Road Trips

Improvements on “MLK,” aka the Michigan Road, in northwest Indianapolis

There’s an unfortunate saying: if you’re on a street named after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., you’re in a rough neighborhood.

This may be only a stereotype, but sadly it’s been true of any city I’ve ever been in. Indianapolis, the city I call home, is no exception. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Blvd., is the Michigan Road between 10th and 38th Streets. “MLK,” as we all call it, is in an economically challenged part of town. It figures frequently in the police blotter. When I surveyed the Michigan Road in 2008, I felt very out of place there and didn’t linger for many photos. Most things were in dilapidated condition. This house is representative.

Dilapidated house

Bar-B-Q Heaven was one of the bright spots on MLK. Its great neon sign is lit night and day.

Bar-B-Q Heaven

Holy Angels Catholic Church anchors this neighborhood, but sadly, this building has been torn down since I shot this photo.

Holy Angels Catholic Church

Here, the road goes under I-65 just before it passes Crown Hill Cemetery and reaches 38th St. Much of MLK had this “nowhere” feeling.

Michigan Road at I-65

15 or 20 years ago now, a group of civic leaders pressed to have the MLK name extended all the way up Michigan Road to the city limits at 96th St. Their argument was that this would honor Dr. King in all kinds of Indianapolis neighborhoods, from depressed to properous, from inner city to suburban. I was sympathetic to their cause, but I wasn’t in favor of renaming more of this historic road. It would have wiped the Michigan Road name off Indianapolis’s map. I hoped the group would find another road for this purpose, but then the effort quietly faded away.

Since 2008, the city has completed a number of infrastructure beautification improvements in several challenged neighborhoods. MLK was one of them. The road had previously been four lanes wide, a remnant from the days when this road was US 421 and needed to move cars swiftly through town. But since MLK is used much more as a local road today, the first step was to remove two of the driving lanes and add parking.

MLK southbound

Colorful crosswalks went in at every intersection. Notice the stylized “MLK” logo.

Crosswalk

That logo appears in wayfinding signs posted all along the corridor, giving this area its own branding. I love how the signs link people to the great resources nearby.

MLK signage

The grass is all green and young trees line the road. The entire area is much more cheerful.

On MLK

I love what the city has done here, but please don’t confuse it for improved prosperity. There are still dilapidated houses and the police still visit this area a lot. Improving the socioeconomic situation along MLK will take much more than a city infrastructure program.

I’ve documented Indiana’s historic Michigan Road extensively. To read all about it, click here.

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader six days a week, click here to subscribe!
To get my newsletter with previews of what I’m working on, click here to subscribe!

Standard
Road Trips

Historic architecture in Shelbyville on the Michigan Road

1876 map, Michigan Road highlighted in magenta

Driving the Michigan Road, Shelbyville is the first town you encounter southeast of Indianapolis. Even though the town wasn’t incorporated until 1850, it existed before the Michigan Road was built.

If the road had run straight, it would have bypassed Shelbyville. But Shelbyville would not be denied. The road was curved to enter Shelbyville, and then curved again as it exited to resume its original trajectory.

Shelbyville has some interesting architecture, and that’s what I plan to share here. Right after crossing the Big Blue River heading south into town, this great building is on the right. It’s currently home to the Shelby County Chamber of Commerce and the Shelby County Tourism and Visitor’s Bureau. Known now as the Porter Center, it was built as the Porter Pool Bath House. I guess the pool is still in there!

The Porter Center

The Coca-Cola Bottling Co. stands next door. I love the neon sign over the door. One day I might even get to see it lit at night.

Coca-Cola plant

The Cow Palace is across the street. I’d bet a dollar that this used to be a Red Barn restaurant. Red Barn was a fast-food chain in the 1960s and 1970s. The stores all looked like barns, with roofs of this shape.

Cow Palace

As the Michigan Road enters Shelbyville from the north, it’s Harrison St. and State Road 9. Just before the road reaches Shelbyville’s Public Square, it passes this building with its great old sign advertising both cigars and drugs. I’m glad the current occupant has kept the old sign.

