By Chelce Carter and Jennifer Erickson

Participant Observation | Scanning Events | Neighborhood Events | Archival Research

Our primary research method for this project was ethnography, which involved participant observation and semi-structured interviews with current and past residents and business owners in the neighborhood. This was supplemented by historical data gathered from the archives at Ball State and Minnetrista, and reviewing posts about the neighborhood on Lost Muncie, a Facebook page with more than 18,000 followers. We also attended community events and meetings, and collected data that was gathered for previous Ball State University courses in the Departments of Architecture and Urban Planning.

Participant Observation

One of the hallmarks of anthropological forms of ethnography is participant observation, which involves spending long periods of time studying a group of people in order to discover often unanticipated patterns of thoughts and behavior, and to supplement data collected through other methods to be used for later analysis. Such data creates a different approach to understanding culture that focuses on everyday practices among a group of people in a particular place.

Our project was limited to 16 weeks, or one university semester, so we did not have time for the kind of deep immersion that anthropologists strive for. We did, however,  have a multitude of researchers, fifteen to be exact. This enabled us to engage in 58 hours of participant observation in the Riverside-Normal City (RNC) neighborhood, including walking around the area, interacting with residents, going to monthly neighborhood association meetings, and attending special events such as the Bison-tennial dedication and a sidewalk painting sponsored by the Neighborhood Association.

In order to most effectively use our time, we split the neighborhood into different sections. Those of us who lived in the neighborhood focused on areas around our houses. The rest of us picked areas based on our interests. For example, some of us liked to socialize in The Village, so it was ideal for us to work there. For others, we picked streets that friends lived on, or chose landmarks, like the Emerson Dog Park. We familiarized ourselves with our sections of the neighborhood by spending a few hours there at the beginning of the semester, taking field notes, and trying to get a sense of neighborhood activities. We searched for patterns in our data in terms of the people (college-age or postgraduate residents, families, elderly) and types of practices they engaged in (littering, going to the dog park, walking, biking, driving); built structures (homes, businesses, general architectural patterns); and the natural environment (trees, lawns, birds and other ecology).

During this time, we reached out to individuals that we met while observing. We let them know about our class, the project, and the type of information we were looking for. In order to collect this data, we needed to do interviews with past and present residents of the neighborhood, business owners, and other individuals associated with the RNC. We created an interview protocol that would work for most potential interviews, designed with flexibility in mind for those that might have other things to talk about. We call such interviews semi-structured, which helps us to look for similar patterns as well as divergences from those patterns.

In total, we conducted 51 interviews, which included short-term student residents, long-time residents who raised families in the neighborhood, Neighborhood Association leaders, and business owners, past and current. Our interviewees ranged in age from 20 to 92, and included 30 men and 21 women. Each interview lasted about an hour, and was conducted either at the individuals’ home or at one of our scanning events (see below). We started each interview with a description of our project, letting the individuals know about potential uses and venues for our research, and what they could look forward to—a website, booklet, and presentation. During the interviews, we took notes. In some cases, we recorded the interviews and later transcribed them.

Scanning Events

Researchers Alexis Smith and Abby Clark interviewing Carol Smith and Nancy Atkins, Photo by Jennifer Erickson

We held five “scanning events” at the Hazelwood Christian Church over the course of the semester, three on weekday evenings and two on Saturday afternoons. These events did not draw as many people as we had originally intended. We advertised by word of mouth and on the Lost Muncie FaceBook page. Three people came to our first event, and one person each came to the next two events. We advertised our fourth event in the Muncie Star Press newspaper, and eleven people came, encouraging us to hold a fifth event, also advertising it in the Star Press. At this final event, four people attended for a total of 20 people that we interviewed during the events.

Research Leslie Thomas speaking with Gayle and Jeannine Harrold, Photo by Jennifer Erickson

During the events, several students were stationed at one of three tables, each of which had an EPSON Perfection V600 Color Scanner. One student would scan any photos that residents brought with them, while others took notes and asked questions. Later, students transcribed and uploaded their notes into the project file.

The overwhelming majority of individuals who came to these events were a part of an older demographic, who remembered the neighborhood from an earlier time when the Emerson School still stood and was a central institution. They came as couples, friend groups, or single people, and were residents, artists, shop owners, Emerson School and Ball State University alumni, and more. Many visitors to this event came to talk to us about their experiences at specific sites, like the Emerson School, The Village, Tuhey Park, and other cherished neighborhood places.

Participants in our Scanning Events: from left Ted Brewer, Shirley Brewer and Nancy Elliot. Photo by Jennifer Erickson.

While not everyone brought pictures, many did. Some of the notable collections contained images of The Village in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, photos of the enjoyable Emerson School Ice Cream Social, and family pictures that showed everyday life in the neighborhood. We also collected news articles this way, which talked about the closing of Emerson, the opening of the Dog Park more than 30 years later, and the effect it had on the community.

Abby Clark, Savannah Myers, and Mia Nickelson preparing for our final scanning party.

Neighborhood Events

Indiana Bicentennial Bison Photo by Jennifer Erickson

As a class, we attended the Bison-tennial dedication on October 6, 2016, at Tuhey Park. The dedication was sponsored by the United Way in recognition of the 200th year of Indiana’s statehood. As part of a statewide effort, the city of Muncie received a bison to be painted in a meaningful way . The event was attended by friends and family of the artist, Denise King, who painted the bison, media representatives, and a few members of the community. At the event, we engaged in conversation with community members, talked to media about our project, and took detailed notes of the events that occurred.

