By Mia Nickelson

“I was excited when we were able to purchase this house thinking about being able to raise a family in this neighborhood”

– David Heilman

I grew up in the Illinois suburbs and family was the focus of daily life. I never really thought about how family activities impacted a neighborhood, or that children influence the community as a whole. Then, this semester I studied the RNC neighborhood with my classmates. I noticed that the neighborhood contained parks like Tuhey and Emerson Dog Park, a shopping center like The Village and historic houses, in addition to being close to resources like downtown Muncie and Ball State. Though there are many renters, I still saw homes of families on streets like North and West University with nicely kept yards and outdoor decorations for the holidays, just like homes in my neighborhood. The presence of family life in an area which I had previously just thought of as a “college town” made me wonder about the interworking of family and community.

There are certain factors regarding family life in a neighborhood, as discussed by Bonita Williams and Suzanne Menestrel[1] in their article on Social Capital and Vulnerability, which shape how effectively a community works in terms of social capital. Social capital is defined as networks and relationships among people who live and work within a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively. Likewise, a family’s connection to the Riverside-Normal City neighborhood through schools, activities and social institutions generate a positive social outcome for the community.

Before we can discuss where social capital is coming from in the Riverside-Normal City community it is important to understand aspects of its family patterning as there are different ways in which families become part of the neighborhood. Sue Gaylor[2] is a resident who came to the neighborhood prior to 1962 as a single mom. She was attracted to the RNC neighborhood because parts of it, like North Street, were primarily family owned.  She found that while some people grow older, retire and move away, younger people with families come over. Some couples, like the Eads[3], are attracted to the RNC neighborhood and start their families soon after. Jeff and Andrea Eads lived in the neighborhood in the 90s when they attended Ball State and are now permanent residents raising their three children. They decided to locate themselves in the neighborhood because of its accessibility and their interest in their historic house. Katie and David Heilman[4] are a couple who lived in the neighborhood as students, got married, and bought another house in the neighborhood.  They are attracted to the strong sense of community, which is why they decided to stay after they graduated college. In an interview they discussed that they are planning to start a family here.  So, residents may move into the neighborhood already with a family or choose to come to the RNC neighborhood because they are looking to start one.

David Heilman said that the diverse age range of the RNC neighborhood is a good environment in which to raise his kids. Interaction between young kids, college aged students, adults and the elderly helps children get exposed to the outside world. According to David, the RNC neighborhood “is what the real world is like”. Courtney Bishop[5] is a post grad resident living with her husband Zane. She stayed in the neighborhood because of her investment in the campus ministry and her husband’s desire to commit to the community. She described the neighborhood as “a really good place to raise a family” because of all of the activities nearby.

However, many residents also said that there are not many children in the neighborhood anymore. This prevents the neighborhood from continuing its traditional development. There are many students and older couples and not as many families with growing kids. Sue Gaylor does not see how that can be changed at this point unless something more is done to draw families in. In the words of Zane Bishop, “They just need to bring back our elementary school, am I right?” A new elementary school is not in the foreseeable future for the RNC neighborhood, but that does not mean there aren’t any ways to benefit young families in the community. If we can understand why a school is good for family life in the RNC neighborhood and what kind of social capital is gained from it, we can find alternative features or institutions that would benefit families and therefore the RNC community.

As we can see from the positive attachment families had to Emerson (See the page on Emerson by B. Dickensheets), schools are indicators of a community’s social capital. It is clear that Emerson School was a major source of family and peer connections from 1923 until it closed in 1981. Bruce Geelhoed[6], a historian who has published works about the Middletown studies and is interested in the historical inner workings of the Muncie community, noted that families came to the RNC neighborhood because of Emerson Elementary. It was known as a good school to send children and had a reputation for connecting families in the neighborhood. Linda Gregory[7] was a resident in the neighborhood for 18 years starting in 1996 and was an elected official on Muncie City Council. She fondly remembered attending Emerson and that it was a place to meet friends. Strong connections could be made because children could relate to classmates who also lived in the neighborhood. Sue Gaylor’s son made friendships at Emerson that were maintained throughout his life.  Places facilitate people creating and maintaining strong bonds so it is no wonder why so many residents look back on Emerson Elementary positively.

But what happened to social capital generated by families when Emerson was gone? To begin with, they had to take their kids to another school. In some cases, they moved neighborhoods to be closer to other schools. Some residents like Sue Gaylor stayed in the neighborhood and their kids went to Garfield on Madison Street, which was still a walkable distance.

Some children today, as is the case with the Eads family, are enrolled in online school or homeschooled because it gives flexibility for travel. In Muncie there are currently nine public elementary schools, a public charter school (Burris, which is for grades K-12), two middle schools and one high school in addition to three private preschools/kindergarten schools.  Zane Bishop explained that public school is a viable route, but also means that the students would not be going to school in the neighborhood.  There is no denying that families must take education into account when considering what is best for the family. Families must choose between several institutions outside the neighborhood which affects their networks within the community.

Even though it is unlikely for the RNC neighborhood to get another elementary school, due to the large college student rental population and relatively low numbers of elementary-age children and low income tax base, it is possible for social capital to be gained within the community through other social institutions and spaces geared toward family life because they allow for interactions between family and the neighborhood. Outdoor play is a component of the social features of the RNC neighborhood. Various references were made in the interviews about children and families outside at parks, on campus and all around the neighborhood.  Social interaction is another one of these features. The dog park, public green spaces and playgrounds in the RNC neighborhood all allow for social interaction. This would give residents of the RNC a higher neighborhood satisfaction and establish networks in the RNC community, leading to social capital (better connections) for its families.

