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.

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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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A seat in the sun (crop)

A seat in the sun
Agfa Optima
Fujicolor 200 (probably)
2011

The business district at 56th and Illinois Streets invites you to linger. It’s part of the area’s considerable charm.

Photography

single frame: A seat in the sun

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Arnott's

Arnott’s of Dublin
Nikon N2000, 35mm f/2.8 AI Nikkor
Kodak T-Max 400
2016

We strolled through the shopping district in Dublin at the end of our trip to Ireland. Arnott’s is a department store.

Photography
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Photography, Stories Told

Photo essay: Pleasant suburban shopping

Please don’t revoke my man card, but I like to shop. Even a weekly trip to the grocery store delivers a dopamine rush. And when my weekly trip takes me to the big-box store — ohhh yes, I can spend an hour just wandering the aisles looking at things I didn’t come to buy.

Meijer

The big-box groceries are squeezing the local players out. Marsh is the last local chain standing. I seldom do my weekly shopping here, as the big boxes offer compelling prices. But I’m suspicious of the big-box meat. Hamburger shaped into a rectangle? Pork chops shot full of “15% of a solution?” No thanks. I prefer to buy my meat at a butcher shop, but it’s a special trip. Marsh’s meat counter is convenient and respectable, and so gets a lot of my business.

Marsh Hometown Market

But I wonder how much longer that Marsh will be open now that Walmart’s Neighborhood Market is in the area. It became my main grocery store the minute it opened last summer. It’s just around the corner from my home! And their prices are just too good to ignore. Marsh feels that pinch — since Walmart opened, I get a lot of direct mail from Marsh, sometimes with coupons for $10 off the total bill.

Walmart Neighborhood Market

My routine shopping is about more than groceries, of course. I fill my prescriptions at a CVS across the street from Marsh. That’s pretty much all I do at CVS — for the non-pharmacy items they carry, pretty much any other store beats their prices. I used to have my color film processed here, but they took out their 1-hour lab a couple years ago. What a sad day.

CVS/pharmacy

I’m not as crazy about shopping for hardware and home-improvement items. Maybe it’s because I’m usually trying to quickly pick up one or two things so I can finish a project. The little Ace Hardware near my home closed ten years ago, so I switched to a smallish Menards that was only a little farther away until it, too, closed. I’m left with Lowe’s and Home Depot, both longish drives from home, both enormous and bewildering. Woe betide me when I need something small, as I did this day. Three different employees scratched their heads over where I might find the thing I sought. I ended up searching for a half hour. In a big store, small items might as well be invisible.

Lowe's

I choose Lowe’s over Home Depot because this Goodwill Store is next door. Sometimes they have an interesting old camera for a few dollars. Believe it or not, I bought my favorite suit here for $8.

Goodwill Store

This Walmart Supercenter is around the corner from Lowe’s and Goodwill. When I went through my divorce, I lived on next to nothing and this Walmart’s prices let me afford to feed my family. In those days, this store was filled with rude staff and angry customers. I hated shopping here. But then Walmart built a new Supercenter nearer my home, and overnight this Walmart became orders of magnitude more pleasant. I can’t explain it. It’s like all of the problems migrated to the newer Supercenter. It’s a war zone over there.

Walmart

When the shopping is over, I sometimes treat my car to a wash. Works Wash please, and no, I don’t want the extra-cost tire shine. This gives me a few weeks’ respite from a super annoying body squeak my car has developed. It was a tip from my mechanic, who said that an underbody wash is a good, cheap lube job.

Crew Carwash

It feels good to drive a clean car. And it feels good to wrap up the routine weekly shopping.

Photographed July 14-28, 2015 with my Agfa Clack on Ilford Pan F Plus 50 film.

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History, Preservation

Remembering South Bend’s River Bend Plaza

Last month my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. My brother, my sons, and I drove to South Bend, our hometown, to celebrate. We chose downtown as our destination, where we enjoyed a first-rate dinner at a fine restaurant. Then we drove a few blocks west to take photographs on the steps of the church where they were wed. Finally, we drove to a cafe on Michigan Street, South Bend’s main street, where we had coffee and dessert. It was great to spend our evening in downtown South Bend.

Michigan Street has always been the heart of South Bend’s downtown. It was a major thoroughfare for more than 140 years. From the 1830s, it carried Indiana’s first highway, the historic Michigan Road. It later carried US 31, which you could drive north to the tip of Michigan and south to the Gulf of Mexico. This big road was important to South Bend’s economy, which was very prosperous for much of the 20th century thanks to manufacturing. Studebaker led the way, followed closely by Oliver, Singer, Bendix, and many other smaller companies.

Boom years bring big changes to any city. Check out how much downtown South Bend changed between about 1910 and about 1950 in these two postcards. Both show Michigan Street northbound from Jefferson Boulevard. I see just one building in the 1950 photo that looks like it was also there in 1910.