Fleming's

Here’s a rarity in Indiana: a county seat’s square without a courthouse on it. Instead, there’s parking, and this statue that commemorates the book The Bears of Blue River, written in 1901 by Charles Major. The story is set in 19th-century rural Indiana — specifically, this part of Indiana. It’s hard to imagine bears anywhere in Indiana today.

The Bears of Blue River

Around the Public Square itself, I like several of the buildings. This narrow, ornate building is my favorite.

Sheldon Building

This is the Methodist Building. I guess it’s been in redevelopment but the project has stalled.

The Methodist Building

I read somewhere that this building was once an opera house. What I know for sure about it is that trees planted in front of it make it very difficult to get a clear shot. Hence, this wacky angle.

Former opera house

When I surveyed the Michigan Road in 2008, the block just south of the Public Square was in pretty sad shape. But things have improved some on this block, notably the building right next to Linnes Pastries, the new Linnes Bakery and Cafe. This photo shows what this looked like before.

Linnes Pastries

The Michigan Road turns left at Broadway St., which is also State Road 44, and heads east briefly. A slight right turn, leaving State Road 44, keeps you on the Michigan Road. Almost immediately, this little Dairy Queen is on the left. Dig its great old neon sign.

Shelbyville Dairy Queen

I can hardly pass a Dairy Queen when I’m on a road trip. Margaret and I had hot-fudge sundaes.

I’ve documented Indiana’s historic Michigan Road extensively. To read all about it, click here.

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader six days a week, click here to subscribe!
To get my newsletter with previews of what I’m working on, click here to subscribe!

Standard
Road Trips

Signs along the Michigan Road Historic Byway in central Indiana

If you’re wondering why I’m posting frequently about the Michigan Road all of a sudden, it’s because just before I returned to work this summer I toured the road through Marion and Shelby Counties, checking placement of Michigan Road Historic Byway signs.

The Historic Michigan Road Association has been working for almost two years to place directional signs along the entire byway. They help anyone wanting to follow the byway stay on it, especially in a few places where you have to turn or exit to stay on the byway. So exact placement of these signs is important.

In these two counties, some of the byway is maintained by the Indiana Department of Transportation, some by the Indianapolis Department of Public Works, and some by the Shelby County Highway Department. So we worked with all three agencies to get the signs installed.

On the tour, I took a few photos with signs in them. Here’s one at Washington St. and Southeastern Ave. in Indianapolis, where the Michigan Road meets the National Road. This placement is perfect.

Southeastern at Washington

Did you notice the obelisk in the photo above? It was placed in 1916 to commemorate the intersection of these two historic roads. A few years ago, as part of a bigger road project here, Southeastern Ave. was reconfigured to meet Washington St. at a perfect T, rather than at its previous awkward angle. The obelisk stood in the way, so it was moved to where it stands now. I wish I could have seen that — this thing is all concrete and has to weigh a ton! Here’s what it looked like in 2008, in its original location.

National Road/Michigan Road marker

It’s a little worse for the wear now, as you can see, with the MICHIGAN ROAD letters all broken off and the plaque removed. The corresponding NATIONAL ROAD letters are gone from the other side, too. I hope they’ll be restored. Someone did paint the letters that were pressed into the concrete, making them easier to see.

Michigan Road obelisk

Indy DPW and INDOT did a great job placing the signs. I gave both agencies a spreadsheet listing every place we wanted signs. Indy DPW reviewed the list with me and said that they’d place the signs on those exact spots or, when that was not possible, on a reasonable nearby spot. INDOT asked me to ride along with an engineer to point out exactly where I wanted each sign to go. That was very cool of them, and it made for a fun afternoon. Here’s a sign in Wanamaker, one that Indy DPW installed.

MR Northbound

Unfortunately, it appears we miscommunicated with Shelby County about sign placement. I took this photo at the Middletown Bridge, which is near the Shelby-Decatur county line. We didn’t want a sign here. Actually, none of the Shelby County signs ended up where we needed them. So I’m in contact with their Highway Department trying to get this straightened out. There are two tricky turns in Shelby County that were created when the construction of I-74 disrupted the Michigan Road’s original route. Our signs need to be placed at those turns to keep drivers on the byway.