The other event that many of us attended were the Neighborhood Association meetings that met on the fourth Thursday of every month. The main topic of discussion at these meetings was neighborhood improvement, which took the form of a crosswalk painting, clean-up efforts, sidewalk renovations, and the creation of a park in memory of Dr. Phil Ball, long-time resident and self-proclaimed “Mayor of Normal City,” who was also a doctor and writer who wrote columns about the neighborhood in the Star Press. He passed away in April 2016. We interviewed some of the Board members for this project. Others of us participated in Association-sponsored events, such as the crosswalk painting to welcome visitors to the neighborhood, which is located on University Avenue and Dill Streets, as well as The Village clean-up after the homecoming parade.

Archival Research

The Archives and Special Collections at Ball State University has a wealth of knowledge related to Muncie, since research has been happening in the city since the early 1900s. This includes legal paperwork about property ownership and wills, photos of historic events (the flood of 1913), and news clippings about the neighborhood. We started our research by looking at Sanborn Maps and city directories. Those of us that live in the neighborhood were able to trace the owners of our houses back through the years, and in some cases, we could see the exact year that it transitioned from family housing to student rentals. We used these archives to get information about Emerson School, Tuhey Park, and other aspects of the neighborhood, such as demographics from then and now. We also had access to Dr. Phil Ball’s collection of papers about the community, located in the Stoeckel Archives of Local History, which gave us a different view of the neighborhood than other sources, such as news clippings or memories of interviewees.

The archives also contained information about previous research projects done in the RNC. In the 1970s, a group of architecture students studied the neighborhood, which was followed a few decades later, in 1993, by a formal investigation and creation of the Riverside/Normal City Neighborhood Profile, a part of a larger project to collect data about all Muncie neighborhoods.  In 2005, it was the site of study for an urban planning class, and in 2015, a Neighborhood Action Plan was created by another urban planning class.

The 1977 project entitled, “Riverside City and Normal City, Indiana: Studies in the History of Two Suburbs,” focused on the early history of the neighborhood when it was separated into two districts, including land use and resident’s memories[1]. In 1993, Stephen Gaither looked into the efforts of the Neighborhood Association to stop student renters from moving into the area in full force. This project contained statistical data and charts that helped us to understand the demographic change that has occurred in the RNC over time[2].

In 2005, an Urban Planning Class looked at six different Muncie neighborhoods, including Riverside/Normal City. They identified its central location to Ball State, Minnetrista, Downtown, and McGalliard Ave, which is the site of many national chain stores and restaurants, as well as desirable locations in the neighborhood, like The Village or various parks. They also looked at zoning laws of the area, public transportation throughout the neighborhood, neighborhood conditions and appearance, and general demographic information from a survey of 80 neighborhood residents. Neighborhood issues were the final topic of investigation, influenced by survey data and observations. Many of the issues that were discovered in 2005, such as lighting, cleanliness, and sidewalks, are issues that we heard throughout our interviews in 2016[3].

We met with Susan Smith, a Minnetrista archivist, and told her about our project. We are grateful to her for sending us hundreds of photos and book titles for our project. These included pictures of the flood that affected the neighborhood in the early 1900s and photos and news excerpts from Emerson Elementary School as well as from churches.

Our last archival resource, Lost Muncie, was an important source for contemporary ethnographic research methods—social media. Lost Muncie is a Facebook page with more than 18,000 members (as of December 2016)[4]. The page was created by Larry Broadwater, a formal columnist for the Star Press with a column called Lost Muncie, who had a great interest in the history of Muncie. Though Larry has moved out of the Muncie community, he asked Jeff Koenker, a long-term Muncie resident and frequent commenter and poster on the page, to help him manage the page[5]. Each of the members can post pictures of Muncie from the past, comment on them, and share them as they see fit. It is a public group, but members must be approved. A direct relation to Muncie is not necessary, but many members had lived in the city at one point, or still do. Photos, newspaper clippings, and general questions about the history of Muncie make up the news feed, and something is posted almost every day. The page is fairly active, and while not all of the content relates to the Riverside/Normal City neighborhood, we did find some pictures and stories about our research site.

Analysis, Write-Up, and Design

Each student in the class was responsible for writing at least one section of the research. The job of each researcher was to examine and analyze the archival and ethnographic data related to his or her particular section and look for patterns (for example, demography, Tuhey Park, the Emerson School, The Village, etc.). Next, students used social theory to explain the patterns they saw in the data and then began writing. We met in groups to look for patterns across different sections and came up with connections that would be incorporated as links on the blog. Three different students worked with Professor Erickson to write the introduction, methods, and conclusion, and the design team ensured that everything came together in one cohesive website and booklet.

The Design Team: Chelce Carter, Amber Janzen, and Katie Harper

Public Presentation of the Research

On December 13, 2016, the class presented our research to the public at Hazelwood Christian Church. The presentation consisted of a Powerpoint presentation, the unveiling of the website, and short presentations from all of the researchers about their role in the project and lessons learned.


[1] Courtesy of Ball State Archives and Special Collections. Stoeckel Archives, Riverside City and Normal City, Indiana: Studies in the History of Two Suburbs. By Students in ARCH 222: History of City Planning Architecture. BSU, Muncie, IN. 1977.

[2] Courtesy of Ball State Archives and Special Collections. Stoeckel Archives, Gaither, Stephen D. Riverside/Normal City Neighborhood. April 30, 1993. Muncie Neighborhood Profile MSS144.

[3] Maria Melaragno and Danielle Deardurff. Riverside/Normal City Neighborhood Profile. PLAN 302: Urban and Neighborhood Analysis Studio, Fall 2005.

[4] “Lost Muncie FaceBook Page.” Accessed December 8, 2016.

[5] Interview with Jeff Koenker by Bevin Snyder. November 11, 2016. Bracken Library.