Contemporary planners, developers, and proponents of 21st-century city life routinely celebrate cities’ historicity. Urban boosters extol the appeals of historical architecture, and where that historic built environment has been destroyed those urban champions applaud new designs inspired by local architectural heritage. Few neighborhoods would seem to lay a stronger claim on such history than Indianapolis’ Indiana Avenue. Home to residences as early as the 1820s, the Avenue became a predominately African-American business and leisure district at the outset of the 20th century only to witness postwar urban renewal projects that razed nearly all of the stores, clubs, and homes along the Avenue.
Last week a Development Project Manager for Buckingham Companies enthused about the developer’s proposal to build a 345-unit five-story apartment complex in the 700 block of Indiana Avenue, calling the site a “blank slate.” The parking lot and an undistinguished 1989 office building on the site indeed reflect none of the Avenue’s rich heritage. The asphalt parking lots and a functional but forgettable office building are yet more evidence of the city’s historical uneasiness with appearing to deter development after they had been vocal advocates for extensive urban displacement projects, Indiana University’s establishment and growth, and highway construction that collectively depopulated the predominately African-American near-Westside. American urban planners launched numerous similar projects after World War II that targeted African-American communities under the guide of slum clearance or community renewal, uprooting residents and then razing much of the Black urban landscape. These postwar planners hoped to build new cities, launching a host of ideologues’ fantasies for a reimagined city that would serve segregated White suburbanites who would work, play, and shop in the urban core.
Indianapolis is by no means unique for this postwar gutting of its downtowns or the displacement of Black communities that it imagined to be obstacles to progress. Yet now many of those 21st-century cities are compelled to admit the failures of their urban renewal fantasies and have been trying to lure residents back to the city to live, trading on the promise of downtown “revival” and celebrating the historicity of the urban core. On the one hand, Buckingham Companies aspires to acknowledge Indiana Avenue’s history. The apartment complex would sit alongside the Madam Walker Theater, a 1927 Afrocentric theater that was nearly the only structure on the Avenue to survive urban renewal. Buckingham’s legal counsel enthused last week about the possibility of establishing a jazz club in the apartments, which acknowledges the Avenue’s history of jazz performance, and the team gushed about how it was borrowing design elements from the neighboring Walker Theater. On the other hand, though, the development does not acknowledge or materialize the Avenue’s heritage as much as it evokes an ambiguous sense of “pastness;” that is, history is painted by developers like Buckingham simply as a style that selectively borrows aesthetic cues without an especially substantive historical or ethnographic comprehension of that living heritage. Historically and ethnographically informed design can be “of the past” and evoke specific histories even if their materiality is manufactured in the present; however, future Avenue development cannot lay claim to being a plausible representation of history without demonstrating an understanding of African-American heritage.
For Buckingham, the Madam Walker Legacy Center Board (who own and are selling the property), and city planners, the license for idiosyncratic historicized design is rooted in the position that the Avenue lacks a place-based heritage because the spaces are “blank.” That notion of “blank space” roots heritage in contemporary substance, the literal “authentic” materiality of the past such as buildings like the Walker. That rhetorical maneuver of rendering the Avenue and other non-traditional heritage places “empty” rationalizes the material interests of developers and the social designs of urban planners. For instance, a portion of the proposed apartments extends into a space where Madam C.J. Walker’s business office was once located alongside her now-demolished residence. The Madam Walker Legacy Center Board’s marketing chair dismissed the consequence of the site, telling the Indianapolis Star that “she isn’t concerned about construction on Madam Walker’s business and home because the building was demolished shortly after 1965. `It was demolished in 1965, and it’s 2020. …There hasn’t been anything there in over 55 years.’” That position fails to recognize that the consequence of place has no unequivocal relationship to contemporary material form: any space can be invested with historical significance, regardless of whether it bears material traces of the past or is radically transformed. Heritage is the product of existing materiality as well as memory, the histories of place, and the public contestation of what historical experiences matter. Many African-American cemeteries, 20th-century segregated neighborhoods, and lynching sites are dismissed by traditional history-makers because they are ideologically represented as “empty,” and planners ignore the contested if not unpleasant heritage of such places because they can dismiss them as absences.
