A suburban safari

David Hoppe

Editors note: This week we present a trio of stories exploring suburban sprawl (David Hoppe's "Parallel Universe"), the logging of our Indiana forests (Laura McPhee's "The Forest or the Trees?") and the majesty of our urban tree population (Jim Walker's "Urban Forest"). As a publication that prints its product on 100 percent recycled paper whenever that paper stock is available, we are committed to preserving trees - and thus our environment.

Few publications in this area agree.

If you love trees, encourage your favorite local publications to get smart and move to 100 percent recycled paper. More information on our recycled content exists on the Table of Contents page every single week. Consumer demand could ensure the availability of recycled paper.

There's a new product called "Soup at Hand," a portable soup by Campbell's. It comes in a container designed to fit in most car cup holders. That's handy because the number of Americans eating meals in their cars is huge. According to the Culinary Institute of America, 19 percent of meals in this country are consumed in automobiles. There's a new Saab that offers a refrigerated glove compartment, and experts say that built-in microwaves aren't far behind.

These factoids twirl through my head as I try to turn left from Meridian Street to 96th at lunchtime on a Friday afternoon. I'm on my way north, headed, in fact, for a sit-down lunch in Zionsville. But first I have to navigate my way through the automotive bottleneck that's formed at the mouth of the McDonald's drive-in on the corner. There are so many cars rolling in and out of McDonald's drive-thru that a police officer has been assigned to stand in the middle of 96th Street and direct traffic. It's the kind of scene you'd expect to see outside a massive church on Sunday morning, or by the RCA Dome on game day.

The cop holds up his hand for me to stop. I watch as one car after another, their passengers rummaging through paper sacks filled with fast food, pulls out in front of me. At a certain point, the cop sees I'm not interested in getting a Big Mac and waves me through.

As I head west toward the Boone County line for the purpose of better familiarizing myself with the suburban world that exists north of the Indianapolis city limits, I'm thinking about all the people who are eating in their cars. Cars, I realize, are a big part of this story. The suburbs that I intend to explore are incomprehensible without them. In the suburbs, people don't just commute to and from work in their cars, they drive everywhere - to shop, eat out, for kids' activities, to go see a film. A lot of suburban time is necessarily spent in cars, covering distances at upwards of $3 a gallon. That's why so many of the cars you see aren't even cars - they're small trucks, extensions, really, of the home and office.

A line of soups packaged to fit in a car's cup holder? Without suburbs those soups would still be where they belong: in cans.

No there there

I grew up in a suburb northwest of Chicago called Mt. Prospect. When my parents bought their house in 1950, there was a marsh in back and a large cornfield at the end of the street. The Realtor who sold them the place gestured toward the sun setting over the golden tassels and assured my folks that this was the way it would always be. Right. Within five years there were a lot of other houses where that marsh used to be. Five years after that there was a high school athletic field where the corn had grown.

But, as picturesque as that country scene appeared, it wasn't the reason my parents left the city. No, they moved to Mt. Prospect (which, by the way, did not feature a mountain, or anything resembling one) for many of the same reasons that people are attracted to suburbs today. Even though living there would mean my dad had to drive an hour and a half each way to work each day, my folks wanted their own house and yard in a place considered friendly to kids. And they especially liked the schools.

In retrospect, Mt. Prospect delivered on most of what it promised my parents. They were able to pay off their mortgage in a reasonable amount of time and I received a good education in the public schools. The town itself, though, left something to be desired. As Gertrude Stein so famously said, there was no there there. Most of my friends fantasized about getting out and heading for cities where life was deeper, darker and more adventuresome. Once we graduated from high school, that is what a lot of us did.

So, on the occasion of my 20th high school reunion, I found it interesting to discover that the great majority of my old schoolmates, rather than putting down stakes in Chicago or any of a number of other American cities, had migrated back, if not to Mt. Prospect, to one of the suburbs nearby.

Not only that: In the process of driving to the reunion I had the Twilight Zone experience of stopping at a red light within a 10-minute walk of the house where I spent my childhood and came of age but didn't recognize the place for the teeming density of the traffic and all the new construction.

I tell this story by way of admitting that I, too, am a suburbanite. The ways of these places are not entirely foreign to me. I understand that, when it comes right down to it, most people live in suburbs because they like them.

Indianapolis: The super-suburb

The funny thing about Indianapolis is that, for a city its size, it feels like a suburb most of the time. I call it a super-suburb. In a sense, you have the best of urban and suburban worlds. There's a real downtown with some history to it, something you won't find in suburbia. But the town's essentially residential character provides a welcome antidote to the unrelieved crowding and constant demands on attention common to bigger, more truly urban environments. Some city lovers find this boring to the point of exasperation. For anyone with a suburban background, this is Indy's saving grace. "It's easy to get around," we say as a kind of shorthand (with apologies to the city's professional cheerleaders) for: This is a better place to live than it is to visit.

