Dana Arnold doesn’t like to dwell on the past.
Still, when the Thomas Park/Avondale resident looks out her front window, she can’t help but remember what life was like in that neighborhood when she and her family moved in more than four decades ago.
“Years ago, you knew all of your neighbors. You’d sit out on your front porch and talk to people who were walking by. You’d see people out working in their yards. You’d always know what was going on,” Arnold said.
Today, her street has a different feel.
One home she can see from her living room has tall weeds that have grown up along a fence. There are more renters, fewer owners and not as many children playing outside. Sidewalks have cracked and buckled. Cars and houses get broken into. And in what was a low point for the street, police seized a house used as a place for methamphetamine production.
“I looked out early one morning, and here come all these people in white (hazmat) suits,” she said. “People used to walk to church on the corner. Now … well …”
She’s quiet for a long moment.
“The condition of the neighborhood was better when we moved in than it is now.”
But in the space that clung to a broken past, the future is taking shape.
Rehabbing, not tearing down
“This house was pretty bad,” said Corey Clark, an architecture grad student from Richmond, Indiana.
That may be a bit of an understatement. As Clark muds the drywall, the challenges he and other Ball State architecture students face with the rehab project become clearer. Beyond the expected problems in a dilapidated structure — broken windows, doors and cabinets, holes in walls and floors, almost non-existent insulation and weatherproofing — the house needed some professional intervention, due to its meth lab history.
The students, along with faculty adviser Jonathan Spodek, had the unique task of turning the structure back into not just a safe building but a place they hope a family can call home. The project is the fifth student-led refurbishment orchestrated through ecoREHAB, a Muncie-based nonprofit that works to rehabilitate houses in the community. It’s the organization’s 10th project. The group utilizes green and sustainable building practices, while giving students real-world experience with design, planning and construction.
Spodek, the founder of ecoREHAB, a former board member and longtime volunteer, said part of what informed the group’s organization was the realization that in an effort to rid neighborhoods of eyesores and dangerous structures, viable housing options for folks in lower income brackets were becoming more and more scarce.
“(Creating) ecoREHAB was a response to foreclosures and abandonment,” he said. “The push was to tear everything down, but in these neighborhoods, you can’t tear everything down because to rebuild would be $100,000 or more.”
That’s a housing price point that can be essentially unattainable for people living in challenged neighborhoods, many of whom are single parents or seniors living on fixed incomes.
Census data shows that Delaware County has the second-highest estimated overall percentage of people living in poverty in Indiana, around 22 percent, and the second-lowest median household income, at just over $39,000.
So together with Ball State faculty and students, the city of Muncie and grant dollars, including many from Ball Brothers Foundation, ecoREHAB is working to redefine some of the toughest neighborhoods.
‘These are our homes’
Part of what Craig Graybeal, MArch ’14, imagines when he thinks about how the ecoREHAB work could help bring neighborhoods back to vibrancy, he can actually see when he walks through the Emily Kimbrough Historic District, especially on Washington Street, lined with turn-of-the-20th-century homes.
Graybeal, ecoREHAB’s executive director, has spent hours talking with homeowners there, some of whom bought houses on the street when it was an area known more for mostly nonviolent, nuisance crime, especially on the corner of Washington and Madison streets.
Today, the area dotted with eclectically styled homes — think Queen Anne, Colonial Revival and Italianate architecture —is a growing collection of culture, history and opportunity.
“Neighborhoods don’t decline overnight, and we’re not going to bring them back overnight,” Graybeal said. “We can’t fund a ‘shock and awe’ approach to rehabbing homes.”
Kimbrough District residents, who have invested thousands of dollars and hours into revitalizing their homes, understand.
Susan Chalfant, whose house has been an orphanage and a funeral home over the years, said that in the 1990s, when crime in her neighborhood started to move past annoyance and into chronic, homeowners investing in the area took matters into their own hands. They would approach women who were loitering on the block and engage them in conversation until men cruising the area stopped frequenting the region.
“We weren’t willing to walk away,” Chalfant said. “These are our homes.”
Dawn Donson , a fellow Kimbrough resident, said that same sentiment is being replicated more often across the city.
“Being someone who was born and raised here in Muncie, I see the community engaging. All neighborhoods are on an upswing, I think; some are just happening slower than others.”
Slow, steady improvements
The city’s Old West End neighborhood is one of those slower-changing areas, said Nicole Rudnicki.
“I feel like I’m a bit of a pioneer,” she said. Five years ago, she bought an ecoREHAB home. Since then, “I’ve been working to get people to change their minds about what my neighborhood is.”
And though it’s slow, she said, it’s happening.
“People are taking care of their property, and you hear kids out playing,” she said. “You notice those changes. People are working hard to improve the image and perception of the Old West End.”
That same promise of hope and new beginnings inspired the students working on the house on West 10th.
“I’ve pictured it as a place for people who maybe would not have been able to have a house otherwise,” said Katie Landry, an architectural master’s degree student from Decatur, Illinois. “I hope it’s something they can call their own, maybe for a single mom and a child who are getting a new start. I see them having hope, and I hope they will be comfortable and happy here.”
That larger circle of connectivity is what fuels Graybeal.
“Muncie is my family’s forever home. This is our community. These people are all our neighbors,” he said. “When somebody sees Muncie in the news down in Indianapolis, can I like what they see?
“Maybe we are fighting an uphill battle,” he continued. “But people, right now, are living in unsafe conditions. There is a need for quality housing so people can live with dignity. So we’re getting people into a position to be able to take responsibility for taking their neighborhoods back. By and large, we see it as getting the homes into the hands of owners who will keep an eye on the streets, to watch what’s going on and be aware.”
And if takes a long time, well, that’s OK.
“We’re getting the houses back to people who will be energized and build community. People who will want to have neighbors over and have friends visit and build their lives.”