Designs evoking “pastness” often attempt to address the desires of a particular audience, in this case creating a historical style that will be appealing to potential tenants and satisfy city administrators who want to seem respectful of community history. Buckingham’s Project Manager waxed poetic over the Walker Theater’s deco symbolism, suggesting their plans take their “design cues” from the Walker; however, painting the Walker as art deco ignores that the theater is equally indebted to Afrocentrist design that springs from the Harlem Renaissance. Calling the proposed apartments “deco” is simply a clumsy marketing effort to appeal to the tenants Buckingham imagines they must secure while avoiding the anti-racist politics of inter-war Afrocentrism. Even if we set aside a patrol of what constituted deco design, the apartments borrow nearly no design aesthetics from rich retail and club architecture that once existed along Indiana Avenue and now survives in photographs, maps, and memories. Likewise, the Buckingham ambition to have a jazz club in these apartments is not about an appreciation or understanding of African-American expressive culture; it is their belief that a settled space offering jazz would fulfill tenants’ Avenue fantasy. This sort of Black placemaking risks becoming a statement about the social and racial imaginations of planners more than a material reflection of African-American heritage.
Pressed to articulate the company’s understanding of the Avenue’s heritage, Buckingham’s legal counsel complained “I’m not sure where that’s going” and concluded that “We’ve done our homework.” This risks painting history simply as rigorous mastery of past facts, which perhaps endangers potential profits. However, there have been grassroots movements to revive the Avenue since the 1960’s, so a broad range of constituents have long shared a desire to develop planning and design that will serve contemporary and future communities. Buckingham and their partners in the Walker Theater can choose to press ahead with a relatively uninspired apartment complex that fulfills their short-term profit incentives, but like so much of the postwar urban renewal landscape that building will inevitably age poorly. The Walker Theater is the institutional voice for the Avenue’s heritage, the institution that can lay claim to being on the Avenue for nearly a century, and the theater’s own growth and future will be coupled to this development. Yet IUPUI also has an ethical stake in the stewardship of the Theater and the Avenue; generations of descendant community members are part of the Avenue’s heritage; and many newcomers appreciate the Avenue’s heritage and feel a measure of stakeholder stewardship for this landscape. Dignifying that heritage and designing for the Avenue’s future requires acknowledging the consequence of the Avenue’s drab contemporary landscape of parking lots and office buildings, recognizing the legacy of racially based displacement, and designing the Avenue as a shared place uniting architects, investors, community stakeholders, and scholars.
Billy Mac’s Lounge, 1975, Indiana Landmarks Central Canal & IUPUI Image Collection.
Indiana Avenue aerial, circa 1980-88, Indianapolis Bicentennial Collection, Indiana Historical Society.
Walker Theater, 1928, W.H. Bass Photo Collection, Indiana Historical Society.
In January 1968 a group of African-American entrepreneurs and community activists gathered in the Walker Theater with the Director of the Indianapolis Redevelopment Commission to determine the future of Indiana Avenue. Alarmed by the decline of the businesses along the historically African-American Avenue and frustrated by their inability to defy urban renewal projects, the group hoped to encourage investment in Avenue enterprises. Advocating strategies that have since become common in placemaking discourses, entrepreneurs had ambitious plans championing “a renewed civic and business vitality in the area of Indiana Avenue.” Their proposals included promoting cultural tourism focusing on the Avenue’s jazz history, proposing to create “a `Bourbon Street’ type entertainment and shop section … in the fashion of New Orleans’ famed `Bourbon Street’ long a mecca of Dixieland jazz.”
