By Katie Harper

“Riverside-Normal City has such a different population than the rest of Muncie. You have a combination of older residents who have been here for a long time as well as younger people, which makes us very culturally diverse. We’re all across the map here, but I see us (as a neighborhood) as very open, and interested in learning from each other.”

-Heather Williams, RNC Resident

From artists to small business owners, teachers, faculty, students, and many more; a myriad of Muncie residents and Ball State students all call the Riverside-Normal City (RNC) neighborhood home. The RNC was developed during the height of industry in Muncie; a time in which factory jobs were abundant, neighbors all knew each other, and the vast majority of its residents had achieved middle to upper-middle class status. The neighborhood’s housing stock catered predominantly to the professional class, as well as to some of the working class within the Muncie area.

Figure 1: The Ontario Plant in 1916, from Ontario Corporation – A History (1955-1981) (Muncie: Ontario Corporation, 1981)

In order to grasp the significance of diversity within the RNC throughout the past few generations, we have to first assess the neighborhood’s historical origins. In the late 1800’s, two neighboring communities both connected by train, the Riverside City and Normal City, were developed as a result of the industrial boom at the turn of the century. Riverside City was first platted in 1893, incorporated in 1903, and later annexed to the city of Muncie in 1919. Normal City was platted in 1893 and incorporated in 1898-1899[1]. Families of upper-middle class status were eager to build homes and move into the area to start their lives and carve out a niche in the Muncie area. With the beginning phases of the automotive transportation industry taking off, things started to look bright for the developing communities of the Delaware County region. Neighborhoods in the surrounding area began to establish pronounced identities for themselves, as young families with goals of home ownership started moving in.

During the height of the industrial development, Muncie gradually became more populated with factories, some of which were constructed within the neighborhood. Established back in 1900, the Ontario Plant (later referred to as the Ontario-Aero Forge Corp) was located on the White River, just west of the Lutheran Church. The factory was one of the city’s major economic drivers. Most people who worked in neighborhood adjacent factories did not live in the RNC neighborhood as it was too expensive[2]. Residents of the RNC was hardly affected by the decrease in factory jobs because most of its residents were professionals, and few of them had working class factory jobs. Jobs were readily available for the professional class at both the Ball Memorial Hospital and the university or other prominent institutions. The amount of factory jobs in Muncie, however, has dropped significantly over the years, from 16,000+ to around 6,000[3]. Those that are left are not as prosperous as they were, now paying either minimum wage or not much more.

The Riverside-Normal City neighborhood was originally portrayed by the greater Muncie population as a neighborhood designed to cater to the business-class individuals and professionals of the city. It was one of the first neighborhoods in Muncie built with the attraction of middle-class families in mind, and was characterized overwhelmingly by Republican, middle-class, white families, though restrictions on the basis of race or religion were never imposed. Ball State used to maintain highly restrictive policies on student housing that prohibited students from living off campus (unless it was in approved housing) which severely restricted student occupancy in the neighborhood [4]. The neighborhood retained its homogeneous character up until the mid-1970’s. Around this time, residents began selling their homes for rentals to Ball State University students and gradually phasing out of the area. This consequentially opened up more vacancies for student renters in the RNC, who’ve since taken over the neighborhood population in the proceeding 40 years. With Ball State having been recognized as a university in 1965, a massive influx of students moved into the neighborhood in droves and have continued to do so since.

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Figure 2: Riverside-Normal City Research Demographics; collected through U.S. Census and ESRI Community Analyst

As Ball State expanded and enrollment increased, the overall population of the neighborhood has steadily decreased. However, the average resident of the neighborhood itself has completely shifted due to an overwhelming amount of family flight that is congruent with increased student population. The graph depicted in figure 2 displays the population change from the 2000 census to the 2015 estimates. This graph shows a decline of 200 residents from 2000 to 2010 followed by a more gradual decline of 50 residents from 2010 to 2015[5]. Though the feel of the neighborhood is notably less “family centered”, the RNC is without doubt much more racially and ethnically diverse than it was in earlier years. The white population of the neighborhood has decreased over the years (28% from 1970), while the minority population has grown. Black residents are the most predominant minority in the neighborhood, and the number of black residents in the area had steadily increased up until 1990. Since then, the population of black residents has declined. The number of Hispanic residents in the RNC has been rising since 1970. Most neighborhoods in Muncie are stratified by both race and class, and generally are home to similar people in terms of racial and economic class categories. The RNC is unique in that it provides an exception to this homogeneity, containing a genuinely diverse population of student renters and homeowners alike from various regions and socioeconomic levels.

Figure 3: Riverside/Normal City Neighborhood Profile: PLAN 302, (2015).
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Figure 4: Riverside-Normal City Research Demographics; collected through U.S. Census and ESRI Community Analyst

There is also increased variation amongst political ideology within the neighborhood. Attorney at Law Ronald Smith stated that the RNC used to be about 80% Republican before according to voting records, but now it is pretty evenly split between Republicans and Democrats[6].

