Things were different a year ago, the last time I toured the south extension to the Monon Trail. Most of it was buried in underbrush, trash and industrial waste. But Ray Irvin, administrator of Indy Parks Greenways, still found a way to maneuver his city-issue van along the not-so-scenic route.
"There"s nothing here - just a nasty, old, polluted corridor that we"ll be able to shape into something wonderful." -Ray Irvin
Irvin started that trip, with me in the passenger seat, by steering the van onto the Monon at Broad Ripple Avenue. We rolled past puzzled people on bikes and roller blades to the extension"s start just south of Fall Creek. As we cruised through the Northside, Irvin touted the success of the trail that first opened there in 1994 - pointing to apartments with recently-built back porches overlooking the Monon as if it were a river. He talked about the boom of businesses and communities glomming onto the Monon name. The success of the trail connecting Carmel to the Indiana State Fairgrounds was obvious. This old railroad line that once hauled Abraham Lincoln"s dead body through Indiana at 5 miles per hour bustled with life. At least, that is, until we reached 52nd Street. At that point, the yuppies in spandex shorts began thinning out. While the occasional biker still sped past, Irvin had little trouble keeping his van clear of pedestrians. By the time we neared the fairgrounds, the trail was empty despite blue skies and comfortable temperatures. But the trail"s end also loomed just ahead, at Fall Creek"s crumbling trestle crossing. Irvin took a detour around Fall Creek and picked up the route on the other side. From Sutherland Avenue to 10th Street, he alternated between driving over rough patches of the trail and skirting it on narrow streets. Between 30th and 25th streets, we stopped at a patch of tall grass with a tangle of woods called "The Bulge." This former train-switching yard was notoriously crime-ridden and cluttered with cast-off couches and kitchen appliances. Each time workers hauled the garbage away, more would appear the next morning, Irvin said. The corridor didn"t look much better as companies had dumped piles of asphalt, scrap metal and other unsightly waste on the city"s property. Still, Irvin spoke excitedly about the possibilities, the way the trail could bring the suburbs together with the heart of the city. Unlike Irvin"s original plans for the trail on the Northside, the south extension proposal met no resistance from a public worried about bad elements coming into the neighborhood. "Down here, nobody wanted it left the way it is," Irvin said. "There"s nothing here - just a nasty, old, polluted corridor that we"ll be able to shape into something wonderful." And it was just a matter of time before his plans and dreams became a reality. What a difference a year makes Fast forward to this month. When Irvin and I took our drive down the Monon last year, the target date for completion of the south extension was this fall. So September seemed like the right time for a preview walk. I begin my 3-mile hike in the parking lot of Pastor Brown"s Famous Barbeque on 38th Street. Picking up the trail there at the southwest corner of the fairgrounds, I run into a few serious bike riders right away. One, a Carmel resident who doesn"t want to share his name, rides 12 miles down the Monon twice a week. He"s excited about extending his trip all the way to downtown. "I"ve had no problems on the trail," he says. "A dog chased me one day, but that"s about it." He is the last person I see for a while as I approach the trestle crossing Fall Creek and consider the ways to reach the other side. One option is walking along Fall Creek Parkway, crossing the bridge at 38th Street and then cutting back to the trail on the other side. The other is climbing over the red "danger" sign on the fence sealing off the opening to the bridge, and walking its rotten ties, 100 feet above the shallow creek, to the other side. That, for whatever reason, seems like the better choice. Fortunately, workers have riveted plywood boards to the railroad ties and I gingerly rely on these, pausing to catch a view of the green water below just as a blue heron springs from the bank and flies off down the creek"s curving corridor. Irvin says this bridge, built in 1890, has proven to be a real pain in the project"s rear. And it will likely hold up connecting the south corridor to the rest of the trail until spring. Two sets of engineers originally looked at the bridge and missed $180,000 in additional repairs necessary to make it safe for the public. Most of this extra cost will be covered by grants. "The contractors came out to jack up the bridge and saw even bigger problems than we ever imagined," Irvin