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We’re moving.

Several years ago then-mayor of Carmel Jim Brainard came to a Rotary lunch. He said something that changed how I thought about Carmel. I don’t remember the quote verbatim, but it was something like:

“Central Indiana doesn’t have a lot of natural wonders like mountains or water. So we have to build beautiful and wonderful environments.”

That is a remarkably astute and well-defined vision for a city to have. It’s one of the reasons that despite having nearly the same opulent levels of wealth as neighboring Fishers or Zionsville, Carmel feels distinctly different. You know you’re in a place.

I disagree with a lot of their style, however. It’s still a lot of suburban cul-de-sacs and the sort of urban development that is totally unsustainable. But, Carmel is moving in the right direction more quickly than other places like Greenwood, Plainfield, or Avon. All of which are following the tried-and-tired “Americana strip” with chains and franchises in a long row of a single arterial. Everything else is more or less a hodge-podge. If those towns want to see their future, they need only look at places like Beech Grove or Southport.

Indianapolis, however, has a different problem. It has the sustainable, dense, grid network in the older parts of town like where I live in Irvington. But it has all the issues of urban decay. Recently while walking to a farmer’s market, a woman stopped me and asked if she could have one of the poop bags on Ares’ leash. “I need to pick up a needle,” she said, chiding her young daughter to stay away from it.

Just around my house there’s a busted up laundromat that’s been abandoned for as long as I can remember, two gas stations side-by-side that induce tremendous amounts of blind speeding because of its wide cub cuts, several houses in disrepair, the road looks like the lunar surface, and much of the area closest to Washington is never mowed. A “chiropractor” has an office down the street that must be a front for something because there’s never anyone there and the car for sale in the lot has been there for as long as we’ve lived here.

Luckily, unlike in a lot of suburban places that have been cleared for farmland, older parts of Indianapolis have lots of mature trees that provide canopy, color, and privacy. They hide a lot of this blight and make walking around more pleasant on hot or even slightly misty days.

This is why the City of Indianapolis has the good sense to come remove all of it.

Not the blight. The trees, of course.

Earlier this summer the City of Indianapolis came by and chopped down a lot of the trees in my neighborhood. Some were dead. Most seemed fine. All did the vitally useful work of hiding the ugly gas station, the abandoned laundromat, the decrepit convenience store, and numerous houses in disrepair.

Now they’re coming for more trees that more or less just seem like a contracted agent in an Omaha insurance office deemed, “I dunno, it could impede a car if a leaf falls, so better get rid of it.”

Last year I could walk a mile east and if it was lightly raining I’d barely notice because there was enough tree canopy to cover me. Not anymore.

I saw this weekend that another neighborhood, this one in Noblesville, is struggling with the same issue:

People living in the Oakmont neighborhood of Noblesville are furious at the city government’s plans to remove 163 trees from their community.

Most of the trees are along Hardin Oak Drive where Courtney Kulp lives. She said she chose the neighborhood because of the trees.

“I remember driving down the street when we were in kind of that phase of ‘Are we really gonna buy this house?’ and I remember just driving down the street and loving how the street looked,” Kulp said Wednesday.

Republican Mayor Chris Jenson said Wednesday that the trees are causing the concrete sidewalks to buckle, posing a safety hazard for residents.

“At the end of the day, our job, No. 1 in Noblesville, is public safety, Jenson said. “Making sure the city is safe, as well as ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act) compliant.”

Most of the Freeman maple trees were planted in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and have reached the end of their lifespans. Jenson defended the city’s decision to only replant 94 of the trees.

“A lot of them can’t be replanted, especially if they are in violation of our ordinance,” Jenson said. “If they are blocking a stop sign, if they are too close to a fire hydrant.”

Two things come to mind in all this. On one hand, it raises my perennial question, “Just what are we trying to conserve?” And on the other, talk about government at its worst. Not only did government either allow, require, or outright create the problem by planting the trees (and perhaps that species) in the first place, they did so with full knowledge they would either impede a fire hydrant or sign or some other car-centric thing, and then ignored it for 30 years so they could come by on a whim and whack it all down at once and totally screw residents.

It’s Noblesville, so maybe their city will bother to remove the stumps so new trees can be planted. Here in Indianapolis, they just cut them down, whacking off $20,000 in value to the neighborhood for people who do things like “go outside” and “breathe” and then leave their tombstone as a monument that will last another 20-50 years. You know, just like the Parisians do in that other world-class city.

I am reminded of a note from The Hidden Life of Trees that stuck out to me: trees don’t really die. Most trees can sorta live on forever if not for external forces like insects, disease, wind, drought, etc. Only once those things impact most species of tree do they die. Perhaps some of the Freeman maples are the exception. Or, perhaps we’re killing the planet and burning everything alive. There’s just no way to know.

