Road Trips

I love the Michigan Road, but I don’t always like living near it

The Michigan Road sucks. At least it does where it passes near my northwest Indianapolis home.

It’s still the Michigan Road, built in the 1830s to connect the Ohio River to Indianapolis to Lake Michigan, opening the entire northern part of Indiana to settlement. I will always love it.

But a long section of the road has been a part of my daily life for more than 20 years, and frankly, I try to avoid driving on it.

As a major artery, Michigan Road’s speed limit is 45 MPH. Especially since the late 1990s when the last portion of the road was widened to four lanes, traffic really flows fast. The road is designed to swiftly move lots of cars. Yet lots of businesses and even entrances to residential neighborhoods line the road. People turn left all the time, and there is no central left-turn lane. Rear-end accidents are common. It has happened to me twice.

MRBumperBash1

These photos are from the first accident, which happened a half block south of the 1852 Aston Inn house. Can I admit to still feeling satisfied, even five years later, that the other guy’s car sustained so much more damage than mine and was probably totaled? I was stopped behind a car turning left when I noticed this guy coming up fast. The crash was unavoidable, so I pressed hard on my brake to avoid hitting the waiting car before me. It’s amazing the crash didn’t do more damage to my car. And yes, someone’s head smacked the other car’s windshield in the accident. That fellow disappeared the minute I called the cops. Arrest warrant? Here illegally? Hope the concussion was worth it.

MRBumperBash2

Lesson learned: drive in the right lane, even if left-lane traffic is moving faster. The frequent left turns just create too much risk.

MR_NW_Ind

Imagery and map data © 2017 Google.

Meanwhile, this 2½-mile section of Michigan Road, from Kessler Boulevard north just beyond 71st Street to the former town of Augusta, has seen happier days. It’s a sad sight to drive through.

This strip’s heyday was probably the 1960s and 1970s when this road was still US 421. A building boom brought strip malls, grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations, and motels.

Today, those strip malls are aging. You won’t find a Kroger or a Target here — it’s all second- and third-tier retailers and service providers. The motels, gas stations, and restaurants that remain have been repurposed for other uses. Many of these buildings have received minimal maintenance and show their age.

This mishmash of shabby businesses provides a poor introduction to the area, which is filled with middle-class neighborhoods.

This used to be a shoe-repair shop, but has been vacant for a while.

Pink building

I applaud the creative reuse of this former motel as a day care, but I wish it could be made more attractive.

Kiddie Factory

This aging strip of shops is at least kept tidy. The barber shop owner gave his overhead sign a fresh coat of paint in the last couple years; it had faded to near illegibility.

Barber

The pedestrian trail built a few years ago robbed this little strip of some of its parking. I can’t imagine that these tenants were happy about it. Here’s a 2008 photo that shows cars parked at these doors.

Getting your hair done on the Michigan Road

Mr. Dan’s is a small local burger chain. I photographed it in 2015:

Mr. Dan's

I don’t know what happened that the joint is called Mr. Dee’s now, but their reuse of the existing signs has all the grace and style of a knuckle sandwich.

Mr. Dee's

Ace Lock and Key has been on this corner for longer than I’ve lived in Indianapolis. This building looks like its first use was as a gas station. It’s an attractive little building.

Ace Lock and Key

When I mentioned the kinds of retailers you won’t find along this stretch of Michigan Road, I mentioned Kroger and Target specifically because this strip once contained both. Kroger was on the left, and Target was on the right. They moved out just before I moved to the area, and the buildings were vacant for years. Now it’s a grading facility for school standardized tests.

Fomer Target/Kroger strip

The strip mall on the southwest corner with 71st Street/Westlane Road has changed a lot since I moved here. This was once a full-line Marsh grocery store, but for most of the time I lived here it was a dim, dirty store with only basic grocery items. They chained up the carts. Someone at the service desk had to come unlock one so you could use it. Such class. Then Marsh closed it and discount chain Save-A-Lot moved in. Unfortunately, they also tore out Marsh’s attractive facade and rebuilt it with this windowless wonder. At least it didn’t go vacant.