says. "I equate it to remodeling a bathroom in an old house. It might be easier to build a new one than pulling all of the tile and plaster off the walls just to find the wallboard is rotten underneath." As I walk through wilted yellow wildflowers just south of the creek, I catch a whiff of another problem holding up the trail project. Unlucky workers are down in a gaping hole connecting sewer lines. With this going on, trail builders can"t get equipment in to link the clearing south of Southerland to the bridge. "This was just one of those things that happen," Irvin says. "We"re better off with this happening now than interrupting the trail once it"s open. They"re trying to get done as quick as possible." South of the sewer project, heavy machinery has leveled the ground next to the line of track. The dirt is pulverized into a powder that rises like smoke with every step. Cement trailheads with connections for emergency call boxes are in place at intersections like the one at Southerland. There, an abandoned basketball court - hoops bent and weeds growing in the pavement"s cracks - dominates the gray landscape. As the trail runs close to Dr. A.J. Brown Avenue, a covey of doves burst from the trail into nearby trees. Cicadas buzz electrically as I near the John McWooley Lumber Company at 30th Street. The thin strip of land behind buildings along the trail holds everything from stacks of car bumpers to tangled mounds of dead trees. At The Bulge, I see empty beer cans and broken couches as a school bus drops off children who live half a block away. Long a blighted, industrial brownfield, The Bulge is slated to become a golf course and driving range connected with nearby Douglas Park. This area in the heart of the city is ripe with grasshoppers but strangely short on humans. For a few blocks the only people I see are men moving planks at the lumberyard. I hear the scream of shredding metal coming from somewhere beyond a chainlink fence. But crossing hectic 24th Street in the shadow of the Steel House, I meet Elaine Roney and her sister Diane Webster, out for an afternoon walk on the broken sidewalks that pass through their neighborhood. The sisters often enjoy "good old lazy" walks together. Both are excited about the trail"s impending arrival closer to home. "We were just talking about how that will be really nice to get something like that in our area," Roney says. "And it will be nice to see it patrolled, too." Roney, who walks regularly to stay in shape, hopes business people in the central city will put in break areas for snacks and drinks like she enjoys visiting on the Northside. "It would be nice to get a hotdog or something along the way," she says. "Well, how are you going to lose weight when you stop to get a hotdog?" her sister jokes. At 23rd Street, Roger Long and Roberto Castaneda team up to finish leveling ground along the trail with a bulldozer. This is their sixth week working on the project with Southern-Indiana-based Yardberry contracting. Long, an Indianapolis resident, likes the idea of the Monon Trail. He"s pretty sure the south extension will be a success. "They"re already starting to use it. We"ve had bicyclists and joggers and everybody else come down it," he says, his face covered in black dust. "We"ve even had a couple of cars come down it." A few weeks ago, Castaneda climbed down from his bulldozer and took a ride on a bike he found ditched in the brush by the bridge over Fall Creek. "He rode it about 200 feet and quit," Long says. "Too much work," Castaneda adds with a smile. By putting in the effort to clear the land and open it up, Long feels the corridor will be safer for the people who live nearby. "It"s going to help the Police Department. You can see now. It was just woods and weeds," he says. "Now you can see what"s going on along here." Castaneda isn"t quite so positive. "It"s a dirty trail," he says of the dumping and litter through the area. "We"re going to clean it up. But then it"s going to be a dirty trail again." Either way, neither man will feel a particular connection to the trail they"ve helped blaze for the city once the project is finished. "I"ve worked in construction for 35 years. I"ve built big stuff and little stuff," Long says. "When you"re in this kind of business, when the job"s done you just forget about it and go to the next one." Past 22nd Street, three skinny beagles bark from their makeshift junkyard kennel. The land between here and 20th Street is full of bulky industrial scrap - rusty rolls of barbed wire, metal drums, a car with no wheels, a tan minivan with all the windows busted out, which appears to be someone"s home. G&G Metal Spinners stretches from 19th Street to 17th Street. The company, part of this neighborhood