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Studebaker’s closing in 1963 was the beginning of the end of South Bend’s most prosperous years. Similar loss of manufacturing happened all over the country. Meanwhile, many residents were moving away from downtowns, and shopping and amenities followed them. South Bend’s first enclosed shopping mall, Scottsdale Mall, opened on the south edge of town in 1971. It was instantly enormously popular, and it hastened downtown’s decline. Something had to be done.

And so South Bend tried something that other cities were trying, too: turning downtown into an outdoor mall. First, US 31 was rebuilt one block to the east, bypassing five blocks of Michigan Street. Those five blocks were then permanently closed to vehicles. These photos from the Center for History show Michigan Street being torn up to make way for the new outdoor mall.

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It was called River Bend Plaza when it opened in about 1975. In its two central blocks, Michigan Street was replaced with a brick walkway dotted with trees and partially covered in freestanding pavilions. In the blocks immediately to the north and south, Michigan Street was resurfaced and painted in bright colors. In the northmost block, on which the grand Morris Civic Auditorium (the former Palace Theater) stood, Michigan Street became a small park. These photos show the transformation. The first three photos are from 1st Source Bank, which was then known as First Bank and Trust Co. (I got these photos from this page.) The last two photos, of the brightly painted street surface, are from the Center for History.

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It didn’t work. Downtown declined further. And nobody liked that River Bend Plaza removed so many nearby parking spaces, making it harder to reach the shops along Michigan Street. But River Bend Plaza wasn’t entirely to blame for its own failure. The die was cast: suburban living had taken hold, and suburbanites wanted shopping and amenities nearby.

South Bend finally threw in the towel on River Bend Plaza. In the early 1990s, the city tore it all out (save the little park in front of the Morris) and restored Michigan Street to vehicular traffic. Through traffic still follows the bypass, and you need to make a couple quick turns off that bypass to reach Michigan Street’s downtown span. These photos are from a visit I made in 2007.

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It was a good move – plenty of people make those turns. Michigan Street has regained its city feel and city experience, and I think people like it. It helps that in recent years there’s been a nationwide trend of renewed interest in city life, especially among people in their 20s.

That Friday night of my parents’ golden anniversary celebration, few parking spaces were available along Michigan Street. Our restaurant and the little cafe were both very busy. It’s much like this every time I visit downtown South Bend now. It’s a shadow of South Bend’s best years, but it’s a refreshing improvement over the dead downtown of 30 years ago.


Downtown South Bend once had many grand theaters. See them here.

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Stories Told

My $8 suit

I love a bargain.

My sons know that when we’re out shopping that if there’s a clearance sale, they need to steer me away or it’ll be hours before we get home.

But the biggest bargain I ever landed was my suit.

My employer took Halloween seriously. The executive team always dressed in matching costumes; I’ll never forget the year they all dressed as waiters, in black slacks with white shirts and bow ties, with white towels draped over their right forearms. They walked around the building serving donuts and coffee to every employee. In the afternoon, we had a big party with a costume contest. Almost everybody dressed for it.

Gomez Addams

I was one of the few holdouts. I don’t enjoy Halloween and I hate wearing costumes. But my department wanted to dress as The Addams Family, and with my head of black hair I was the obvious choice to be Gomez.

My co-workers asked. Then they pleaded. When they started begging, I could see that it would be less embarrassing for all concerned if I just went along.

But I knew that Gomez always wore a dark pin-striped suit, and I didn’t own one. The suit I did own was hip and stylish for the time: dark green and double breasted. I looked fierce in it, like a mafia don. But there was no way I was going to pass for Gomez Addams in it.

What does a suit cost? $200 for a cheap one? I didn’t see dropping that kind of cash just for a Halloween costume. Desperate, I visited a Goodwill store. I figured I’d have to visit every one in the city, and even if I did find a suit that would work, it’d probably be ratty and ill-fitting.

But there it hung, looking like new: a charcoal pin-striped suit. And except for the slacks being a bit tight and the sleeves being a tad short, it fit. And it cost just $8!

8suitI was married to an accomplished seamstress, who let out the pants and lengthened the sleeves in no time flat. I slicked my hair back with Vaseline, painted on a mustache with my wife’s mascara, dug out a narrow black tie my dad wore back in the ’60s, and headed off to work for Halloween fun. Everybody said I really nailed my costume. It’s sad that I never got a photo.

I’m still using my $8 suit. It’s a classic that will never go out of style, like my mafioso suit did. I’ve worn it to every interview, wedding, and funeral for going on 15 years now. I figure I wear it about four times a year, which works out to about 13 cents per wearing!

It makes my miserly heart swell.

So tell me: what was your biggest bargain?

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