News From Terre Haute, Indiana

April 15, 2012

FLASHPOINT: Can anyone hear the call from Farrington's Grove

Florence Caplow

TERRE HAUTE — On Friday, March 30, a dear friend was brutally attacked in broad daylight in an alley in the neighborhood I grew up in, on the edge of Farrington’s Grove. Three teenage boys surrounded him. One of them knocked him unconscious, then focused on his face, pounding him repeatedly with something that was hard enough to shatter many bones.

Three surgeons spent nine hours working to reconstruct his face, but he will carry this damage, and its effects, for the rest of his life. And what provoked this life-threatening attack? He had confronted them about throwing trash in the alley behind his house.

I grew up in one of the historic houses in Farrington’s Grove, less than a block from where my friend was harmed. We moved there in 1967, and I lived there until I went away to college in 1981. My memories are full of the filtered light through the big trees that lined the streets, wavy glass in old windows, walking to Crawford Elementary School, and then later, summer nights meandering with my friends down the middle of Center Street, fireflies in all the lawns.

My mother and others spent many years working to create the Historical District designation for Farrington’s Grove, one of the most beautiful historic neighborhoods in Indiana, and the oldest neighborhood in Terre Haute. By the 1980s, as people started to appreciate old houses again, and the advantages of walking to downtown or the university, it seemed inevitable that the neighborhood would only increase in value to the city and its residents.

But something went wrong.

By the turn of the millennium, all the houses around my mother’s house were vacant, and the neighborhood was less safe. Windows were boarded up and the “for sale” signs weathered in the yards. It cost more to restore the houses than the price they could fetch afterward, even as suburbs grew like weeds. Meanwhile, all around the country, other neighborhoods full of Victorian houses were being promoted as tourist attractions, and “This Old House” was watched by millions.

Over the past 10 years, the neighborhood has continued to suffer. My 80-three-year-old mother and other determined people still live in and love Farrington’s Grove, but it seems that the city has largely abandoned their responsibilities to what should be the crown jewel of Terre Haute. Slumlords let hundred-year-old houses fall to pieces, and the city does little to enforce its own ordinances. A friend in the neighborhood called the police over a disturbance, and when the police arrived, they said, “Look, you choose to live here,” as if just living there disqualified him from police protection.

The teenager or teenagers who hurt my friend without remorse are still at large. The streets and alleys are full of garbage, the sidewalks are broken, and house assessments go down every year. The fastest way to ruin a beautiful old neighborhood is to allow it to become unkempt and unsafe — why isn’t the city stepping forward, before it’s completely too late?

My friend feels passionately that what happened to him needs to be a wakeup call for Terre Haute: save this neighborhood while it can still be saved, while most of the old houses still stand. Make it a livable, viable community again. Take care of it, police it, enforce the laws that are on the books. Clearing trash, providing support for teens, forcing absentee landlords to take care of their properties — all these small steps could make a difference. That’s why I’m writing today: for my friend, and for the other residents, who deserve the same kind of place that I knew as a child. Terre Haute doesn’t need to become another Detroit.

And if someone from the city is reading this and thinking of all the reasons why nothing can be done, think of my friend, who was trying to take care of his small part of the neighborhood all on his own, and who is now lying in bed with a very uncertain future and a face full of titanium, paying a terrible price for his sense of responsibility. I know Terre Haute can do better.

— Florence Caplow

Terre Haute