This is a community profile I wrote back in March for my feature-writing class at Ball State for Mark Massé. I decided to do the Near West Side neighborhood of South Bend because of its rich history. It has a bad reputation sometimes, but it just needs a little TLC and someone to actually care about the people and the area — the whole area, not just the historic part.
On the west side of South Bend, Ind., the
sun shines on the remnants of snow as winter reluctantly releases its grip on Thomas Street in the Near West Side neighborhood. The dingy brown grass, withered by the cold and snow is dotted with patches of green, revealing the silent hope of spring. A few children, freed from school for the day call out to one another as school buses drop them off. Nearby, a train whistles and startles a flock of returning birds into flight. Cars sit parked on the street lined with homes and scattered boutique shops. Some of the houses are painted bright colors, sharply contrasting their more nondescript neighbors. Others appear to be falling into disrepair. Graffiti marks walls and street signs, and a few children play in a fenced-in playground outside the St. Stephen’s School building. A police siren wails in the distance.
The Near West Side neighborhood is the city’s oldest neighborhood, containing much of the city’s history. The Oliver House and Studebaker mansion and its crumbling factory buildings are surrounded by the hundred-year-old homes that once belonged to the workers of their factories. Other homes in the neighborhood were occupied by workers from the Stevenson Underwear Mill, which produced woolen long johns in a red brick factory along the St. Joseph River.
The name of Studebaker is no stranger to South Bend. In the book “Images of America: South Bend, Indiana,” Kay Marnon Danielson says the Studebaker enterprise began as Studebaker Wagon Works, which grew to be the largest wagon manufacturer in the world and the only business of its kind to “successfully switch from horse drawn conveyances to gasoline powered vehicles.” While no Studebakers are in production today, there is a museum to the brand at 895 Thomas Street, and the mansion belonging to Clement Studebaker still stands in stone splendor on W. Washington Street. After the home’s completion in 1889, the South Bend Times and Tribune wrote: “The house, in its proportions and appointments probably surpasses anything in Indiana. It is an embodiment of all the wealth and taste can suggest, and modern skill and invention devise.”
Throughout its history, it has housed Studebakers and, after having to be sold when Clement’s son George declared bankruptcy, sat vacant for seven years before being used by the Red Cross during World War II. After that, the home was occupied by the E.M. Morris School for Crippled Children from 1947 until 1970. Ten years later, the home became what it is today – a restaurant and South Bend landmark, Tippecanoe Place.
Nearby at 808 West Washington Street, another mansion stands. Copshaholm is a 38-room Romanesque Queen Anne house and was occupied for 72 years by the J.D. Oliver family.
The Oliver Chilled Plow Works was the other major employer of the city. A young Scottish immigrant, James Oliver arrived in the United States in 1837. The Oliver Chilled Plow Works worked in conjunction with the Studebakers, using Studebaker wagon runners in their factory and products. According to Danielson, Oliver secured 45 patents for his plow designs, “overshadowing all his other products.” His son, J.D. took over the business and built Copshaholm for his family in 1895. According to a video played before tours of the house, they moved in on New Year’s Day 1896.
The home was donated to the South Bend Center for History in the 1980s, and its contents are completely original, even down to the spices in the kitchen cabinet and the jackets in the butler’s closet belonging to the Oliver butler, Oscar, says Tim Jurgonski, a tour guide at the Oliver Mansion. Catherine Oliver, the only unmarried daughter of J.D., redecorated the house to suite her tastes after the deaths of her parents, leaving many rooms painted “sea-foam green and Pepto Bismol pink,” Jurgonski says, laughing.
Copshaholm sits on the property of the Center for History, a museum dedicated to South Bend’s varied history, including its industry, sports, academia and role in the civil rights movement.
In the basement of the Center for History, Kristen Madden works as an archivist.
“The idea of the chilled steel plow revolutionized agriculture . . . and my family grew up with Studebakers. Studebaker was a name that everybody was aware of and it would have brought jobs into the area,” says Madden. The Olivers and Studebakers had an enormous impact on the economy of South Bend.
Madden recently moved to the west side. Despite the bad reputation regarding the crime that has steadily increased since the closure of the factories and the suburbanization of those who once lived there, she says she doesn’t feel it to be a problem.
“I think in a lot of cities there’s always that area that’s a little more dangerous, but at the same time, I know I’ve never felt particularly afraid of being in the area,” she says.
Noreen Deane-Moran, an English professor at Notre Dame University and president of the Near West Side Neighborhood Organization, agrees. She lives in the historic section of the neighborhood. She says the community is split between the historic section, where crime is low and incomes are higher, and the rest of the neighborhood with lower incomes and higher crime.
“If you were to look at the census data, you’d find the lowest income, lowest education, highest crime. However, if you were to look specifically at the historic area, you would find the opposite of all those things,” says Deane-Moran. “Unless they’re looking for quick drug money, it [crime] is not usually against people they don’t know – they get in cross fires with themselves.”
The historic area of the Near West Side is classified as a national historic district, which means little. According to the National Park Service, local historic districts have the highest level of protection, while national historic districts are simply a designation. “We have no controls, no anything,” Deane-Moran says. The neighborhood contains many beautifully renovated homes owned by people who love those homes and take pride in their history, she says. While new neighbors are welcome, the real estate of this side of the neighborhood has attracted some unwanted attention. “You have every landlord or lawyer in the city who would like to get an old house in a residential situation and change it to commercial and so you have to fight that all the time,” Deane-Moran says.
After World War II, many of the houses once occupied by factory workers were split into sometimes as many as four or five apartments to accommodate returning soldiers. There was also a movement from the city to suburbia after the war, leaving behind those who couldn’t afford to do so, and Deane-Moran says this leads to crime. To combat this progression, many families have worked to restore these homes to single-family dwellings and to bring the neighborhood back to its former state.
“We changed from lots of boarding houses, crack houses, gambling houses and drug houses,” says Deane-Moran. “We demolished two or three blocks and that has low- and moderate-income apartments now . . . My own house, I bought for a dollar and we moved it and then restored it completely . . . There are no programs to fix old homes up, so all the renovation is due to blood, sweat and tears because they live without heat or electricity for a couple years and actually put it together.”
The neighborhood has increased in population 17.4 percent, from 1,583 in 1990 to 1,859 in 2000. In this neighborhood, it is the Caucasian population that is the minority, with the African American population nearing three times that of Caucasians and more than six times that of the Hispanic. In 2010, the national percentage of African Americans was 12.6 percent of the population, only a fifth of the percentage in the Near West Side. With an average household income in 2000 of only $13,410, nearly 40 percent of the neighborhood is below the poverty line. Aside from John F. Kennedy Elementary School, located in a largely African American section of the neighborhood, the schools that service the area have the lowest standardized test scores and lowest graduation rates. However, there is still much pride in the area, revolving primarily around history – the houses in the historic area and the Civil Rights Era work in the African American neighborhoods.
The future of the neighborhood remains to be seen, but it has secured its place in the history of industry and the Midwest.