â€œThe apple thatâ€™s fresh is ripe to the core,
and I rot over time and Iâ€™m not anymore.â€ â€“Sloan & Pelling
Iâ€™m probably a day late and a dollar short on noticing the time-scroll feature available with Google Street View. Perhaps itâ€™s been there for monthsâ€”years even. I just figured it out its full potential few weeks ago. Most people might ponder what the point of it is: after all, if Google has provided a streetscape photo from 2015, why would we still need one from way back in 2011? But for those of us who use it on an almost daily basis, it represents a remarkable tool, particularly in demonstrating urban transformation over time. And a relatively short amount of time too, considering that Google only pioneered Street View in 2007.
And now, we can view those Street View stillsÂ from way-back-when up to last month.
The little clock in the upper-left corner (circled in purple) is the trigger for a time warp. The timeline on at the bottom of the thumbnail photo shows the full range of available imagery, with the white dots across the gray bar indicating where they fit in the 2007-to-present trajectory. Indianapolis was among the first cities featured in Street View, with the first round of photos dating from the summer of 2007 and released in December of that year.
Itâ€™s a remarkable chronicle, especially in fast-changing areas that the Googlemobile visits frequentlyâ€”like Fountain Square. Hereâ€™s that same vantage point in 2011, when the Cultural Trail was in the thick of construction.
And hereâ€™s a perspective in 2007, before this leg of the Trail had begun.
Meander through the local roads of Fountain Square and itâ€™s equally revelatory: while a few of the most dilapidated houses in this old neighborhood faced the wrecking ball, a considerably higher number have enjoyed a sensitive rehabilitation. In some cases, contemporary infill has replaced an older home, or it has occupied a previously long-vacant lot. As this rediscovered neighborhood grows in attractiveness, we can expect to see more redevelopment in successive Google Street View snapshots: a play-by-play account of gentrification.
But far more interesting, in my opinion, is the more checkered evolution of the Bates-Hendricks neighborhood to the southwest. Lacking a commercial corridor like Virginia Avenue, it hasnâ€™t enjoyed the immediate appeal of Fountain Square or Fletcher Place. But its proximity to downtownâ€”particularly the Eli Lilly campusâ€”makes it a prime new candidate for a similar wave of redevelopment and revitalization. At the same time though, the aging housing stock combined with the moderate incomes of most of the households living there also rendered it vulnerable to a wave of foreclosures during the peak of the economic crisis from 2008 to 2011. Lacking the widespread redevelopment interest that Fountain Square has enjoyed, Bates-Hendricks suffered considerable abandonment over the last seven or eight years. So the neighborhoodâ€™s current condition is a mixed bag.
Google Street Viewâ€™s time scroll confirms this. Walk the streets, look at the homes from the most recent Google pics, then compare them to four years ago, and eight years ago. While many homes are enjoying a restoration, a seemingly equally number are going vacant. The City of Indianapolis has initiated demolition proceedings on some of the most blighted properties in the neighborhoodâ€”something it only began doing in the last five years or so (presumably because Bates-Hendricks did not have too many vacant properties as recently as the mid-2000s). A few enterprising developersâ€”mostly nonprofit groupsâ€”have reclaimed some of the vacant lots and built new homes respectful of the urban architectural vernacular. But, since 2008, Iâ€™d wager that the number of vacant lots in the neighborhood has grown, not shrunk. Only in the last two years or so has Bates-Hendricks reached any sort of tipping point, where the curiosity of middle-class investors outstrips the outmigration of long-term working-class homeowners. A recent Indianapolis Business Journal article recognized Bates-Hendricks as the likely â€œnext big thingâ€ in revitalization. Just two or three years prior, such an article would smack of Pollyannaism. But the escalating number of restored homes suggests that the IBJ may be right. Still, the sheer volume of housing in disrepairâ€”or completely vacantâ€”means that, despite the fact that its worst days are probably behind it, Bates-Hendricks still has some hurdles to climb.
Applying the time scroll along East Street effectively shows everything thatâ€™s right and wrong about whatâ€™s happening in the neighborhood right now. Iâ€™m sure that the leadership at Southeast Neighborhood Development (SEND) and Bates-Hendircks Neighborhood Association are intimately aware of the inventory of vacant or dilapidated houses. For the rest of us who are into this kind of thing, it only takes 10 minutes traipsing around, panning a full 360 degrees, then applying the time scroll to see the changesâ€”equal parts abandonment and reinvestment.
One street corner particularly demonstrates how in flux the neighborhood appears at this moment. The southeast corner of East Street and Sanders Street tells it all. Here it is in the most recent Street View:
Obviously a new arrival on the scene, and thanks to the fact that a micromanaging historic preservation council hasnâ€™t paralyzed Bates-Hendricks (yet), developers donâ€™t have to worry about architectural conformity. In fact, I reviewed these apartmentsâ€”known as the East Street Flatsâ€”at Urban Indy two years ago, just before they opened.
I liked them then, and I still think theyâ€™re pretty greatâ€”courtesy of SEND. But itâ€™s at least somewhat bittersweet, demonstrated when we use Google Street View to take a step or two back in time. In 2011, the site of East Street Flats was just a vacant lot, along with two vacant twin houses.
Not much to see here. If, in July 2011, those two homes in the background werenâ€™t yet slated for demolition, they soon would be. But, now letâ€™s go back to the dawn of Google Street View: one of those low-res images from 2007.
Right at the corner of Sanders and East was a little mixed-use building, probably nearly a century old, with a storefront on the ground floor and one or two apartments above it. Itâ€™s no great beauty, and it may have been in unsalvageable condition, though the Street View would suggest otherwise. It goes with out saying to most people who read this blog that this building represented a legitimate contributor to the landscape of Bates-Hendricks with an opportunity for pedestrian oriented retail. And the neighborhood suffers from a dearth of similarly styled buildings.
The East Street Flats that replaced this structure are pretty great: probably higher concentration of residential units than the structures that stretched across these parcels back in 2007. And certainly an improvement over 2011, when the parcels accommodated exactly zero households. But that two-story mixed-use building is virtually impossible to recreate in this day and age. For most of the 20th century, Euclidean zoning, which enforced a strict separation of uses, rendered it impossible. Now people are more sympathetic to it, with most large cities (including Indyâ€¦at least sooner or later) endorsing varying degrees form-based zoning that doesnâ€™t mandate separation of uses. Also, most boards of zoning appeals are willing to grant variances to allow such structures in the urban neighborhoods where outmoded zoning regulations still prohibit them. Nonetheless, these modest mixed-use structures rarely get built, because the developers canâ€™t devise a pro forma analysis that generates a return on their investment: small mixed-use buildings these days still need space for off-street parking all too often, and developers canâ€™t risk the likelihood that the storefront area may take a few years to find a tenant. Besides, jumping through the hoops necessary to get a variance is time consuming.
So Bates-Hendricks must depend upon the few commercial structures that remain, most of which dot various corners along East Street. And those little commercial buildings are what elevates it to a pre-war, mixed-use environmentâ€”a real neighborhood where people can walk from their homes to shops. Thatâ€™s exactly the character that has propelled Fountain Square, and the absence of such commercial may hold Bates-Hendricks back. One can only hope that other developers in the future can find the sweet spot that makes commercial buildings work along East Street (or anywhere else). A corner cafÃ© seems humble, but it is the exact sort of business that Bates-Hendricks needs to intrigue investors, which, in turn, leads to other storefrontsâ€¦the incremental improvements that may help it cast aside its murky outlook once and for all.