow it as best as I could with my map but after shadowing the repurposed warehouses I cut back across the street to explore the actual namesake of the trail—Pogue's Creek, where I spied some mallards playing around in the water and decided to jump down and walk around. What a beautiful little wild place in the middle of a city.

The creek extends into Brookside Park, so I walked in this neighborhood in the rain, admiring an old stone bridge but quite aware that I was entering a part of the city that I'd never seen. It's odd to travel by foot in places where you've lived and known in one way or another for years and discover that they are as foreign as another country. A white guy walked out of his house with a big plate of red meat. A Black guy swept his porch with a little whisk broom. Walking brings with it an intimacy that you don't experience in the rushing of life in cars. Here, people's lives seemed somehow more exposed and more real. Many of the houses, though left in disrepair or abandoned, reminded me of the homes of my childhood and of the houses of my aunts and uncles and grandparents, who lived and worked in the factories and stores and shops of another Indiana that has been erased. And I felt somewhat emotional in a way I didn't expect.

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Then, cutting over on Rural Street, I was about to walk under a rusted viaduct when my eye spotted what looked like old tires painted pink, several of them on a small grassy slope with flag poles and a large ribbon made of bricks painted — of course — pink, too. A shrine to breast cancer! Across the street someone flew pink flags on a clothesline as well with more pink tires. I had to find out what this was and walked up to a black woman getting out of her car, who told me her neighbors had done it and she'd helped them as a way to remember her mother.

After that, I felt as if I'd found the shrine of my pilgrimage, and walked on down Mass Ave — but not the Mass Ave that everybody talks about. Across the railroad, I scanned the open space left from the bygone era of Indy's industrial past. Here and there, abandoned warehouses and lonely businesses stood in contrast against fields of goldenrod and weeds with stands of cottonwood returning the land to its wilder past. I walked up Roosevelt on a dirt path under electrical wires and old brick establishments, turned again and passed under 1-70, through a concrete cave, littered with debris with nests of old clothes no doubt used for makeshift beds by the homeless.

Then I cut down 25th with its array of small churches, barber shops, and hair salons and even more abandoned homes and sidewalks in disrepair. 25th ends at Sherman Ave where there is a strip mall and one of the few grocery stories in the area. I crossed at the light and unconsciously turned north not thinking that traffic from 25th could just drive on into the parking lot, and sure enough one did, as I pulled back just before being hit. How easily accidents can happen in these areas where little thought has gone into the nature of how a street is really used. Walking on down Sherman, a street with narrow sidewalks flush to the curb where four lanes of traffic rush by, I could see why it was another danger zone for pedestrians.

For several blocks, I followed a man walking ahead of me. When he turned on 32nd, I caught up with him. He had a small pack and was coming from work. His name was James Harris. He told me he walked all the time, as he didn't like to wait for the bus. When I asked about safety, he shrugged. "You have to be careful all the time, especially in winter, the snow and ice, it's not good. Better to use the bus."

When you walk all day on city streets, your perception slowly changes and what before were just trees or cars or old buildings now become defined and take on a life and history that you would have never noticed. And though I could see the neglect of these neighborhoods and the economic struggle of its residents, I saw home-made signage, arrangements of eclectic collections of pots and plants, gardens all on display — perhaps meant for those like me who might walk by. Along Sherman, I saw an exquisitely restored Chevy Impala painted apple green cruise by with its own mellow soundtrack and pull into Raybob's Tire Shop where immediately several guys came out to admire it. Just like the murals along the Monon, I was reminded that what makes cities vibrant is not necessarily the architecture of the grand buildings and homes of the wealthy, but the individual responses of people crafted out of what they have in the places where they live.

Back on 38th Street, I'd forgotten that it was once a grand boulevard with homes set back off this street once lined with maples and oaks. And yet, going by churches and homes turned into childcare facilities, there were no sidewalks that linked bus stops, so I followed in the footsteps of others who'd made pathways before me, wondering how people managed, older people who no doubt used buses to go to church in the winter.

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At last I reached Emerson, crossed with care as the pedestrian light wasn't working, wary of those who make their quick turns oblivious to pedestrians, and walked into the grass and sat down next to a CVS parking lot. For several minutes I just sat there, cross-legged, in something of a trance, as I watched the stream of traffic and looked out over the fried food joints and the gas stations into the tops of the trees and the sky over the city. It's as if I'd traveled as another creature the last few hours, and I felt like I'd been in a river and finally been beached by the twirling eddies and will of this geography. The city was once just trees, I thought, a forest with two rivers coming together, empty of humans. And I had this thought: it's not humans who hold history, It's the land.

I'd seen trash of course all day. You walk, you see trash. You notice patterns, products, and the odd scraps and lost fragments of lives—a birthday card from a dad to a son, music lyrics from a CD, balloons and kites in trees, a metal key punch, paperbacks, keys, playing cards, photos. Everything we have will almost all one day be trash.

Along Emerson, sidewalks were missing, or only on one side of this busy road, making people go from side to side. As Emerson winds down into the Fall Creek Valley, there are no sidewalks at all, and quite dangerous as there are steep drainage ditches on each side. I looked, looked again both ways, and began to trot across, just as a car came up the hill. A split second, and I'd have become one of the stats of Indy's precarious streets.

I was tired and now somewhat angry. Behind me, three adults were in a driveway talking and I turned to them and caught the African-American homeowner's eye: "Hey, you guys need sidewalks out here! I almost got hit!"

"Tell me about it!" he yelled back. "You got a petition, I'll sign it!"

I felt like each time I stopped to talk with someone I was propelled into the next conversation, the trail linking me from the grad student downtown who cited studies on Indy's trails to the black woman choking up about her mother with breast cancer to the guy walking home from work to this last young couple that I met on Fall Creek Trail. Fit and healthy, they told me they drove here two or three times a week. It was their thing to do, the young woman told me. "But why here?" I asked. Her partner, tall and lanky, leaned his head toward the river, making me look up into the sycamores one more time, "because of this."

Almost exactly 12 hours after I'd began my pilgrimage, I walked back up my parent's drive, found a beer in the fridge, and finally sat down at their kitchen table where I didn't get up for a very, very long time.


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