These doubles are located at 1726 Cottage Ave. and have been vacant for some time. The development, constructed circa 1922, was once a mildly upscale area for newly married couples to start their lives. (photo by Dawn Olsen)
There is but one thing missing from the archives, photographs, directories, and censuses of the past: a personal side. It’s true that collections and public records are abundant with facts—one can find what year a person bought a house, who designed a particular property, or what the original façade of a commercial building looked like. But, too often, the data doesn’t share what we truly seek—memories. Recollections of daily life. What was it actually like to live and breathe and walk the streets of historic Indianapolis?
These days, the 1700 block of Cottage Avenue is a bit patchy. There are some bumps, some cracks in the road. A chipped sidewalk or two. The homes are snugly nestled together, separated by the occasional chain-link fence. Plywood is nailed to the windows and doors of more than one home. And, in fact, it decorates all of the doubles at 1726 Cottage Ave.
The doubles, separated by a grassy strip deemed “Emily Court,” were constructed circa 1922. The first floor of each apartment home had a living room, dining room, and kitchen (arranged shotgun style). The bedrooms were located on the second floor. Front porches encouraged socialization and allowed mothers to overlook their children’s communal playtime. And while that sense of community is rare these days, Sue Zobbe—an individual who grew up in the area—recounted for me a time when the apartments were more than just a bundle of vacant homes.
“I saw Emily Court four times a day every school day from 1941 to 1949,” Zobbe said. “Those of us who lived south and west of there had to walk on the south side of Cottage to reach School No. 20. [We] all knew Emily Court.”
At that time, she said, mothers would sit out on the steps and watch the children play in the grassy strip. “A lot of people had little kids,” Zobbe said. “Moms [would] wheel the buggies and Taylor Tots out to visit with the neighbors.”
Sixty years later, I shuffled my own feet up the steps and along the sidewalk of the Cottage court apartments. I tried to look past the shattered windows, falling gutters, and dangling, tangled wires. I tried to envision young mothers chatting to each other, sharing recipes and talking of community activities. Those women—women who would have been the same age as my great-grandmother—had been starting their families. Raising their children. Making a foundation there in Indianapolis, in Emily Court.
And what of that past was left?
The courtyard itself appeared to be in good condition, but no laughter echoed in the open space. There were no children to race between the homes, to dart and hide and scrape their knees. In fact, the only thing that scurried between the apartments (other than my significant other and I) was a small dog, a Chihuahua mix barely taller than the overgrown grass. The dog stared at us warily, one paw hanging in mid-step. It was judging us, and questioning why we were there when everyone else had given up.
“Are they going to tear those down?”
I turned and saw a casually-dressed man calling to us. “They finally getting rid of those?” He gestured to the apartments, which—if possible—looked to be in worse shape in the back than they were in the front. “I’ve contacted the State Department of Health a couple of times about getting these torn down, but nothing ever happens,” he continued. “They need to go. Bad for the neighborhood.”
“Have they been trying to renovate them?” My fiancé asked. “There’s a dumpster sitting there and there have been some new windows and doors added in some of them.”
“Yeah, but they don’t do very much at a time,” the man says. “They’ve done bits and pieces, but I haven’t seen them working on anything for about two months now.”
I look over my shoulder. I see graffiti. Loose boards. A practically non-existent back porch. “How long have they been vacant?” I asked.
The man’s mouth contorted with thought. “I think … hmm … I think about a year,” he said.
My eyes widened and my tongue hit the roof of my mouth. “A year? A YEAR?” I repeated, my eyebrows raised. “This … this … I …. Wow.” I had no words. I sputtered. Judging by the outside condition of the property, the apartments had been neglected for much longer. But what baffled me the most is that people—someone, a real person—had been living in the property despite its obvious maladies. “One year,” I said again. I hopped onto a back porch and immediately gasped with surprise as a bird rocketed from behind a board—out of the house itself—and flew just above my head. “One. Year,” I enunciated, after shaking off the feeling of nearly being kamikazed.