Through the 50+ interviews conducted with people affiliated with the RNC neighborhood, it is clear that residents in the RNC have specific places they like to go with their families. The walkability of the neighborhood allows residents to take a stroll with siblings or other family members past houses, businesses and green spaces. The dog park is a popular destination. Heather Williams[8] is a program manager of Building Better Neighborhoods at Ball State University as well as a homeowner, living with her husband and three children in the RNC neighborhood.  Ronald Smith[9] has lived in the neighborhood for 32 years since his daughter has been born and has lived in Muncie his whole life. Linda Gregory, Heather Williams, Ronald Smith and the Eads all mentioned the dog park within their main recreation activities. Even though residents go there with their dogs, the dogs are not the only ones who get enjoyment out of it. Heather Williams says that her son “thinks all of the water features are for him”.  Its popularity has allowed it to become a neighborhood meeting spot.

Tuhey Park– a neighborhood destination for families. Photo taken by Jen Erickson.

Families and neighbors also share a common space to be social at Tuhey Park. Kids come to the area because of the playground and pool, as noted by Jeff Eads.  Parents meet up with each other as their children play and swim, or relax in the grassy area of the park for a picnic. Burkie’s, an old fashioned drive in restaurant, was another family hotspot. Katie and David Heilman, a couple in the RNC neighborhood, joked about how the fact that their house falls within the realms of Berkie’s delivery service is no coincidence. It has since been closed, to the upset of some residents, but still left its mark as a cultural hot spot for family life in the RNC neighborhood. The Eads family plays frisbee on the Hazelwood lawn and also, along with RNC residents like Linda Gregory and the Bishops, take special interest in certain places outside the neighborhood.  Minnestrista, the White River, the farmer’s market, Christy Woods, Emens and Frog Baby are some of the destinations that families mentioned. Families like the Williams also walk through campus and picnic on the quad which is full of mature trees and gives a nice atmosphere for the kids to run around. The Williams’ three kids also play in Tuhey Park which is practically in their backyard.

Families have shopping and eating options in The Village, but there have been some complaints that the environment in The Village is geared more towards college students than to families. Linda Gregory remembers many more restaurants in the Village as well as a grocery store that were accessible to her and her family. There also used to be more facilities for childcare than there are now.

A past family playing out in the neighborhood (Kitselman Estate). Photo provided by Carol Smith.


Currently, there are several young couples with little children who have good relationships with other families as well as their neighbors without kids. Heather Williams, Courtney Bishop and Sue Gaylor all mention positive social interaction with families out and about in the neighborhood.  Residents have also mentioned meeting neighboring families at playgrounds and parks where their children can play together.

Nearby cultural activities make it possible for RNC residents to educate their children beyond the school system and thus add greatly to the social capital of the neighborhood. The proximity to Ball State Unversity allows parents to get easy access to music lessons for their kids. There are also art classes available to the public, shows at Emens and Pruis, the art museum and human research labs. Jeff Eads expresses his happiness that his kids “get to grow up around culture (and) education”. He and his wife Andrea value culture and education over space which is why they thought this neighborhood was a good fit for their family.  Public parks, sports and the arts all come into play with family life in the RNC neighborhood.

RNC provides its families with social features from parks to accessibility to nearby cultural facilities. Not only does this establish strong connections between the family and the neighborhood, but it links them socially to the rest of the community sharing in these features and consequently networking. It allows their children to grow up in a positive social environment. This does not change the fact that there are fewer children in the neighborhood than there were in decades prior.  More social capital can be gained with more families that prosper. If other cultural institutions that influence family relationships are present in the neighborhood perhaps it will become a draw for young families and there will be more children present in the neighborhood, creating more social benefits and allowing the RNC community to run even more effectively.


[1] Williams, Bonita, and Suzanne M. Le Menestrel. “Social Capital and Vulnerability from the Family, Neighborhood, School, and Community Perspectives.” New Directions for Youth Development 2013.138 (2013):97-107. Web.

[2] Sue Gaylor  interviewed 10/20/16 at her home on University Ave by Kathryn Powell

[3] Jeff and Andrea Eads interviewed 10/27/16 at North Street by Iesha Alspaugh and Leslie Thomas Jr.

[4] Katie and David Heilman interviewed 10/20/16 at their home on Washing St by Iesha Alspaugh and Abby Clark

[5] Courtney and Zane Bishop interviewed 10/20/16 at their basement rental  by Iesha Alspaugh and Abby Clark

[6] Bruce Geelhoed interviewed 10/24/16 at his office in Burkhardt by Mia Nickelson

[7] Linda Gregory interviewed 10/29/16 at the Caffeinery by Babs Dickensheets

[8] Heather Williams interviewed 11/16/16 at her home on W University Ave by Chelce Carter and Mia Nickelson

[9] Ronald Smith Interviewed 11/4/16 at his law office on High St by Abby Clark and Leslie Thomas Jr

Header image of the Sulanke family Thanksgiving at the Hazelwood Parsonage, 1956,  courtesy of Minnetrista Heritage Collections, Muncie, IN.