This quality of life, though, only makes the spectacle of rampant suburban sprawl around Indianapolis more confounding. Granted, the city has real problems with its public schools. Property taxes are going up. And there are certain neighborhoods that need a lot of work. There's nothing here, though, that couldn't be fixed if a fraction of the resources being lavished on the suburbs found their way, instead, to the inner city.

Then there's the traffic. At the entrance to the Clay Terrace shopping center, I see a driver almost broadside father-and-son bicyclists who have the right of way. A few minutes later, I see another pair of cyclists trying to get across a frantically busy multilane intersection. They remind me of gulls flying into a stiff wind. Why bother with the stress of this gridlock when you can live in the city and ride your bike to work?

And wouldn't you rather live in a place where the trees are taller than your roofline?

For thousands of people, the answer is no. For these folks, 86th Street is the south side of town.

The Rolls and the lemonade stand

The first words I hear spoken in Zionsville are between a customer and the proprietor of a handsome new fine and rare bookshop. The customer wants to know if the shopkeeper has any books on Richard Nixon.

Later, Gerry Musich, the owner of the shop, tells me he moved his business to Zionsville a year ago from the Meridian Kessler neighborhood. He was attracted to Zionsville's antiques scene. No wonder, given that Zionsville has done all it can to cultivate an antique charm. Musich, whose shop is at the north end of the main street, says he likes Zionsville, he just worries that he may be a little too far up the street for foot traffic.

On this hot summer afternoon, pedestrians are scarce. The few in evidence are markedly well-dressed women who look like they've just stepped out of a Talbot's catalogue.

There's a Bentley dealer at the other end of the street. A Rolls Corniche is up on a lift in the garage. Outside, kids are selling lemonade; the Dairy Queen next door is plugging Dream Pies. Several man-size bronze fountains rest on a grassy lot across the way. They feature cherubs, dolphins and goddesses, and would be just the thing to decorate the front lawn of some well-heeled drug dealer. The price tag on one reads $25,000.

View from the picture window

In 1980, the United States census found that more than 40 percent of Americans lived in suburbs, a higher proportion of the population than lived in rural areas or in cities. Of the nation's 25 largest cities, 18 lost population in the three decades after 1950. As Kenneth T. Jackson wrote in his history of suburbia, Crabgrass Frontier, "Meanwhile, suburbia has become the quintessential physical achievement of the United States; it is perhaps more representative of its culture than big cars, tall buildings or professional football. Suburbia symbolizes the fullest, most unadulterated embodiment of contemporary culture; it is a manifestation of such fundamental characteristics of American society as conspicuous consumption, a reliance upon the private automobile, upward mobility, the separation of the family into nuclear units, the widening division between work and leisure and a tendency toward racial and economic exclusivity."

Jackson's unadulterated embodiment of contemporary culture is rampant in Hamilton County. Earth-moving vehicles seem almost as ubiquitous as cars. I find it's hard to drive a mile without seeing a building site, someplace where the trees have been uprooted and the land cleared down to black dirt and clay. It's not unusual to find lengths of concrete pipe, like the backbones of prehistoric creatures, lining ditches along the roads, waiting to carry away the wastes of new residents. For a lot of people in these parts, new construction is likely to be a part of what they see out their picture windows for some time to come.

Next to pharmaceuticals, new home construction may be the biggest industry in Central Indiana. Over the past five years, the Indianapolis metro area has been adding 12,500 to 15,000 new homes per year, a rate that the National Association of Realtors calls "phenomenal." Columbus, Ohio, which has a similar population, has been adding just over 10,000 homes over the same period.

Driving from west to east, toward Carmel and beyond that, to Fishers, I pass the entrances to one housing development after another. Their names - Stonewick, Brook Manor, Bradford Place, Woodland Springs, Eden Glen - become a verbal blur. They're not really place names so much as brand markers, like the logos embroidered on the fronts of polo shirts.

It's become common for developers here to observe that the local landscape offers no obstacles to the building of new houses. No mountains or bodies of water to get in the way. The same was true for the farmers who found this landscape a fertile place for crops and livestock. They cleared the trees and got down to business. Now that farming has become a losing proposition for many families, the land is ready for this next, suburban stage of development. Corn gives way to condos.

From bedroom to livingroom

"Bedroom community" used to be another way of saying suburb. It described an assumed relationship between the place where people lived - where they slept - and where they worked. According to this formulation, the city was the suburb's reason for being. It was the center for business and jobs. The suburb was the place where you went to get away from the rat race. Dick Van Dyke wrote jokes for a living in Manhattan, but every night he went home to Mary Tyler Moore in New Rochelle.

Suburbanites were commuters.

