“The neighborhood leaves the long time residents alone,” Rupert muses. “But, that’s out of respect for their elders. This one is going the wrong way. If we can get some of these houses turned around, we might be able to change that slide.”
The front yards along Pruitt are lined with sidewalks, but no driveways – harkening back to a time when vehicles were not the standard in this part of Indianapolis. The houses along the street are small, and stand, dwarfed by the once young trees, planted almost a century ago.
Gary Hill is busy banging the plastic filter cartridge from a vacuum on the front step at 1438 Wes Pruitt. “Clogged vacuum?”
“When you get that done,” interjects the bearded man in the tie-dyed T-shirt and black camp shirt with a biker bar advertisement on it’s back, who is standing a pace down from the stairs, “get the kitchen cleaned up before the inspector gets here.”
“No problem,” the small-framed African-American man adds, as he stops banging the cartridge and heads back in to reassemble the vacuum.
The house is a small bungalow home, built in-between the two World Wars. Small, at barely 600 square feet of space, it’s seen better days. But the house is doing better now than when I first saw it.
Almost a year ago, Rupert Boneham was excited to be purchasing two properties through the Indianapolis Land Bank, which takes over boarded up, burned up and abandoned properties. The Indy Land Bank is now famous for two officials who, according to news reports were allegedly accepting bribes and gratuities to steer prime properties to certain lenders.
Boneham had been away, participating in recording a new season of the hit CBS-TV show Survivor when news of the Land Bank officials hit. When he returned to Indiana a month later, he wasn’t shocked at the news of the arrests. He had over two decades of experience in dealing with county and city government as he built his mentoring program for troubled teens and young adults. He was used to dealing with officials in the government bureaucracies.
This day, almost a year after Rupert’s Kids had purchased the properties, was the second time he had tried to get the Land Bank to release the title to the property. Part of the purchase agreement was completing a detailed list of improvements to the property. The inspector was coming back to check off the final items on that list, and, he hoped, release the title to his organization.
Boneham carried a couple of tool boxes from his red Chevy Suburban SUV parked on the street, down the narrow walk toward the back of the property. A thick steel entry door was open into the kitchen at the rear of the house. A small tabletop grill stood alone on the concrete walk, under a stately oak tree in the sparse backyard. The grey ashes, still retaining the telltale shape of the charcoal briquettes, with a few splatters of grease drips breaking the uniformity of their forms provided evidence of a meager cookout.
“I had to move Gary and Donovan in here a couple of months ago,” Boneham explained as he scrounged in his toolbox. “The last time someone broke in here, they darn near took out the entire back wall. That’s why we put up plywood instead of sheetrock on the inside.” The sound of Gary’s vacuum was whirring from the front of the house.
“I forgot the chisels,” he said eying the metal plate on the doorframe where the door latch would catch when the door shut. “We’ll get by,” he added. Just like the neighborhood, the lead mentor for Rupert’s Kids was used to getting by with what he had on hand.
Situated less than a mile north of the former stately Bush Stadium baseball field, the neighborhood had definitely seen better days. Residents in this neighborhood, which had been built just before the Great Depression began, when baseball was the sport of the nation, had been getting by as the city grew, moved out, and left the neighborhood to begin the long journey into becoming an inner-city neighborhood.
The sound of Gary’s vacuum died off. “Rupert!” he shouted from the front room. Rupert stepped quickly through the small house. Bright white walls in the kitchen switched abruptly to a chocolate brown on the living room walls. Rupert looked up, hope in his eyes that the inspector from the city had arrived and would sign off on the property.
“It’s the neighbor lady.” Gary said before Rupert got to the front door.
An elderly woman, her ebony face framed with shocks of white hair haphazardly peaking out from under a winter stocking cap. “I’m glad you’re here,” she says as Rupert steps out and offers his hand in a friendly gesture. She grasps it, but turns it from a handshake into sliding her arm into his, as if he’s escorting her to a formal dance. She leads him down the sidewalk away from Gary.
Gary heads back to the cluttered kitchen. The neighbor leads Rupert down toward the street, and begins a quiet discussion. Another woman appears on the porch at the home next door. “Is that Rupert?” she yells. Still arm in arm, the first woman leads the Survivor star to her friend’s porch.
