Extreme Home Makeover: Neighborhood Edition
by Jay F. Hein and John Clark
The Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood on the eastside of Indianapolis began in the 19th century as two separate communities, both of which were economically dependent on local rail lines and the industries linked to them. Brightwood consisted largely of immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and elsewhere in Europe while Martindale’s residents were mostly African American. Both communities prospered during the first half of the 20th century, but by the second half the neighborhoods began to deteriorate. As four major rail lines relocated away from the area, industries and jobs started to vanish. Families from Brightwood migrated to the suburbs and lower income families moved in. Martindale-Brightwood faced further difficulties when Interstates 65 and 70 fragmented the neighborhood, displacing residents and disrupting businesses. After the neighborhoods were declared a poverty target area in 1967, community associations formed to work with churches, businesses, and governments to fight crime, prevent housing decay, and open economic opportunities. For years these grassroots coalitions worked to address community problems and to keep the neighborhood from falling into a deeper slump.
In the spring of 2009, the cameras and frenetic bustle of the Emmy Award-winning Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (EMHE) descended on the struggling Martindale-Brightwood community. Each episode, the reality-TV program sends a deserving family on a weeklong vacation while the show’s designers, local builders, and hundreds of volunteers demolish the family’s house and construct a new one in seven days.
For the finale of its sixth season, EMHE selected Martindale-Brightwood resident Bernard McFarland as the recipient of a new home. Considered a local hero by neighbors, the single father of three teenage boys and IPS employee had dedicated himself to mentoring neighborhood children. As the builder, EMHE selected Carmel-based Estridge Homes CEO Paul Estridge; however, Estridge agreed to take on the job only if two conditions were met: the house had to fit with the rest of the community and the surrounding neighborhood had to receive major improvements as well. It was the first time in 145 EMHE shows that the target was a neighborhood rather than a single family’s house.
As the four McFarlands were sent to Paris for a week, more than 5,000 people signed up to volunteer their time, money, and services via the Estridge website. When the building started 1,946 community members came to the site to volunteer, while 1,492 skilled workers actually built the 2,500-square foot house and adjacent 900-square foot Pack House 2000—a study center and library where McFarland could do his mentoring. Some 200 companies contributed goods and services to the project, but the construction of the McFarland house was just part of what was accomplished that week. In addition:
• 20 neighboring homes were repainted, reroofed, or rehabbed
• 22 homes were landscaped
• 2 abandoned homes were demolished
• 1 church received new siding
• 1,000 trees were planted
• 7 miles of streets, alleys, vacant lots, and yards were cleared of trash
• Estridge Companies, in partnership with IPS and private companies, established free broadband wireless service for the neighborhood
• 100+ laptops were donated to local kids
• IPS School #37, across the street from the McFarlands’ home and closed since the previous year, has been refurbished and turned into a community center
• Century 21 earmarked $1,000 for McFarland's mentorship program called Pack House 2000
• McFarland's sons — Courtney, 16, Curtis, 17, and Domonique, 17 — have been offered full-tuition to Butler University
• Second Story, an important Indianapolis writing mentoring program, stocked Pack House 2000’s shelves with books
• Spectators to the build site brought 17,000 pounds of food that went to local food pantries
• Community members raised more than $12,000 to help pay for taxes and upkeep on the new house
• Sears pledged to pay off the balance of the mortgage on the old house.
Driving through the neighborhood one notices some obvious physical changes such as the conversion of IPS School #37 into a community center. Thanks to the Central Indiana Community Foundation, the center now provides ample space for neighborhood events, social services, and recreational activities. Looking forward, the Martindale-Brightwood Community Development Corporation has begun convening groups to form a strategic plan for operating the community center. If these meetings continue to blossom, the process of discussion and collaboration among groups and residents could be just as important as the community center’s physical building. Likewise, access to free wireless internet service is a great deal for neighborhood residents; even greater will be their ability to use the Web to build relationships with each other, their elected officials, and the rest of the city. That really would be an extreme neighborhood makeover.
The changes in Martindale-Brightwood are significant and have the potential to transform the community as much as the construction of the interstates in the 1960s and the relocation of the railroads in the 1940s. But such profound change can only be sustained if leaders make it so. The two very different paths Estridge and McFarland took en route to their shared national television appearance give us confidence that uncommon generosity and community spirit can be galvanized for great purposes. Paul Estridge Jr. was the prosperous owner of a family-run company that had built over 7,000 homes since its founding in 1967. Bernard McFarland was raised in an impoverished family, and as an adult his own Martindale-Brightwood home had deteriorated so much it was deemed unsafe for his three teenage boys who shared a bedroom.
Earlier in his life, McFarland overcame his obstacles by a love of books, which led to his college graduation and an honorable service in the military. When he returned to the Eastside neighborhood that he lived in as a youth, he became a loving father to his boys and a caring mentor to countless other neighborhood children. His Pack House 2000 program was one of numerous strategies he employed to reverse the rise of violence and school dropouts that plagued too many of his friends and neighbors. Bernard knew that education was the best antidote to these ills so he formed reading groups and led field trips to Indianapolis-area museums and cultural events for neighborhood youths.
It was this remarkable community service that inspired McFarland’s friends to nominate his family to receive a new home through Extreme Makeover. His service also inspired Estridge’s design team to construct a library alongside the family’s new home for future tutoring sessions. In addition to the Pack 2000 clubhouse and School #37 community center described above, Estridge utilized his technology prowess to create a fiber optic canopy that gave internet access to all households within a one square mile radius of the McFarland home. Dell donated 100 laptop computers to make sure that these families can take advantage of their new passport to the digital age.
Estridge understood that households are part of a larger ecosystem and considered himself a community builder rather than a homebuilder. His company became renowned for its commitment to a new urbanism that eschews cookie-cutter houses in favor of homes that revolve around walkable community amenities such as churches and parks. This approach was particularly important given the sad tale of earlier Extreme Makeoverwinners whose homes suffered from inferior craftsmanship or unsustainable housing costs. The McFarland home has been designed with style and a wider educational mission, yet also with a practicality that can accommodate further development in the neighborhood. Notably, the builders have used a geothermal heating-and cooling system and a low-maintenance, wind-powered generator to keep utility costs at a minimum.
Estridge and McFarland did not work alone, though. The Central Indiana Community Foundation continues to offer invaluable counsel on neighborhood development strategies and more than 5,000 volunteers and nearly 200 companies had enlisted their services in the cause. But such numbers should not come as a surprise to those who have followed the Indianapolis revitalization story over the past several decades. Our city has earned a national reputation for civic enterprise. Legendary names such as Tom Binford, John Burkhart, and Jim Morris conjure images of business leaders who used their wealth and position to build our local economy and an ever-expanding sense of community. Indeed, EMHE joins the Purpose Built Communities and Super Bowl Legacy Project as an Eastside remodeling project that features generous philanthropy and smart community strategies to revive neighborhoods and rebuild lives.
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