But in our suburbs it's getting harder to tell what the relationship is between places like Carmel, Fishers and Noblesville and the city. At 4 o'clock in the afternoon, the roads are jammed with cars because we don't have commuter trains or buses. So here I am, stuck on Allisonville Road. I am thinking about the virtues of public transportation, but is anybody else? Although committees have been formed and plans put forward, there seems little political will to get anything done.

On the contrary, towns like Carmel and Noblesville appear to be doing all they can to be self-sufficient. They want their people living and working in one place. The goal appears to be the creation of a parallel universe.

In Noblesville, they're building a 3,100-acre "corporate campus." In Carmel, they don't call it the "Town Center," it's the "City Center," thanks very much. And there's an empty lot the size of a city block where the new Performing Arts Center is going to be. That's interesting, because of all the things you can find in the suburbs - from great sushi to plastic surgery - the one thing that is barely visible is art.

Sure, there are loads of shops and galleries where one can buy decorative stuff. But the arts in these places appear to be an afterthought. Although Hamilton boasts of being the sixth most affluent county in America, this collective wealth has yet to translate into anything other than self-consciously nostalgic public architecture. If that should change, however, will the people who live in the suburbs have another reason to venture south of the Wild Oats natural foods market in Nora?

Repo Man

As I'm driving east on 131st Street, I see a tow truck with a flatbed trailer emerge from one of the tract developments along the way. A Lexus SUV is strapped to the trailer. The first thought that comes to my mind: It's the Repo Man.

Median household income in Hamilton County is reportedly $70,000. That's why the upscale home furnishings chain Crate & Barrel chose to put its first Indianapolis-area store in the Fashion Mall on 86th Street instead of downtown, where the median income for the metro area is $45,574. Indeed, it's hard to drive through the heart of Hamilton County the way I'm doing now and not exclaim at the size, the numbers and the opulence of many of the homes one passes. There are so many of them, incredulity sets in. Where, one asks, is all this money coming from?

According to Mildred Wilkins, I should be skeptical about what I'm seeing.

Wilkins is a mortgage counselor and the brains behind a Web site called HomeOwnershipMatters.com. While real estate developers and builders have been crowing about the suburban housing market, Wilkins calls it "dire." She tells me to get off the main thoroughfares and drive through some of the developments I see. She promises I'll find a lot of vacancies.

By the third quarter of 2002, Indiana had the highest foreclosure rate in the country. According to the National Association of Realtors, from 1990 to 2000, Indiana had almost twice the number of first-time home buyers found in the rest of the country. In 2001, 25 percent of these folks used FHA government loans to get into their houses. FHA loans enable people who may have credit problems to obtain mortgage financing. A high number of FHA loans in a given place indicates a high probability for foreclosures. In 1997, 13 percent of mortgage loans in Hamilton County were FHA. That number had doubled, to 26 percent, by 2001.

Square footage and good schools

Like so much else in the Village of West Clay, Broccoli Bill's delicatessen looks, well, perfect. Fresh produce is lovingly presented on a bed of crushed ice. Food stuffs, snacks and gourmet treats from around the world are stacked on elegant floor-to-ceiling shelves. Bill, a ruggedly handsome and friendly fellow who looks like he's just stepped off the 18th green, makes me a really first-class sandwich.

This afternoon it seems that little girls comprise most of Bill's trade. They arrive in groups of two or three or four, sun-splashed and giggling. They select soft drinks and chips and then their moms pack them into SUVs and drive them the two or so blocks back to the swimming pool where they came from.

Exemplifying many of the principles of the "New Urbanism," the Village of West Clay aims to offer its residents a lifestyle based on custom-designed residences, pedestrian walkability and neighborliness. As West Clay's developer, Brenwick, puts it on their Web site: "There was a time when you could send your kids on a quick errand to the shop around the corner. When the neighborhood was a safe and enlivening place for people of all ages. When there was a playground in the park at the end of the street. When privacy and neighborliness could exist side by side. When neighbors visited with one another from the front porch. When the place where you lived was more than just a house. That time has come again, in the Village of West Clay."

But on this day, at least, the only people I see on the street, apart from a middle-aged woman standing on her tip toes and trying to see in through the window of a show house, are the predominantly Hispanic construction workers who are speaking Spanish to one another and hard at work on new residences. Otherwise, the Village of West Clay is rather like a movie set, an impression underscored by finding that one of the few businesses that has set up shop here is Helen Wells, the modeling agency.

It would be easy to take a poke at West Clay's artifice, the streets with names like Horseferry Road and Rhettsbury. But what would be the point? As suburbs go, it differs only by degree. The abiding reality is that there is something here that speaks to many of us. Square footage and good schools. The lure of the new and the conviction, born of life lived in a continuous present, that whether it's West Clay or Fairgreen Trace, it's good enough for now. When we feel like it, we'll move.

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