Yet business people were justifiably reluctant to invest their own capital because of the unpredictable effects of “slum clearance” displacements, highway construction, and the growth of the joint Indiana University and Purdue University campus that became IUPUI. The Indianapolis Recorder soberly reported on the absence of funding for such development, noting that “insurance and loans are virtually impossible for business-men on Indiana Avenue to secure since this section is considered a `high risk’ area.” The certainty of more renewal projects led one Avenue businessman to complain that “`We’ve seen from past experience that when these people come and take your property they pay as little as possible. I just can’t see how we could recover the money we might spend to fix up the area.’” Read the rest of this entry
On the morning of February 5, 1894 a crowd “of seven hundred or more Boone county farmers struggled and battled fiercely in the courthouse yard” in Lebanon Indiana eager to exact justice against Frank Hall. The 22-year-old African American was being held in the Boone County jail accused of an assault on a White woman on the evening of February 3rd. Hall protested that he had been at a watch raffle with scores of witnesses at the time of the assault, but the Sheriff arrested Hall the next morning and brought him to the jail. A crowd instantly gathered intent on hanging him, and as Hall was taken from the jail to the adjoining Courthouse the crowd got him in the noose three times. Hall and the Sheriff fought them off each time, and when Hall reached the Courthouse he was half-conscious, bloodied by the mob’s assault, and “several chokings had given his skin the purple hue of a grape.” Hall hastily agreed with the Prosecutor “to enter a plea of guilty and take the maximum penalty of the law for such offenses, twenty-one years in prison. He was afraid that he would be taken from jail and summarily executed.” Read the rest of this entry
Last week in the midst of protests against racially motivated police violence, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett somewhat surprisingly announced that the city would remove a 1909 Confederate monument in Garfield Park. In a series of tweets Hogsett indicated that “The grave monument was commissioned in 1912 for Greenlawn Cemetery to commemorate Confederate prisoners of war who died while imprisoned at Camp Morton in Indianapolis.” The memorial was actually installed in 1909, but it was indeed erected to memorialize roughly 1616 Confederate prisoners of war who died in Indianapolis, as well as perhaps 20 sympathizers and at least one enslaved man identified only as “Little Toe” who was captured at Fort Donelson in February 1862 with most of these prisoners. Mayor Hogsett’s tweets indicated that “The grave monument was then relocated to Garfield Park in 1928 following efforts by public officials, active in the KKK, who sought to `make the monument more visible to the public.’” The Mayor concluded that “Whatever original purpose this grave marker might once have had, for far too long it has served as nothing more than a painful reminder of our state’s horrific embrace of the Ku Klux Klan a century ago.” Read the rest of this entry
In 2004 a typical Indianapolis Star celebration of jazz history fantasized performers and audiences united by music, suggesting that Indiana Avenue “was known for an atmosphere of camaraderie. … What’s most notable is that this was the only place in which blacks and whites could mingle socially prior to integration.” Jazz history is routinely invoked in Indianapolis to suggest that music has long been an expression of White and Black peoples’ common humanity. African-American expressive culture has an undeniably rich heritage in the theaters, clubs, churches, schools, and homes dotting the near-Westside. From the end of the 19th century, ragtime, vaudeville, blues, gospel, minstrelsy, dance, theater, burlesque, and drag were all part of an African-American performance tradition that flourished along Indiana Avenue until urban displacement razed the last clubs in the 1970s. Yet history-makers uneasy with the heritage of racism and segregation routinely gravitate toward romantic accounts of music as a democratic space in the midst of a segregated world.
Jazz is now celebrated as Hoosiers’ cultural patrimony, but jazz and life on the Avenue inspired decades of anxiety among city officials. Rather than nurture an “atmosphere of camaraderie,” ideologues were eager to patrol inter-racial leisure and morality along the Avenue and leery of music’s potential to subvert segregation. For instance, during a December 1921 raid on the Golden West Cabaret, police arrested White customers who “were found in the place listening to the jazz orchestra that plays the syncopated music, as it is only found on `de Avenoo.’” Prohibition had forced African-American entrepreneur Archie Young to transform his saloon at 532 ½ Indiana Avenue into a soda parlor known as the Golden West Cabaret, and jazz performers often played the club. In 1921 the Indianapolis Star complained that Young’s club was known to be “frequented by both colored and white persons who are seeking night life in Indianapolis.” The Indiana Daily Times reported that “orders were issued to put the lid on the `avenue’” because “of “fear that trouble may be the result of white persons visiting negro cafes and dance halls in the `black belt.’” Archie Young argued “there is no law under which the police can stop white persons from visiting the cabaret.” The Police agreed that “they are aware there is no law to prevent white persons from visiting the cabarets, but they contend they can take names and search those who are found there … until the white persons are eliminated.” Read the rest of this entry
In July 1971 Indianapolis News columnist Mayer Maloney mourned the closing of Riverside Amusement Park. Opened in 1903, the park had been the summer leisure venue for generations of Indianapolis residents, and proms, wedding receptions, and workplace picnics had met at the urban amusement park for nearly 70 years. Maloney lamented that the “excited screams of the kids, the calliope music of the merry-go-round and the china-faced kewpie dolls are gone. Indianapolis has said farewell to an old friend. Riverside Amusement Park is closed and all that remains are memories.” Maloney toured the empty park with John Lewis Coleman, whose family had managed the park for a half-century, and Maloney wrote that the “area that once had laughter echoing from all corners, where many kisses were stolen in the tunnel of love and cotton candy clung to the cheeks of little kids, now stands as the skeleton of a once proud amusement park. As he walked around the 20 acres covered with high grass and weeds Coleman looked up and said, `You know, this reminds me of going to see my best friend at the funeral home.’”