Northbound Michigan Road, southern Shelby County

But this is why I made the tour: to check for problems so they can be corrected. In the process, I enjoyed a pleasant day on the road. Margaret came along. We chatted, explored, and took a lot of photographs. I love days like that, misplaced signs notwithstanding!

I’ve documented Indiana’s historic Michigan Road extensively. To read all about it, click here.

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader six days a week, click here to subscribe!
To get my newsletter with previews of what I’m working on, click here to subscribe!

Standard
Road Trips

Welcome to Wanamaker

When you stand on the Michigan Road in downtown Wanamaker, you’d never guess you’re really in Indianapolis. When Indianapolis merged with Marion County in 1970, most of the little towns that dotted the county merged along with it. Officially, they ceased to exist. Poof! But while Wanamaker may have lost its legal identity, it never lost its soul.

MR Northbound

Wanamaker feels like typical small-town Indiana. It is a microcosm of everything that is wonderful about traveling the Michigan Road.

Allied Appliances Co.

Wanamaker is in Franklin Township, which is in the southeastern corner of the city. The Franklin Township Chamber of Commerce Economic Development District (say that three times fast!) meets at Wheatley’s once a month for breakfast. This organization has been one of the Historic Michigan Road Association’s best friends. They reached out to us when we were a fledgling, grass-roots group, to encourage and advise us. After we won byway status for the road and began the project to sign the route, not only did they put us in contact with the right players in the city to help us move our initiative along, they also donated funds for almost all of the signs in Marion County. So I visit this group’s morning meeting about once a year to give an update, and share breakfast with them. I recommend the biscuits and gravy.

Wheatley's

The FTCoCEDD bought a handful of signs to share with businesses in the Wanamaker area. One of them went up on the side of the New Bethel Ordinary, a restaurant just up the street from Wheatley’s. I hear that their pizza is out of this world. I wouldn’t know; I went gluten free a few years ago. Pizza and biscuits and gravy are but a distant memory for me now.

Privately owned MR sign at New Bethel Ordinary

I’m impressed with how determined and resourceful the people of Wanamaker are. They pressed hard for some infrastructure improvements to the Michigan Road through their town, and got them. I was told that drainage was poor on the road here, and that heavy rains would run right off into some of the town’s storefronts. The curbing and parallel parking you see in these photos was completed last year. Here’s what the road through Wanamaker looked like in 2008: no curbs with angle parking.

Wanamaker
Wanamaker in 2008

The changes give Wanamaker a much more “finished” feel. And I’m sure the shopkeepers are thrilled not to have to deal with minor flooding after it rains.

Wanamaker
Wheatley’s in 2008

Wanamaker is proud of its history, and many of its buildings have been reasonably well preserved. This porcelain-coated steel building was once a service station with gas pumps out front. Cars are still repaired here today. Buildings like this used to be enormously common, but few are left, at least in condition this good.

Porcelain steel service station

Cemeteries on both sides of the road on the south end of town. This is Founder’s Cemetery.

Founders Cemetery

The New Bethel Baptist Church is across the street. You see occasional references to New Bethel throughout Wanamaker, as that was the town’s original name.

New Bethel Baptist Church

Heading south from here, the Michigan Road takes on a rural feel. It keeps it up for but a few miles, as shortly the road merges with I-74 for several miles. I consider that one of the most unfortunate things to happen to this historic road.

MR southbound leaving Wanamaker

Fortunately, the Michigan Road emerges again just inside Shelby County and can be driven all the way to its end on the Ohio River.

I’ve documented Indiana’s historic Michigan Road extensively. To read all about it, click here.

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader six days a week, click here to subscribe!
To get my newsletter with previews of what I’m working on, click here to subscribe!

Standard
Preservation, Road Trips

Lifting a blighted neigborhood: The Angie’s List campus

Since I wrote this, Angie’s List was purchase by its largest competitor, and left this campus for new space a few blocks west on the same street.

This was the scene in 2008 where the Michigan Road and the National Road intersect on Indianapolis’s Eastside. Ew.

Ugly buildings

Since then, this block and the block to the east have been extensively renovated. Here are the same buildings today.