What I do know is Indianapolis can’t afford to make things even uglier. Yes, I know some people just don’t notice or care. As can be witnessed by the guy a few doors down who never takes down his Christmas, Halloween, or July 4th decorations. But I care. I am deeply sensitive to how things look. It’s literally my job to make things look nice! Which is why I can respect someone like Jim Brainard who can say, “You know, we’re just going to have build nice things.”

Further evidence of this insanity is the bleak, hot, loud Washington Street. I stood there yesterday and my Apple Watch pinged a “Loud environment” alert at roughly 112-121db (of which Aaron Freeman seems to like it like that). But standing there I noticed where trees exist on one side of the street (for now) directly under power lines. The other side, with no power lines, is a scorching sun-soaked hellscape. Great work, everyone. You put things in the way of the things you refuse to have things in the way of.

We're moving. 1
One has to wonder, “Did anyone bother to look up?”

Then I came home today and see that more on my street are set for removal. Unlike Noblesville, Indianapolis surely can’t say this is for “safety” as a “priority” because the crew would have to drive past six dead hookers and a meth lab just to get there. Someone has a contract and they get paid by the tree.

This has spun me into a third dimension of pissed-off, because it will make things worse. I didn’t know things could get worse but, I have given up because we’re moving. All things being what they are, we are moving into a new house in Michigan sometime in August.

Someone in a Reddit thread asked once, “What do you like about living in Michigan?” and one person’s most upvoted reply was simply, “Trees and birds. Birds and trees.” That sounds nice. (If you’ve never spent much time in the Michigan subreddit, let me tell you: as a lifelong Hoosier it is a much different virtual place than the depressing hellstew that is the Indiana subreddit.)

“Justin, are you really moving because of trees?” Yes. And birds. I like to take photos of birds sometimes, too. Also, I don’t suspect I’ll be waking over needles. And I didn’t want to move to Carmel. Bloomington was full. And for other reasons I will get to in a moment, Michigan has started to look like a Midwestern oasis.

If this surprises you, I do not think you know me well. I walk around a lot. And my once-daily walks have become nothing but sun-blistering steps among stumps that look like a Civil War battlefield. It is also deeply unsettling to me that, frankly, after last year’s debate over the transit referendum funding we already voted on that I just do not feel very welcome around Irvington anymore. I’ve not knowingly set foot in a single business that signed on to the “status quo” petition since. Landlocked closed, so I have no good coffee shop to work from anymore. The library is nice, but it primarily serves kids and it’s not conducive to work from. So I don’t have anywhere to go. So, I’ll just go.

But mostly it is about respect and priorities, both in how we live and how people around us choose to live. And as I have always said, “You can tell the priorities of a community by its budget.” In Indianapolis that appears to be jailing people, roads, and sports. And no part of me cares about any of that at all. This was evident to me when we tried walking to the farmer’s market recently (the same time the young mother found the needle) only to discover the road was randomly closed, the sidewalk was closed, and the one pedestrian bridge into the park where the market is that has been closed “for safety” for years is now just welded shut. The solution was, evidently, “Drive” or Walk down the wrong side of a busy road.” A pleasant, seven-minute walk became a 1-mile walk shunted off next to cars. That’s some Soviet-level crap. (See also: Indianapolis’ complete failure to understand people do not vanish like Sims just because a sign appears. Something that happened to me again yesterday.)

But mostly we are both ready for something altogether different. We’re tired of living smack in the middle of a city that I am convinced is just unsustainable in its current form and legislative environment. Neither of us have faith or trust in state government to respect our interests. Aaron Freeman is still running around like a headless horseman. And Mike Braun is about to be the next governor, a man who appears to be just to the right of Genghis Khan. Even Mitch Daniels thinks this is absurd.

When you start looking around at what state is affordable, seems to have its collective shit together in policies we care about, and appears to have balance on the whole, Michigan kept coming up. We want to spend more time outdoors, grow more food, scale back and down in our expenses and consumption, and live sustainably. What Jefferson surely meant by the “pursuit of happiness” and his ideal of a plot of land, a small community, and a life worth living. And I think at this point in my life I should be someplace I find beautiful. That used to be here, but it is not anymore. I didn’t change. Everything around me did.

After my good friend Becca died suddenly earlier this year, I can’t shake the notion that “retirement may be too late.” And there are things I am tired of spending mental energy on. We’re trying to engineer those problems out of our lives with the obvious loss of some direct connection to people here in Indianapolis. But, both of us work in a highly remote environment and it’s no further away than several other clients whom I deeply care about and work with across the region and country right now. My teaching is online, too, and I feel good about this.

The goal is pretty straightforward: live in an environment that is better for us and to conserve and live with what’s around us. So that’s what we’re going to try and do.


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About JUSTIN HARTER

Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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