By Kathryn Powell
Over the course of the semester, explaining our research usually went like this:
“I’m part of an immersive learning project this semester. We’re studying the history of the Riverside-Normal City neighborhood.”
“What’s what? Immersive learning?”
“No, what is Riverside-Normal City?”
To someone who has spent the semester immersed in the RNC neighborhood, this question feels absurd. Yet, before taking this course, even some of us didn’t know where or what the RNC was. Our professor initially chose the RNC as our research subject because of its proximity to Ball State University, and it wasn’t until we studied the neighborhood and the various agents of change and influence over time that we began to unravel the RNC’s extensive and complex history.
Much of this history revolves around the dramatic shift in neighborhood population brought on by Ball State’s expansion and economic changes in Muncie. Today, the neighborhood is a majority students and renters, and the transition from long-term family homeowner to a transient renter population redefined the neighborhood identity.
So, the question asked by the unaware friend is not so absurd after all. “What is Riverside-Normal City” is the question that we asked ourselves all semester and the question that the neighborhood itself is still working to answer.
Over the semester, we discovered that the RNC’s identity is directly tied to its residents, and changes in the neighborhood’s population corresponded with the larger historical context of Muncie and Ball State. Between the 1930s and the 1970s, the neighborhood was a majority middle to upper-middle class families. Emerson, a beloved elementary school, Tuhey park, a popular recreational space, and The Village, a family-oriented shopping center, are all remembered fondly by those who grew up in that era. In 1965, Ball State officially became a University and its student population rapidly increased. This, combined with the de-industrialization in Muncie, specifically with the Ontario Corporation in the RNC, contributed to the exodus of family residents from the neighborhood. Student renters took their place, and, after Emerson elementary closed and The Village began catering to students, fewer families saw incentive in moving to the neighborhood. The RNC is currently a majority student and renter population, and is tied to both the university and Muncie’s downtown cultural centers. It was these demographics and the critical space that the RNC takes up in the community, both characteristics a product of the neighborhood’s complicated history, that drew us to this project in the first place.
Today, although the RNC has strong connections to Muncie’s cultural centers, the neighborhood is disconnected from itself. Most residents are unable to form relationships with each other, as students and renters come and go every few years. As a result, residents look outside, rather than within, the neighborhood for community. Ball State, Muncie’s Downtown, and the McGalliard shopping area are all examples of community centers that many gravitate towards, none of which are in the neighborhood. One exception might be The Village, which serves as a bridge to the university, but as it becomes more student-oriented The Village is increasingly seen as Ball State space rather than an extension of the neighborhood. Without positive interactions within the RNC, it is difficult for residents to build and strengthen relationships.
This disconnection between residents and the neighborhood dissolves most feelings of a shared identity of place. Students may see themselves and remember the neighborhood in relation to their time at Ball State, but they do not recognize themselves as part of the RNC. Many residents only stay for a couple years before moving on, and so the cultivation of a neighborhood memory is left to the few long-term residents who feel isolated from what was once a community based around shared neighborhood experiences. The lack of neighborhood community centers contributes to this isolation, as residents do not share as many memories within the neighborhood’s physical space. This isn’t to say that the neighborhood is deteriorating or disappearing, but rather to point out the dramatic change in residents’ perceptions and understandings of their own neighborhood.
So how do people understand the role of a neighborhood? What makes a good neighborhood? When asked this question, almost all fifty-one of our interviewees emphasized one quality of a neighborhood that they value most – the people. Whether they wanted neighbors who were respectful, friendly, outgoing, diverse, or involved, the sentiment was always that a good neighborhood starts with people. As Sue Gaylor, a woman who has spent most of her life in the RNC, puts it,
“If you get a mixture of older and younger, it makes the neighborhood come together. The older ones can give a little helpful advice and the young ones can give them a different view on life. As you grow older, you need older friends to grow old, but you need younger friends to keep you young. And that’s what you need in a neighborhood.”
A good neighborhood is connected. A good neighborhood’s residents take an active role in curating the community’s sense of place, and they do so together. It is only the people themselves who can transform a neighborhood from a physical space to a communal place—a space imbued with meaning from shared, everyday experiences and connections.
The Riverside-Normal City neighborhood, although in a continuous state of transition, is beginning to connect students and homeowners by utilizing the neighborhood’s unique space between the university and Muncie’s downtown to encourage residents to see their neighborhood as a distinct community. The Neighborhood Association spearheads efforts to paint colorful crosswalks and hang signs marking neighborhood attractions such as Tuhey Park or the Kitselman Mansion. City officials hope to revitalize Tuhey Park and encourage community interaction and traffic between downtown Muncie and the RNC. Even students have opportunities to get involved through immersive learning projects or community outreach programs.
Building Better Neighborhoods is a partnership between Ball State University and the Muncie Action Plan. Funded by the Ball Brothers Foundation, the endeavor seeks to grow, coordinate, and streamline Muncie neighborhood organizations. Heather Williams is the Neighborhoods Coordinator and she lives in the RNC neighborhood and has worked with long-standing members of the Neighborhood Association to revitalize both the Association and the neighborhood.
As these efforts continue, the RNC has the potential to become more than just a bridge between Ball State and Muncie as it redefines its collective identity. In doing so, will the RNC become wholly distinct from both the university and the city of Muncie? Will it become a mixing pot of these two cultural forces? Or, will it be completely claimed by one or the other? Only time will tell, but maybe one day no one will have to ask: “Riverside-Normal City, what’s that?”
“[I learned that] Collaboration with community members and classmates can be challenging, but yields better, more complete research and data.”
– Chelce Carter
“I’ve learned that there isn’t a ‘perfect’ process to doing ethnographic research. Ethnographic research is similar to solving a puzzle. With so many pieces of data floating around, it’s important to discover what aligns together in order to tell a complete story.”
– Leslie Thomas
“Through participating in this project. I learned how ethnographic research pulls from information obtained from the people the researcher speaks with but also historical sources, academic theory, and public forums such as Facebook. It all comes together to create a delicately, intricately woven story to depict the culture of a place at that time. This project was extremely rewarding and amazing to work on with some really awesome co-researchers with the help of so many residents!”
– Abby Clark
“I enjoyed this project so much! I learned you can have an idea of what you want the project to be, but that ultimately the data you gather from interviews and archive research will ultimately lead you in your research. Sometimes we can come into a project with a clear idea of what it will be, but as the research continues we learn and adjust with evidence. From my experiences, the research isn’t just something we do–it’s also interactive and revealing when coupled with firsthand accounts. We are so privileged to have the opportunity to share these stories and I’m happy to have been a part of it.”
– Barbara Dickensheets
“I think this project was such a great experience for us as students because it not only showed us how to find patterns and analyze, but it let us build relationships in the neighborhood and actually experience the people. Residents let us come into their homes and share a part of who they were. It’s that kind of human connection that makes anthropology what it is.”
– Mia Nickelson
“I think that this project proves how many pieces there are to pull together in order to paint one composite image of our ethnography. This project also reinforced how culture is always subject to the times, and forever modifying itself and changing. What the neighborhood is now is not what it will be in the future. And that’s why it’s important for us to have left this project open to later immersive study teams to add their research to.”
– Katie Harper