Before Ball State had increased its student enrollment, the RNC was very residential, with homes belonging predominantly to homeowners and their nuclear families. Now the homeowner culture has shifted, and those that do own property in the neighborhood are predominantly landlords, faculty members, singles, retirees, and empty-nesters, with a lower population of young families and professionals.

Currently only 24% of the neighborhood is occupied by residents older than 25 years of age (See Figure 4). Almost 47% of the households in the neighborhood have household incomes less than or equal to $15,000 annually (Figure 5). Old five-bedroom bungalows in the neighborhood have been individually sublet room by room over the years, depreciating the value of the homes in the neighborhood. Students and renters living in the neighborhood are also not feeding into the tax base of the region, which is potentially limiting when it comes to infrastructural achievements.

This high rate of renter turnover has led to a pattern of wear-and-tear without repair over time to some of the neighborhood’s oldest and more historic houses. Overwhelmingly, we have seen the student population in the neighborhood increasing as time progresses, further adding to the dilapidation observed in the neighborhood. Currently, the renter occupancy rate is 87% in the neighborhood, while just 13% of houses are owner occupied[7]. With the neighborhood on the brink of becoming a rental wasteland, the RNC was facing a crisis. Over the past ten years, however, there has been a notable shift in attitudes and appreciation of the neighborhood from both long-term and short-term residents alike. Landlords that live in close proximity to the area have worked to rehabilitate homes and rentals. Neighbors and landlords are working together to improve the RNC’s current community state.

Figure 5: Riverside Normal City Research Demographics; collected through U.S. Census and ESRI Community Analyst

Without maintenance of these properties the homes in this neighborhood are at high risk for condemnation. Ronald Smith, attorney and long-time resident of the neighborhood, expressed his concern for the RNC’s potential rise in vacant houses. Because of larger rental facilities in the area, such as the Village Promenade, being built, the outside landowners who rent out their properties cannot compete. He elaborated on this concern stating: “As the vacancy rate goes up, it presents a danger of vagrants occupying the places along with homeless and drug use. Vacant homes also do not give absentee landowners incentive to keep up the empty properties, thus subjecting the homes to risk for condemnation.” [8]

The neighborhood was once home to more upper-middle class families. Some lifelong residents have even referred to the previous occupants of the Riverside-Normal City neighborhood as “WASP-y,” referring to the majority demographic as White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. According to our interviewees, it was a much different time back then. Neighbors knew one another, and children of the neighborhood would spend their days playing tag and hide and seek anywhere in the neighborhood. Summers were spent riding bicycles, and playing basketball, football, baseball, and of course kickball in the Emerson school yard. Kids could roam around freely without worrying their parents. If a neighbor had lost a dog, everyone would be on the search.

The general consensus from the older individuals that we interviewed was that 50 or more years ago, there was a much stronger sense of community in the RNC. Back then, everyone knew everyone, and it was a close-knit fabric of almost exclusively middle-class, white, Christian families. Minorities were such an outlier in the neighborhood that within each of the Emerson Directories created from 1913-1931, asterisks were put before the names of ‘colored’ residents living in the neighborhood. In the 1913 listing for Normal City, there were three only residents with asterisks before their names. One was Margaret Cottman, who was a live-in domestic at 1200 Jackson. Another was James W. Sawyer, of 215 N. Martin, and the other was Wm. H. Redman, of 218 N. Martin.[9]

Renter vs. Student Relations

In the Riverside-Normal City neighborhood, one could argue that multiple drunken instances of vandalism, stealing of road signs for souvenir purposes, rowdy partying on the weekends, and the occasional busted window or mailbox might be a deal breaker for many homeowners in the area. Yet contrary to assumptions, the relationship between both renters and owners of the neighborhood is generally depicted as a positive and accepting one. Though the trash and debris left from some short-term residents can aggravate the average homeowner, there is an underlying theme of camaraderie between the two groups. Most homeowners do claim that they wish that the short-term residents treated the neighborhood with the same respect and dignity that the homeowners provide.