Save-a-Lot

Across the street is the dry cleaner I’ve used all the years I’ve lived here. It was once a drive-in restaurant.

Griffith Cleaners

By all accounts, the food at this Vietnamese restaurant is delicious. The former fast-food building could use some love, however.

Pho 54

Here’s another tidy, aging strip. The clock-repair shop has been there longer than I’ve lived here. I had them repair a watch once, and they did a nice job.

Strip mall

It sure seems to me that this solidly middle class part of town would be able to attract higher-line businesses and improved facades.

Houses are sometimes sandwiched between the various commercial buildings along this section of Michigan Road. Many of them have seen happier days.

House on Michigan Road

A few houses have been well cared for, but it’s far easier to find ones that could use some TLC.

MCM

Over the years some buildings have seen great improvement. This building was vacant for years, and was clearly in sorry condition a couple years ago when this funeral center bought it and renovated it.

Serenity Funeral Services

St. Monica’s Catholic church and school has always been well cared for. A couple years ago, fire destroyed the section of the building at about the center of the photo. The church immediately rebuilt it.

St. Monica's

When I moved here, this U-Haul location was dingy and depressing. Some years ago it was renovated inside and out, and looks great.

U-Haul

This lot was vacant for a long time until this church was built.

Praise Fellowship Family Center

A bowling alley once stood on this lot, but it went out of business five years ago or so. This storage place opened only in the last year or so, and its graceless design says “industrial park” more than “shopping district.” Its setback from the road is also considerably shallower than anything else nearby, which makes it an imposing presence. It’s wrong for this section of the road.

Storage

A few auto-parts places were built along this corridor in the last 10 years or so, and they’re well kept. This is the one I visit most often.

Advance Auto Parts

I do understand this much about retail: the shiny, new shops always go where the money has moved to. If you drive just four miles north of here on Michigan Road, into Carmel, you’ll find solid retailers like Target, Best Buy, Kohl’s, and The Home Depot, plus shiny chain restaurants and coffee shops. Perhaps that’s why this section of Michigan Road is left to molder. It only takes ten extra minutes to get to the nice shops from here.

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14 thoughts on “I love the Michigan Road, but I don’t always like living near it

  1. Dan Cluley says:

    My first car accident was nearly 30 years ago and I still feel that sort of satisfaction. It was a similar incident with very similar results. I don’t have any photos, but I’m sure you can imagine what a Cavalier traveling 30+ MPH looks like after rear ending a stationary ’77 LeSabre.

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  2. I used to drive that area a lot in the 80s and remember many of the places no longer there.

    I have a little more sympathy for the guy that hit you as I rear ended someone else when I was in high school. My car got all the damage and I felt really stupid. The other car was older and got a dimple to the bumper. The driver was cool and just let it go.

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    • Researching for this post I learned that the Walgreens just north of Kessler was built after a McDonald’s on that spot was torn down. The McD’s was the site of a pretty grisly murder.

      My brother dimpled a big Grand Prix’s bumper with my dad’s Renault Alliance. You can imagine how the Alliance must have fared.

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  3. Living in a different country to you Jim, I always find these explorations of buildings in your neighbourhoods interesting. I also like those posts where you have a picture of a building from a few years back, then one recently, so you can see how it’s changed (for better or worse).

    The change of name of Mr Dan’s to Mr Dee’s is so badly done it looks like you’ve Photoshopped the photograph yourself!

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    • It is interesting to have lived here long enough now, and to have been documenting the old roads for long enough, that I can do credible then-and-now photographs.