At the National Road and the Michigan Road

The city has Angie’s List to thank, as the company chose this derelict area for its headquarters. You might know Angie’s List and its crowdsourced reviews of local businesses, but you might not know that the company has headquartered in Indianapolis for most of its 20-year history.

At the National Road and the Michigan Road

The company has renovated nearly 30 buildings here, creating a campus on which most of its employees work. It’s transformed this near-Eastside neighborhood from dumpy and dangerous to hip and cool.

At the National Road and the Michigan Road

One of Indianapolis’s oldest fire stations is now Angie’s List’s front door, the place where visitors go when they need to meet with employees. I gather that this was the first building they rented in this block, back in 1999 when they just needed cheap space. Nobody else wanted anything to do with this part of town then.

Angie's List

There’s even a fire truck inside, next to the reception desk. I know this because as I was looking for a new job this summer, Angie’s List considered me for a position. I entered the reception area more than once while I waited to meet people during the interview process.

Entrance

The brick sidewalk is a wonderful touch. I’m betting it was laid as part of the renovation project, but it is rustic and a little uneven as though it’s been there for a hundred years.

Brick sidewalk

Some of the bricks are marked by their makers; most of those come from the town of Brazil, about 70 miles west of here on the National Road. Brazil and surrounding Clay County were rich in, well, clay, which made it a great place to make bricks. Despite this natural resource, the county was named after Henry Clay.

Brazil Brick

Anyway, Angie’s List just kept buying and renovating property here. Their campus now fills more than two city blocks. But I say “renovating” rather than “restoring,” because these buildings have all been reworked to some extent for their new purposes. I saw it firsthand during my interviews. While the firehouse retains much of its historic interior charm, a large former factory building where software developers now work was gutted and is thoroughly modern inside.

Tools

Some preservationists might not be happy about that, but I think it’s a more than fair trade given how badly blighted this neighborhood was. This reuse is far, far better than no use! Angie’s List’s presence has dramatically lifted the surrounding neighborhood, too, raising property values and making it safe for residents.

It was hard for me to turn down Angie’s List’s employment offer when it came. How perfect would it have been for me to work where the National Road and the Michigan Road intersect? They’re my two very favorite old roads! And because Angie’s List has become a leading employer of Indy-area software-development and IT people, many of my former colleagues have wound up here — especially a woman of whom I think the world, a technology Vice President there. She’s simply the best at what she does. I would have loved to work with her and my other colleagues again. But another company offered me a position at about the same time, a role that’s a better match for my skills and career goals, for about the same money. It’s just too bad that their headquarters are in a charmless suburban office park, well away from any historic roads.

Moto Cafe

You can’t have it all, I suppose. But perhaps my VP friend and I can meet for lunch sometimes at the campus’s motorcycle-themed Moto Cafe. Heck, I can even come on my own; it’s open to the public. Reviewers on Yelp like it.

I love the Michigan and National Roads! Read everything I’ve written about the Michigan Road here, and about the National Road here.

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader six days a week, click here to subscribe!
To get my newsletter with previews of what I’m working on, click here to subscribe!

Standard
History, Road Trips

Adding the Michigan Road to the modern Indiana highway system

MR_map
The Michigan Road, highlighted in blue. Map © 2008 Google.

It was very late to the party: the last segment of the old Michigan Road to be added to Indiana’s modern state highway system.

The state of Indiana built the Michigan Road during the 1830s to connect Madison on the Ohio River to Michigan City on Lake Michigan via the new state capital in Indianapolis.

Indiana built other roads at about the same time, but none like the Michigan Road. Its right-of-way was enormous at 100 feet wide; the road itself used the central third. Even though the road was barely a dirt path at first, it was arguably the grandest road in Indiana. It was a major commerce route that opened deeply wooded northern Indiana to settlers.

The railroad’s rise in the late 1800s led the Michigan Road and all other major roads into disuse and disrepair. But around the turn of the 20th century, the bicycle and the automobile made good roads a priority. Indiana responded in 1917 with its State Highway Commission, which laid a fledgling network of highways over existing major routes and began to improve them, in turn from dirt to gravel to brick or concrete, and eventually to asphalt.

The State Highway Commission numbered just five State Roads in its first year. You might be surprised to learn that the Michigan Road was not among them.

