An Island In The Sun: The Sunshine Gardens Neighborhood of Indianapolis

You may have heard of Sunshine Gardens, the neighborhood with the upbeat name on the far southside of Indianapolis, but unless you had a reason to be there, you likely have never visited the neighborhood. Unless you were very lost. The Gardens are situated in a isolated area of the city. The western boundary is the White River, with Interstate 465 to the north. To the south and east sit substantial gravel pits, effectively making the neighborhood an island standing alone. The only routes into the neighborhood are via Conrad Street on the south, and Thompson and Epler to the east. 



Originally, much of the land which is now the Gardens was owned by Stoughton A. Fletcher Sr., younger brother to Calvin Fletcher, and one of the largest landowners in Marion County at the time. Note, the oxbow to the west was eventually cut off by the river and no longer exists.


Map of Marion County, A. Warner, 1866, Indiana State Library

The present day Conrad Street and Epler are seen on the map above. Additionally, just to the east of the red square you can see the location of a cemetery, marked as "Cem" on the map. This is the Bell Cemetery located at corner of SR37 and Epler. Even at this time period, this part of the county was very rural, and relatively sparsely populated. 

Sunshine Gardens in 1937 courtesy MapIndy.

Sunshine Gardens was subdivided in the early 1920's and promoted in local media with promises of spacious lots of 2 acres where residents could keep chickens, tend to vegetable gardens and escape from "dirt and noise and smoke" (presumably describing downtown) and into the "clean healthful air."


Indianapolis News, April 4, 1925

Like many advertisements for new housing subdivisions at the time, there was much hype about the numerous positives of Sunshine Gardens. Advertisements played up the "home farm" nature of the subdivision, which would be sold with a bungalow (reports varied as to 3 or 4 rooms), a garage, a shed, a driven well (no city water out there), and fencing for chickens and other animals. An advertisement appearing in the Indianapolis News on April 4, 1925, noted that the new subdivision was in the heart of "truck garden land." Additionally the "project," as it was referred to, was "designed to supply the farm living people of the city and county with a small tract just beyond city limits, yet in touch with markets and other conveniences."  


Indianapolis News, September 25, 1925

An additional component of the promotion for the new neighborhood was geared towards an idea of independence, especially in old age. The September 25, 1925 edition of the Indianapolis News detailed a list of reasons for purchasing property in Sunshine Gardens. Reason 21 stated that 7 out of 10 people were dependent by age 60. The cure for this was to purchase Sunshine Garden property, which despite a "decline in their earning power," the homeowners would be "secure in the knowledge that they are independent and safe." Presumably the neighborhoods promoters assumed the crops being raised by the residents would be sufficient to cover any economic problems which may arise in their old age. 


The neighborhood's position along the White River would prove to be a hazard. While the community missed the great flood of 1913, the slightly less severe Flood of 1943 took its toll on Indiana, and Indianapolis over the weekend of May 15-16, and into Monday and Tuesday. Neighborhoods along the river flooded as levees failed and evacuations were commenced.


Since the flood hit at the height of World War II, the Office of Civilian Defense (OCD...yes, that was the acronym) assisted in the response, and local members directed relief efforts in Sunshine Gardens. Initially the efforts of the OCD, as well as law enforcement and military personnel to reinforce the Sunshine Garden levee were successful, but on Tuesday, May 18, 1943, the water levels overtopped the levee and inundated the neighborhood. The Indianapolis News described the scene within the neighborhood: "Sunshine Gardens is a heartbreaking sight. You've seen pictures of people being rescued smilingly, from their homes, but the smiles are really all on the surface. Their hearts must be heavy at the thought of wat is happening to the small, bright, neat houses of which they were so proud."


Indianapolis News, May 19, 1943

Soldiers from Fort Ben utilized amphibious jeeps to assist in the rescue and evacuation of residents. The crops and gardens which were such a focus the neighborhood were also damaged, and the levee failure was responsible for "inundating thousands of acres of farms and gardens" around the Sunshine Garden area. One elderly resident of the neighborhood refused to leave her home until soldiers took her pigs to safety. Floods in 1964 again threatened Sunshine Gardens, but the waters stopped just short of topping the levy.


Today Sunshine Gardens seems like it has stuck close to its original design. The lots are large, and the neighborhood has a very open, rural feel. In fact, there were several paddocks and barns for livestock. When I visited in early March, aside from a small sign along Epler announcing the neighborhood, there isn't much of a welcoming committee. There are also two churches in the neighborhood, the Sunshine Gardens Wesleyan Church and the Apostolic Lighthouse, a Pentecostal church. The latter is interesting because the church building includes a pair of defunct grain silos. These silos are visible near the center of the 1937 aerial image, if you access it on the website. It is unclear when Sunshine Gardens Wesleyan Church was built at the intersection of Conrad and Epler, although the 1936 Marion County Cultural Map notes a church at this location. 


I would imagine Sunshine Gardens is the type of neighborhood that if you don't live there, most people are aware of you driving around within a few minutes. Puts me in mind of the bumper stickers from Rocky Ripple, "I'm not lost, I live here!" There are issues in the Gardens. The area still sits in the shadow of the White River, and the threat of floods. After the flood of 1943, additional funding was allocated to repair and update the levees in 1947. Further funding was allocated but then canceled in 1977 due to a "lack of local support."


Additionally, the proximity to the IPL Harding Street power plant has been the source of more recent health concerns due to coal dust polluting the air and ground water (most of the neighborhood utilizes wells). In the early 2000's the planned expansion of Interstate 69 from Indianapolis to Evansville cast a shadow over the neighborhood as one of the proposed routes was a new terrain construction which would cut straight through Sunshine Gardens. The neighborhood rallied to oppose this, and now, almost 20 years later, the interstate is still not completed, but the route appears to have been finalized to follow the existing right of way for SR 37. 



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