20 years: Irvington, then and now 

By Susan Guyett

Twenty years ago, Darrin Strain's article on Irvington, entitled "A grand comeback?," explored an east side neighborhood poised for a grand comeback. A look at the historic neighborhood today finds some of the problems it faced 20 years ago still exist, but intrepid Irvingtonians continue to move ahead with plans for the future while protecting the neighborhood's past.

From the time Jacob Julian and Sylvester Johnson purchased the 300 or so acres they named Irvington in the 1870s, the Eastside neighborhood has managed to keep one foot in the past and one in the future.

Over the years that balancing act has required vigilance and compromise and led to more than a few arguments among neighbors.

Neighborhood activists come from varied backgrounds. Some third- or fourth-generation Irvingtonians like the status quo. Newcomers include young families attracted to Irvington for the older, reasonably priced homes. Architect Don Flick fell in love with Irvington while he was courting his wife, Lisa, who grew up there.

Flick, who will become president of the Irvington Historical Society in May, was born in Jasper. He discovered he relished the small-town feel Irvington offers just a few miles from downtown Indianapolis.

Irvington's well-documented history includes the distinction of being home to Butler University from 1875 to 1928. It's also famous for having a covenant on the books that bans the sale of alcohol. Notable residents included writers Kin Hubbard and newspaperman Hilton U. Brown. A few famous-for-the-wrong reasons folks, such as KKK leader D. C. Stevenson, mass murderer H. H. Holmes and John Dillinger are also associated with Irvington.

A period of decline in the 1960s served as a wake-up call.

Volunteers mobilized to tackle major projects, including upgrading the Bona Thompson Memorial Center and re-roofing historic Benton House. It was the systematic demolition of historic buildings along East Washington Street that led to a years-long effort to designate parts of Irvington as a protected historic area in 2006.

The neighborhood's business district took a giant step forward with the creation of the Irvington Development Organization (IDO) in 2002. The group located grant money and attracted other donations to lure new enterprises and help existing businesses. A more than a million dollar project that breaks ground in 2011 will make a portion of Irvington's main drag, East Washington St., more inviting. A tree-lined median will slow traffic down, planters will be in bloom and pedestrians will find benches for resting and improved lighting. A second million dollar initiative aimed at expanding that streetscape is also in the planning stages.

Neighborhood leaders, it turns out, don't want to shake Irvington's historical roots. Instead, they search for a path to bring the past in sync with modern times. "There's a ton of diversity in Irvington," said City County Councilman Ben Hunter. "That's what makes it great."

Problem is, not everyone agrees on what defines progress.

Almost everyone supported closing the 71-room Indy East Motel, but that battle started in 2006 and took until January 2009 to end. You'll find few who support the plasma center but that business was problematic 20 years ago as well and it's not moving out.

The proposal to open a Starbucks at the corner of East Washington and Audubon is an example of how Irvington can have a love/hate relationship with change. IDO director Amandula Henry said it took nearly three years to get that project approved.

The notion of a Starbucks situated across the street from Dufour's restaurant and a few blocks from the independently owned Lazy Daze Coffee House, pitted neighbor against neighbor. Those opposed feared the national franchise would hurt local businesses.

The neighborhood's latest commercial debate is over a proposed Walgreens at 10th & Arlington. Neighbors who live near the site fear another busy pharmacy will be noisy and an overall disturbance. Others are worried additional problems will arise if the drug store gets approval to sell alcohol.

For some people in Irvington, it always goes back to the booze. The local covenant banning alcohol sales is still on the books -- when people choose to look at the books.

Restaurateur John Robertson, who owns The Legend Classic Irvington Cafe at 5614 East Washington Street and heads the Association of Irvington Merchants, moved to Irvington about 19 years ago with no intention of going into the restaurant business. The Legend opened the in 2003. "I was tired of not having a place to eat in Irvington," he said.

Aware of the covenant, Robertson's original operation didn't sell alcohol. He consciously waited about a year before applying for a permit that lets him serve wine and beer so people could get used to the eatery. There was some opposition, citing the covenant, but the permits went through.

Fears that Irvington could become another Broad Ripple are unfounded, Robertson says. When folks encouraged him, to expand to include a bar area so folks could stop by just to have a drink, he still closed early. No one seems to head to Irvington to get drunk.

Mick McGrath, a co-owner of Jockamo Upper Crust Pizza, at 5646 East Washington St., said he probably would have found another location if they had not been allowed to sell wine and beer.

A simmering conversation in the neighborhood has been that the impact of historic designation is starting to sink in. Some have complained about needing approval by the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission for exterior changes. Others, who have been misled with false information before making changes, are screaming foul.

Former Irvington Community Council president Brian Mack calls the transition "relatively smooth but not without a few challenges."

Both Mack and Flick agree that better communication about the process of making changes and the procedure for working with the commission will correct those problems.

The IDO's Henry thinks some residents may have signed the petition thinking the historic designation would stop bad things from happening in the neighborhood. "They might not have realized it would stop them from doing things to their homes."

State Sen. Pat Miller introduced and then pulled a bill that would have altered the appeal process for residents in these designated zones. Hunter, who supports historic preservation, likes the idea of studying the possibility of adding another appeal level since residents have nowhere to go after the local commission's decision.

Those who support the process as it stands now are concerned another level of appeal, say to the Metropolitan Development Committee, would put the decision of maintaining historic integrity on the shoulders of people who are unfamiliar and inexperienced with the issues involved, according to Mack.

Since the IHCP started it has denied less than 1 percent of the 11,000 cases that came before it, Mack said, so those impacted are a small number of applicants.

Taking time to study the issue is good for everyone concerned, Mack says. "That includes legislators as well as residents."


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