The Riverside-Normal City Neighborhood Association’s objective in the early 1990’s focused primarily on limiting The Village area and apartment complex expansion in the neighborhood, and to also retain what sense of community that the neighborhood already had. Infrastructural issues were a commonly cited issue during meetings, in which poor drainage in the streets, sidewalk and road conditions, and concern about increasing the mean value for homes in the neighborhood nearest to campus were addressed. Student increase and family flight have made it difficult for the Neighborhood Association to gain traction within recent years. And though the Neighborhood Association has been around for decades, few students are aware of its existence. In a survey regarding the RNC Neighborhood Association conducted in 1993, over 80% of residents that were surveyed were unaware that the neighborhood even had an association in which they could participate.[10]

Growing concerns exist for the students that are renting within the RNC to obtain the same rights and treatment as long-term tenants and homeowners of the area. Non-student residents and homeowners alike are advocating for the assemblage of a tenants’ union for students, to protect them from landlords that have neglected their duties to maintain general upkeep of the houses in the RNC.[11] Only a small percentage of the landlords for the neighborhood live in Muncie, meaning that running routine check-ups and maintenance of the houses is often overlooked or ignored entirely due to lack of convenience. Many areas in the neighborhood that have the highest housing vacancies also have the highest concentrations of low and moderate-income residents. These areas are often times more susceptible to predatory lending practices. Both long-term and permanent residents have vocalized their desires to add more students to the Neighborhood Association board, and have advocated for more student involvement in the neighborhood to help collaborate and suggest solutions to infrastructural designs as well as having a voice in the general direction of the neighborhood.

This is difficult, however, due to the lack of mobility for most students and the short time in which students live in the neighborhood. Following a Neighborhood Association meeting that occurred in late October, one of the primary topics on the agenda was deciding upon how to brand the neighborhood, and how to give it a specific identity.[12] Long-term residents have also addressed the need for more trees and foliage within the neighborhood, in attempts to restore its former forested aesthetic. This is a difficult task to manage, seeing as most of the trees are responsible for the broken sidewalks in the neighborhood. The root systems that exist underneath the concrete have become so large over time that they have reduced the RNC’s sidewalks to unleveled fragments of cement. This has cut back significantly on foot traffic and bike traffic in the neighborhood. Members of the association have also discussed creating a tree species catalog, containing future tree species as well as existing trees within the RNC area.

Efforts to plant more trees outside some of the neighborhood’s more barren landscapes, and replant diseased and dying trees, are also a central theme in the neighborhood’s agenda. The Campus Community Coalition and the RNC Neighborhood Association’s president are excited about the prospect of working together to move the neighborhood into a more progressive and diverse direction. The general consensus from almost all homeowners in the area is that they would like to ultimately see more student involvement in the neighborhood, but also more students moving into the neighborhood following graduation, instead of moving after the completion of their degree.

The majority of long-term residents that we interviewed for this project maintain a sort of nostalgic reverence for the days prior to mass student occupation in the RNC. Some referred to these days as “safer”, citing that they never needed to lock their bikes up in the neighborhood or near campus. Others have stated that there was more of a sense of camaraderie and community involvement. The purported “neighborhood feeling” has not been lost entirely, but rather has been recontextualized into varying neighborly encounters and experiences. Whether it’s students getting together for a grill out on a summer afternoon, an elderly neighbor living across from you helping you jump your car battery after a cold winter night, or even attending a simple Saturday afternoon chalk-paint party with neighbors and friends alike to enhance the aesthetics of the neighborhood roads you all share (followed by some inevitable chatter about what to do with all of these potholes…) these encounters are still occurring. And they are continuing to provide the Riverside-Normal City neighborhood with an established sense of camaraderie and inclusiveness that celebrates the neighborhood’s new identity. One that embraces student culture and respectfully preserves the integrity of the neighborhood’s history.


[1] Seager, Andrew. July 1980, MSS.074 Box 1, Folder 1, “Riverside City and Normal City, Indiana: Studies in the History of Two Suburbs Project, ARCH 222: History of City Planning in Architecture Records, Ball State University Archives, Muncie, IN.

[2] Glen Sulanke, interviewed by Kathryn Powell, October 19, 2016.

[3] Attorney at Law Ronald Smith, interviewed by Abby Clark, November 4, 2016.

[4] Bruce Geelhoed, interviewed by Mia Nickelson, October 24, 2016.

[5] “Riverside-Normal City.”, 2015.

[6] Attorney at Law Ronald Smith, interviewed by Abby Clark, November 4, 2016

[7] City of Muncie Community Development Department, “Muncie Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice 2011”, Excerpts from Muncie Action Plan, (July 2010).

[8] Attorney at Law Ronald Smith, interviewed by Abby Clark, November 4, 2016

[9] Kym Bryant Schoeff, “Normal City, Indiana: A View of its Growth Through its Residents and Businesses”, (Oct. 28 1977) ARCH 222-2.

[10] Stephen D. Gaither, April 30, 1993. MSS 144, Box 1, Folder 10, “Riverside/Normal City Neighborhood Muncie Neighborhood Profile”, Stoeckel Archives, Muncie, IN.

[11] Eleanor Johnson & Michael William Doyle, Interviewed by Alexis Smith, Leslie Thomas, and Abby Clark, October 29, 2016

[12] Scottie Limbird, interviewed by Katie Harper, October 25, 2016