since 1961, was concerned about the Monon extension cutting close to its loading docks. For years, G&G"s drivers used the abandoned corridor to angle trucks to the warehouse at 17th Street. And company President Ken Young knew semis wouldn"t mix well with bikers and walkers. He talked with Irvin and found a way to reengineer the trail to keep it clear of the truck"s turning radius. "[Irvin] came over here and put himself in our shoes. He didn"t have to do that. He was very flexible, moving the whole thing back 6 feet," Young says from his office at the plant. "That gave us the clearance we needed to get in and out of here." And that turned Young"s concern for the trail"s impact on his business into excitement for the project and its potential for improving the neighborhood. "It"s something, walking by, you wouldn"t even notice," he says of the change in the trail"s route. "But it allowed us to keep getting in and out. [Irvin] has done a great job working with local businesses to keep us here." Quickly, the trail moves from an industrial landscape to the residential fringes of the Old Northside. Here, the Monon has prompted developers to build and rehab homes - some now selling for more than $300,000 - on the burnt-out block between 16th Street and the I-65 overpass, which has already been improved by a soccer park. Young can barely believe the changes he"s watched unfold from his office a block away. "I"m dumbfounded, just like anybody else who"s lived in this neighborhood," he says. "Can you imagine, in such a short period of time, that people would make this kind of investment? They say development follows the Monon Trail. It happened in Broad Ripple." But moving south into the shadows under the overpass, I am quickly reminded this is still the dirty city. The trail passes an eerie living-room scene with a broken hide-away sofa twisted in front of a smashed television set. Remnants of peoples" lives are scattered on the ground: a gospel cassette tape, a funeral program, a stack of Investors Business Daily newspapers, a Daisy Days reader from School 27, part of a black wig, blueprints for an office building. Downtown connection Overhead, cars and trucks click and click as they cross the connection that joins the bridges. Down here, I read sad graffiti and walk towards the city skyline that opens up as the trail moves from darkness to its end at 10th Street. I do what Irvin and city planners hope and expect others will do - walk a block southwest to the Massachusetts Avenue arts district. There, Jack Green stands outside of the Photography Studio and Gallery he runs with his wife, Joan, at 811 Massachusetts Ave. "It"s going to connect communities, isn"t it?" Jack says of the Monon"s south addition. Joan isn"t so sure the connection is going to be a boost for business. "People are going to be running by or riding on their bikes. I don"t know how many of them are going to want to bother with stopping to shop," she says. "They have their miles to do, they don"t have time to stop at Joan and Jack"s." But her husband is more optimistic. "A lot of it depends on who uses the trail," Jack says. "It"s a good idea that could make a difference." A week after my walk, I meet Ray Irvin at 10th Street. This place marks the end of the 10-mile Monon project that started when Irvin went to work for the city in 1989. Really, it started when he was a city-county councilman determined to clean up our green spaces and make this a better place to live. "When I was on the City-County Council, I was always an advocate for nature and the environment. I had an opportunity to write the laws that created the Greenway System," Irvin says. "Then I left elected office to work for the city to build it." While there"s no more Monon to develop in Marion County, it could extend all the way to Chicago, he says. But Irvin has more trails here at home to worry about. And he"ll keep driving his van through the rough parts of town until they become paved and landscaped for people to enjoy. "Back in 1988, I really took a close look at the city and saw how bad things were getting. I said then that I was going to try to build these Greenways back up," says Irvin, who grew up in wild areas like Montana and Alaska with a wildlife biologist for a father. "I"ve dedicated my life to that ever since." The city has become a better place for Irvin"s efforts. "The Greenway system has been able to reshape communities in positive ways, helping them become the kind of communities that people want to live in," Irvin says. "The same, we hope, will be true for the south Monon. There are so many positive things happening that can really lead to some great changes in this neighborhood." For more information, log on to www.indygreenways.org.