      An old friend of mine and I take an annual road trip. This year I’m going to suggest we do old State Road 37 between Indianapolis and Bloomington. Its roots are in a very old road between the two cities, and old alignments abound. The current alignment being converted into Interstate 69. It should be very interesting to go back and see how things have changed. I documented the old road extensively back in 2007. Here’s my writeup on my old site:

      http://jimgrey.net/Roads/SR37IndyBloomington/index.htm

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  4. Gregg Pantale says:

    Great stuff. I used to drive between Indy & northern Porter County and would take my time on the return trip, choosing Michigan Rd’s texture over the swifter outbound routes. Great job of capturing what we see on some familiar stretch of road across our state & the midwest at large.
    Also, having been both crasher and crashee… excellent advice about staying in the right lane on open-access 4-laners without a left turn lane. My most recent accident in such a situation (inbound/eastbound Hwy2 near the 20/31 bypass) was a head-on where the left-turn was in oncoming traffic, he (Ford Fiesta, thank god) was rear-ended (new Mustang), pushed into my (Corolla) lane, and there was nothing anyone could do. I was traveling the posted 50MPH & barely had time to slow at all. By the time it was done, I was hit by 2 other cars and was sitting on an embankment on the far right shoulder; a steaming crumpled maroon-red ball of Japanese steel.
    Fortunately no one was hurt beyond airbag bruises & some small cuts.

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    • I know that intersection. I grew up in South Bend and had a job for a while running stuff between the Mishawaka and LaPorte Hummer plants. It sounds like you came through that wreck ok? There’s giant hassle after every accident but of course it is nothing compared to personal injury.

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  5. Nice post Jim. You were lucky that the Taurus went under your Toyota’s bumper and not clip your gas tank. There’s no way around it… sprawl is just ugly (sorry). I can’t imagine this section of the road with snow.

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  6. Jerry says:

    Behind the stuff at 71st and Michigan is public housing, and squalor conditions. My recollection has the Kroger at Township Line and Michigan closing way before the early 90’s. The target there probably closed in the early 90s but the grocery failed long before, maybe ’84. Before Kroger it was a “Standard” grocery. My elderly relative owned the lot across the street, a shack on a large lot —now a healthcare complex. The scuzzy strip right next to McGraw Hill used a house a Lindner’s ice cream place, a baskin robbins competitor. There was also one at 56th and Georgetown, That cash loan place next to the ex-Marsh strip mall was a Godfather’s Pizza (excellent deep-dish). My brother and I opened our first bank account in the American Fletcher bank in the slot next to the Marsh, now Cititrends. The BMX craze gave birth to a great bike shop called Chico’s. The moved their shop around between that strip, the strip with “clockwise time service” further north and finally at strip at 79th and Michigan. BMX died a sudden death in the late 80’s and then so did Chico’s.
    The Glick community center location used to be a Steak n Shake. Grampa used to take me there, he’d get the patty melt always. RIP. Further south was the FIreworks store by the Kiddie Factory. I worked there a couple days. Brutal labor. I believe they were the first fireworks store in Indy who found a way around the out-of state restrictions and started selling exploding stuff. They did a brisk business starting in the 90s and lasted a long time. They got kicked out I think eventually over zoning stuff or something.
    Nowadays I live way north off Michigan maybe 5 miles morth of 465.. It’s 6 miles shorter for me to take Michigan Rd all the way downtown than it is to take 465. But doing that adds 5 minutes to the drive.

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    • Jerry, thanks for sharing these memories of this strip as it once was! Interesting to note that Kroger went out so early. The building’s design is classic Kroger so it’s interesting to me to know that it was a different chain before that. When I moved here in 1994 the Target was some sort of Target outlet store, if memory serves. And I’ve long wondered what that cash-loan building was originally — I couldn’t place the architecture. My hometown had a Godfather’s too back in the day and everybody said it was great. I remember the Glick center going in. I thought it was just a few years ago but Google Maps Street View says it was already there in 2007. Time does fly, doesn’t it?

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  7. Jerry says:

    Sir, thank you for documenting all this stuff, even if its only for a few people who care or remember much about it. The Serenity used to be a bank, the Kiddie Factory used to be a detective agency. I never realized it was once a motel but I can see it now.

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    • I’m the king of arcane subjects, to be sure. Happy this post triggered so many memories for you, and that you shared them. I had no idea that Serenity used to be a bank, but now that you point it out, it looks like one!

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