Documenting the rapidly changing built environment

Writing yesterday about the changes to my childhood neighborhood before I was born made me think about how much an intersection near my northwest Indianapolis home has changed in the 20 years I’ve lived near it.

The area surrounding 56th Street and Georgetown Road is filled today with shopping centers, gas stations, and modern suburban neighborhoods. But when I moved here in 1994, the area was mostly farmland with one area of concentrated shopping. In the years since, the farms sold out and everything else was built. To accommodate the extra traffic that followed, 56th Street was widened to four lanes and extra turn lanes were added on Georgetown Road. And then some of the original commercial buildings were razed and new ones were built. Three of the four corners feature different buildings from what was there when I moved here. Clearly, this intersection has got it going on. Further proof: It has become one of the most accident-prone intersections in the city.

I looked at the historic aerial images available at MapIndy to see how the area developed before I arrived. I was surprised to find that the biggest boom happened in the late 1980s and early 1990s, just before I arrived. I was even more surprised to find that Georgetown Road has existed only since the 1960s! I compiled some of the aerial photos into a short video that shows the dramatic changes. Take a look:

This exercise started me thinking about doing more documentary photography of the built environment. It can change so rapidly! It struck me that I can’t remember what the buildings on the northeast and southeast corners looked like before the current ones were built. They were both gas stations; I filled up my car at both of them. I remember only that they had just a couple of pumps apiece and cars always had to wait in line to fill up.

I’ve spent some time around this intersection when looking for subjects for my vintage cameras. This Marathon station stands on the northeast corner. I shot it in late 2013 with my Olympus Stylus.


A CVS stands right next door to the Marathon station. I shot its sign in 2008 with my Argus C3.


I shot some of the fast-food joints north of the CVS on the same trip. I was really shooting the cop cars, but because I hadn’t learned to move in close to my subject yet I got a lot of the surrounding context.

The cops gotta eat sometime

I had my Argus A2B in 2011 in my hand when I shot this Wendy’s sign. You can see the Boston Market’s sign, the CVS, and the Marathon station in the background of this southbound shot.

Boston Market lurking

While these aren’t strictly documentary photographs, they do help put together what Georgetown Road looks like. This strip hasn’t changed much since 2008. But it almost certainly will change, and then these could perhaps be a rare record of what the area once looked like. I wish I had been out here with my cameras before all this was built!

It’s not like anything along these roads is special – it’s just typical suburban architecture, common as pennies. But who knows what will happen here in 20 years? Will decay set in, making these photos a startling look at these buildings when they were sparkling new? Or will the area continue to prosper, driving redevelopment, making these photos a record of what used to be here? Either way, common architecture has a way of evolving. If my blog is still here in 20 years, someone might just stumble upon this page and exclaim with nostalgia, “I remember when Marathon stations all used to look like that!”

See also how the intersection of 86th St. and Michigan Road has changed. Go here.


11 responses to “Documenting the rapidly changing built environment”

  1. Annie Avatar

    I enjoy your stories like these. It makes me remember my own old neighborhood. There’s a huge mall there now (I believe the second largest in the US and #1 tourist attraction in FL besides Disney). It was built 20 years ago…and going back nowadays, it’s expanded…it’s growing. The area is unrecognizable. There is a skyscraper there. The only one in the city. Lolol That popped up probably 6-8 yrs ago…but it still boggles my mind that it’s even there. That land was the end of the town limit…the other side is The Everglades. Funny…only 20 years. Only…

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks so much, Annie! I think this is a common American experience, watching the built environment around us change. Losing your neighborhood to a mall is a pretty major change though. Kind of like the Indianapolis neighborhoods lost when the Interstates were built right down the middle of them. If I can ever get the courage to stop on the side of I-65 for photographs, I’ll blog about that too.

      1. Annie Avatar

        Hello! I’ve nominated you for The Spirit Award. Here is a link for you to check it out and pass on to those you admire.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          Thanks so much! I generally don’t forward these when I get them. But I appreciate the sentiment!

          1. Annie Avatar

            You’re welcome’ I hear u. I wasn’t going to either, but I thought it was a nice one. Have a great day!

  2. Forrest E Johnson Avatar
    Forrest E Johnson

    Jim: You should check back a little farther. I too live in the area, 56th and Lafayette Rd. We moved here in 1979 and the area of the Marsh and Chase bank was a golf course. As a child, I grew up in the 2500 block of Broadway. I recently went back through that area and would be lost if I were suddenly left on that corner. It was a nice neighborhood. Everyone knew each other and watched all the kids play together. We walked to school which was only a few blocks away. A much better time.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It’s normal for cities to decay from the center out. The better times still exist, but they’ve moved out to the suburbs.

      If you look at MapIndy’s historic aerials, you can see the golf course you mention.

  3. Mike Avatar

    Great subject, and you are certainly the right person to tackle it. As you show, there are some great new tools available for the task. At the same time, there is still clearly a place for the work of the individual with a camera.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Mike. I think of a fellow who sometimes comments here who goes by Lone Primate. He lives in Toronto, where he found a cache of photos taken 50 years ago of common scenes in what was then outside the city proper. The city expanded outward of course, so Lone Primate spent a lot of time photographing the same scenes for then-and-now comparisons of the sprawl. It was fascinating. The fellow 50 years ago provided a valuable record.

  4. Steve Miller Avatar
    Steve Miller

    MapIndy is a great way to waste an afternoon. Did you know that WIBC’s towers were once located on 86th Street, just about where today’s north-bound on ramp to I-465 is located?

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I did not! I don’t know Indy before the Interstates. The very idea of them not being there seems very foreign to me.

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