Not in its entirety, at least. State Roads were laid out along portions of the Michigan Road in northern Indiana: from about Rolling Prairie east to South Bend, and then from South Bend south to Rochester.

The east-west segment was part of State Road 2, which followed the 1913 Lincoln Highway, a coast-to-coast auto trail established through the work of entrepreneur Carl Fisher. The north-south section was part of State Road 1, which continued south from Rochester along a new road that passed through Peru and Kokomo on its way to Indianpolis and, ultimately, the Ohio River across from Louisville.

PlymouthPilot-NewsMR
Plymouth Pilot-News, March 27, 1919 (click to enlarge)

Naturally, all major Indiana cities wanted a good, direct road leading to the state capital, and towns in between wanted to be on those roads. A road would lead from South Bend to Indianapolis. Logansport wanted to be on that route. You have to wonder why the state chose State Road 1 through Peru and Kokomo over the Michigan Road through Logansport. The Michigan Road’s generous right-of-way would certainly ease future improvements. Perhaps the state wanted to provide good-road access to two towns rather than just one. Perhaps Peru and Kokomo had a more effective lobby.

Officials in Logansport went down fighting, agitating for the state to hard-surface the Michigan Road rather than State Road 1 south from Plymouth, as the inset 1919 newspaper article reports. They even claimed — incorrectly — that the Michigan Road was a little shorter.

Alas, State Road 1 was paved.

Indiana expanded its State Road system to more than 50 roads by 1926, adding most of the Michigan Road in the process. The portion from Madison to Indianapolis became State Road 6. The portion from Indianapolis to Logansport became State Road 15.

(By the way, State Road 15 continued northwest from Logansport through Winamac and La Porte to Michigan City, fulfilling the Michigan Road’s mission in much more direct fashion. The indirect route through South Bend had been a compromise — one South Bend certainly enjoyed — to avoid the Kankakee Marsh in northwest Indiana. In the 1830s, no road could be built there. A series of ditches built in the late 1800s through about 1917 drained the marsh, and then by 1922 the river itself was dredged. The direct route finally could be, and was, built. It is US 35 today.)

But the portion of the Michigan Road from Logansport to Rochester remained off the grid.

Ply_Roch_Logan_Peru
Maps courtesy Indiana University Libraries

The U.S. route system we know today was established in 1927. Several State Roads became U.S. highways. Indiana renumbered its State Roads to eliminate numbers the same as the new U.S. routes and to tame what had become a messy numbering scheme. The Michigan Road from Madison to Logansport became State Road 29 (except for a rural segment south of Napoleon in Ripley County, which the highway bypassed to loop in nearby Osgood and Versailles). Old State Road 1, including the Michigan Road from South Bend to Rochester, became US 31. The Michigan Road from South Bend to Michigan City became part of US 20.

Also in 1927, the State Highway Commission decided to build a State Road from Lafayette to Warsaw. To be named State Road 25, it would pass through Logansport and Rochester. At last, this segment of the Michigan Road would join the state highway system! It was added first, in 1928; the rest of State Road 25 was added in stages over the next few years. The state highway map segments above tell the story. In 1923, the Michigan Road didn’t appear between Rochester and Logansport. In 1927 a dotted line appeared to show that the road was approved to be added to the system. In 1928, the thick black line shows that the road was not only added, but hard surfaced, except for a small portion near Fulton. The broken line there and elsewhere on the map indicates a gravel road.

State Road 25 (the Michigan Road) heading northeast from Logansport
State Road 25 (the Michigan Road) in northeastern Logansport, heading toward Rochester

Logansport got its wish nine years too late, as by that time US 31 had become the dominant route to Indianapolis. Not that it mattered much in the long run — US 31 might have boosted Kokomo’s and Peru’s prosperity for a time, but US 31 was rerouted around both towns in the 1970s and traffic through these towns slowed to a trickle. All three towns experienced serious decline toward the end of the 20th century, for reasons bigger than rerouted highways. None is noticeably better off than the others today.

I’ve documented Indiana’s historic Michigan Road extensively. To read all about it, click here.

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader six days a week, click here to subscribe!
To get my newsletter with previews of what I’m working on, click here to subscribe!

Standard