Exurban Enlightenment

I had just moved back from Edinburgh, Scotland and found myself transplanted in a friend’s spare room in Indianapolis. I was young, naïve and while educated and employed, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. All it took was a place called Emerald Springs, a dying subdivision about 20 miles outside central Indy.

There aren’t a lot of exciting things to do on the outskirts of Indianapolis. Stealing drywall from a failing exurban development would have been one, but at the time I didn’t know I was committing a crime.

My friend Ryan got a good paying job right out of college with a large production home builder. He was tasked with driving around to each subdivision and inspecting homes to ensure they wouldn’t fall apart. That, and he yelled at contractors a lot for what boiled down to general incompetence.

Ryan’s territory was, you know, those new, half-built exurban developments you see in the distance while traveling along the highway. Those ones, by the soybeans, where you ask yourself: who lives there? That’s what Ryan was doing; making sure these places existed.


Toward the end of the summer of 2007, it should have been clear that the housing market was falling apart. We’d go to weekend barbecues, and with each passing week, more of his work friends were being laid off and forced into odd jobs. Meanwhile, Ryan was also renovating his house in the Broad Ripple neighborhood. He needed drywall to finish the basement. This is where I was unwillingly coaxed into a misdemeanor.

We jumped into his aging truck that sometimes worked, and headed out to a far-flung development where he said we were going to pick up drywall. The suburban collectors that dragged us out to the eastern suburbs might as well have been called Desolation Row. I had just finished reading The Geography of Nowhere, so I was particularly jaded, and I remember looking out the open window at the passing landscape and thinking; why do we build this shit? 

I had heard of these developments – but I had never experienced them.


The drive took forever even as we raced against the clock to beat impending storm clouds. We hit the edge of the metro, past some fields, more housing divisions and then kept going. Finally, we hit the edge, with a water tower no less.

The place felt empty with dozens of ‘For Sale’ signs and recently planted trees. The homes were there, butlife was missing. We meandered to the back and we hit a bunch of homes under construction. The eerie ambiance lead me to believe that no one, including the construction crews, had touched this site in weeks.


The drywall was sitting untouched in an empty lot; someone decided to leave it. No one wanted this big pile of drywall and it was being left to rot in the elements? We loaded up the truck with about $1,000 of drywall right as the rain started to hit. It wasn’t until we pulled away and headed back to the city that I realized we had stolen building materials that would have otherwise rotted away, exposed to the rain, in an empty lot along Desolation Row.

When I think of the housing crash of the late 2000s, I think of Emerald Springs. How things were so belly up that someone wouldn’t even bother covering up countless thousands of dollars of building material with something as cheap as a $30 plastic tarp.

The abandoned drywall will, with little doubt, serve analogous to the future of Emerald Springs; some cheap drywall rotting in an unforgiving Midwestern field.

Rarely does one event drives someone’s decision in life. This certainly didn’t drive mine, but it left a small, but not insignificant “ah ha!” moment. Experiencing the juxtaposition of urban spaces elsewhere, from my recent departing of Edinburgh, to what we decided to build up at home, countless Emerald Springs, was motivation enough to act as a catalyst for positive change, at least in my life. If Emerald Springs succeeds in only one thing, it might well be that small moment where myself, and other passerby, may roll their eyes and ask: what the hell are we doing here?

5 thoughts on “Exurban Enlightenment

  1. Nick MagrinoNick Magrino

    Language beef: We should stop calling mass produced things like tract housing “homes” by default. Home is a feeling. How do you take out a mortgage on a feeling?

    [/liberal arts major]

  2. Mike Potter

    As an Indy-raised transplant to the Twin Cities: thanks for not being too hard on Indy. It’s a great town, but like a lot of cities without any real geographic boundaries, it’s spreading like a slime mold across central Indiana. Or it was. The housing bust combined with the Superbowl improvements have really sparked a renaissance in the development of walkable, live-able urban spaces (at least downtown).

    1. Nathaniel

      When I was there (2007), the downtown revitalization efforts had just started. Mass Ave was alright. The Cultural Trail wasn’t built yet (supposedly that’s cool) and Monument Circle is clearly awesome (wish Minneapolis had something like it). I lived in Broad Ripple and, in general, liked that area. Places like Carmel are actually okay too (for a suburb that is). It’s an amazing case study because – the one suburb that takes a New Urban~ish approach – is leapfrogging ahead of (in a massive way) every other place outside of Indianapolis that is falling apart right now.

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