The sound of running water and clanging of dishes drowns out any sounds from outside. Gary is tackling the mound of dirty dishes piled around the sparse kitchen. Rupert’s tools are scattered about the floor, and a stew pot with crusted cheese sits atop a small chest freezer against the back wall – a wall that looks normal at first glance. A closer look shows it to be plywood painted white. The one by six inch boards that serve as trim around the steel door at the back of the house are unpainted. It was these that Rupert was going to be working on.
The sink is mounded with suds and Gary slides more dishes into the water, swishes his washrag across them, and slides the dish under running water from the tap. After depositing it in the wooden X-shaped drying rack to his left, he reaches for another dish. A plate. Swish. Rinse. Dry.
Eventually, Rupert opens the back door to the house. He and I drift out the back door as he resumes his to work on the door trim. He begins removing the screws holding the trim board on the left side of the door.
“The neighbors,” Rupert says gently, “they’re not happy with all the cars here. Remember to use the alley and park in the back,” he adds quietly. His voice isn’t scolding. He’s mentoring; reminding his charges that they need to pay attention to their surroundings, and work to fit in with the long-established neighbors.
Rupert knows Gary and the other resident of the house, Donovan, are lucky. Out of prison for several years. Discrimination based on their race isn’t the problem. But, with felony convictions, both can legally be discriminated against when they try to find housing or employment.
“A place to live, and a job go a long way to building self respect,” Rupert says when he’s stumping to promote Rupert’s Kids. “With a felony, those are tough to find. These kids can be discriminated against because of their record. It’s tough to respect yourself, when society discriminates against you for life because of mistake in your past.”
Rupert heads back out to the front of the house to get another toolbox, and discovers the city inspector had just arrived. His eyes light up as he extends his calloused hand. “How are you man?” he asks in place of a greeting. The inspector shakes hands and returns the greeting. Rupert smiles broadly as he leads the inspector around the property and through the house.
As they drifted back to the kitchen, Rupert sees Gary finishing up the last of the dishes. “Can you get the board out of my truck, measure and cut a new top piece for other back door?” Rupert directs, as he touches the frame over the open door.
“We’re getting this place as safe as possible for the guys,” he explained to the inspector, who had noticed the large slide bolt on the door. “This neighborhood is getting rough. ” He opens a smaller, wooden door caked with layer after layer of paint. “Here’s the basement.”
The gleam of a new furnace, and the shine of black plastic wrapped flexible ducting provided a stark contrast to the musty, dusty concrete block basement. A lack of cobwebs showed that work had been going on recently. “We’ve got one more run to make on the furnace. The contractor will be out later this week to help the guys with that.
“New water heater?”
“That’s the third one,” Rupert said. “We had to move the guys in, because every time we’d do work in here, the neighborhood would break in and take what we added.”
Rupert and the inspector continued around the property, checking off the work that Rupert’s guys, along with professionals who had donated or volunteer their time had done to bring the abandoned home up to livable conditions.
Upstairs, Gary had a small stepladder and an overturned bucket serving as a sawhorse. The six-inch wide pine board was laid horizontal on it. Gary drags a tape-measure down its length. He adds pencil tick at the appropriate spot. Zip. The tape retracts. The metal triangle of the carpenter’s square gives him a straightedge to draw against as his pencil flashed across the board. Cut here.
He reached up, and pulled clear safety glasses down over his eyes. He lined the handsaw up along his mark, and slowly moved it up and down to start his cut.
“New windows…” Rupert’s voice drifted from the east side of the house.
Gary’s tempo with the saw stays slow and steady. He moves his methodical attack on the board from vertical to horizontal, scribing with the saw, the line he had drawn a moment before. Then he shifts the blade back vertical, and his tempo increases. Up and down, the saw bit into the board and chewed its way through the pine. The short end dropped off.
Gary held up the board and used his finger to knock off a few splinters from the cut. The cut is square, not the haphazard angular cut one might see from an unskilled youth.
“Rupert showed me how,” he says with a big smile.
Gary stowed the saw back inside Rupert’s SUV, and headed into the house with the board as Rupert and the inspector viewed the enclosed front porch. The inspector glanced at his clipboard of forms. He checks off the final boxes.
“I need your signature here,” the inspector hands his clipboard to Rupert. “Should be about two weeks. We’ll get the paperwork over to your office.”
“Thank you!” Rupert beamed as he handed the clipboard back. He straightened his shoulders and laid his hand out in invitation. With a firm handshake the inspector smiled back.
Rupert watched as he walked back to his car.
“Two weeks. Then we get the title.” He turned and headed back into house to help Gary with the door trim. “We can make a change. One house at a time.”