“I wish I could talk to the owner,” I said to my fiancé. “But they haven’t called me back. I left some messages. I guess they bought the property last year. It says 2012 on the parcel information.”
It’s hard to pinpoint an exact time when the Cottage court apartments went into a decline. But, as with many dilapidated properties, the downward slope is gradual and is often attributed to a combination of several factors—an economic downturn, a shift from streetcar to automobile, a change in industry, a shift a demographics. It is known, however, that four of the units were vacant in 1980, and another three were listed as “No Return” in the city directory. (The homes just across the street—1725 and 1727 Cottage Ave.—were also listed as “No Return” and “Vacant,” respectively.) The No. 17 unit, however, was inhabited at the time. No. 17 was the northernmost building, one at located at the “top” of Emily Court. Though that unit was part of the original construction, it was demolished around 1999. There is but a small pile of rubble left.
Zobbe, however, remembers when the homes were still in their prime. She described the homes as “mildly upscale” and said that they were a good starting place for newly married couples. She added that a man with the surname “Scheier” used to live in the apartments and that his sister, Marie, resided there when she first got married (to a man with the surname Gray, to my understanding). Zobbe herself had been inside one of units as well. “My parents’ friends lived there,” she said. “And I would stop on my way home from school and visit them. It was a big living room. Big for that size house. Pretty roomy. I probably didn’t get much past there. I don’t remember where the bathrooms were. But it had, maybe, a little back porch.” She paused. “Now why would I remember that? … I was nosy. Probably.” And she laughed, I with her. In fact, I hung to her every word, listening, typing, remembering, imagining. It wasn’t just the Cottage court apartments I was learning about, it was a personal childhood.
But Zobbe wasn’t the only one with stories.
By chance, my fiancé and I spoke to another local, a man who had lived on Cottage his entire life. He had been watching us wander the property, and had watched me snap a few photos. So, when we finally crossed the street and headed back to the car, he, too, shouted toward us.
“They finally taking those things down?” Cigarette in hand, he gestured from his porch and toward the doubles. “Blight,” he says out of the corner of his mouth. He tells us all sorts of stories then. Stories about the fire hydrant that used to be at the corner of Cottage and Asbury; a hydrant that he and others would wrench open to host unauthorized hydrant parties. Stories about dozens of kids playing in the street, as compared to the two brothers who circled their bikes around the block now. Stories about his childhood home, and how the water heater had exploded. About how the Cottage court apartments were initially constructed as a place to go for the young men who grew out of the nearby General Protestant Orphan’s Home. And how, in 1973, Hells Angels bought the doubles and fixed each one of them up.
“They brought a bunch of trucks in,” the man says. “And each one of them had new washers and dryers and everything in them. When they were here, when the Hells Angels were here, [the Cottage court apartments] were nice. I used to let them park their bikes in my yard. Didn’t bother me one bit.” He extinguishes his cigarette, takes a step back and crosses his arms. “Yeah, they were only here for a few years, though. 1978 or so. Police raided them. They put down this long, black plastic tarp—” he points across the street, from one corner of 1726 Cottage Ave. to the other—“and lined up all the guns they found there. 300-some, I think. All lined up. I remember that.”
He remembered, and we listened. I listened. Because even if memories are tainted from time and whiskey, there has to be some story hidden beneath it all. There has to be a perspective. A personal history. And this man? Regardless of truth, he’s seen it. He saw the homes in pristine condition, occupied. And he saw them when the neighborhood children would play in the streets and in the yards, yelling and laughing. And he sees them now, empty, depressing.
“Back in the day,” he said, rocking back on forth on his feet. “Back in the day.”
Zobbe is sentimental as well. “I don’t go down the street I lived on anymore. It makes me cry,” she said. “It was a very loving neighborhood. It’s a war zone now.”