Indianapolis Recorder columnist Andrew Ramsey was more than willing to read the last rites to the amusement park. Ramsey dismissed Maloney’s “very touching human interest story on the closing of Riverside Amusement Park. As is so usual among white observers, he failed to mention the role which black Indianapolians played or were denied playing in the almost seventy year history of the famed institution.” Ramsey recounted his own childhood experience in the segregated park in the 1920s, when the Coleman family managed the park and “signs everywhere about the park read `White patronage only solicited.’” While Maloney was mourning, Ramsey celebrated that “the closing of Riverside Amusement Park will bring no tears from local Negroes who grew up in the Hoosier Capitol during the four decades when it was one of the bastions of white supremacy. The passing of such racist landmarks and the holding of many important funerals are necessary landmarks on the road to interracial democracy in Indianapolis and else where in this state and nation.” Read the rest of this entry
This weekend Netflix debuts its series Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker, and while the series inevitably takes some liberties with Walker’s historical story it is not at all surprising that generations of people have been fascinated with Walker’s story. Born in the wake of Emancipation in staggering poverty, Walker’s history certainly can be told as an American Dream rags-to-riches story lived by a Black woman who is often referred to as America’s “first Black woman millionaire” (the company echoed that narrative after her death, and that is one thread of the Netflix trailer for Self Made). However, that somewhat one-dimensional focus on wealth risks ignoring Walker’s history of generosity and activism on behalf of and with many African-American women. Read the rest of this entry
In November 1898 the Indianapolis News reported on the construction of the new Riverside Park, which included bicycle paths, landscaping, suspension bridges, and plans for a new dam that would create a “lake” as the White River backed up north of the dam in the midst of the Park. The dam just south of the present-day 16th Street Bridge was expressly designed “to make White river through the park, like a lake.” Park planners announced they would construct “an eight foot dam located about 1500 feet southeast of the Crawfordsville road bridge near the river. The dam will be made of concrete and will furnish a backwater sufficient to give the river an average depth of five feet for two miles and a half.”
The Riverside Dam (now usually referred to as the Emrichsville Dam) was designed for the aesthetic appeal of a still “lake” north of the dam in the heart of Riverside Park. The water feature created by the dam has been the visual heart of the Park and a recreational space for boating, swimming, fishing, and skating for 120 years. In 2018, though, a hole developed in the dam, one of many times the dam has given way in the face of flooding or normal erosion. In the wake of the most recent collapse, a host of planners and community stakeholders have debated whether to restore the dam, transform its design, or simply build a new dam in some other location. While this deliberation has been going on the water that pooled in the midst of Riverside Park has drained through the fractured dam. Left to its own designs and the vagaries of environmental conditions, the river has become a narrow feature exposing scattered places along its banks, and at the moment the river looks quite different than the formerly placid pond in Riverside Park. Read the rest of this entry
This piece was co-authored with Jonathan Howe, President of the West Indianapolis Neighborhood Congress
In August 1956 the winners of an Indianapolis yard beautification contest included Forrest and Avis Marie Martin of Blue Lake Park, a community at 3023 West Morris Street. Like many residents in the city’s southwestern suburbs, William Forrest Martin was a World War II veteran who moved to newly constructed neighborhoods that were expanding out from Indianapolis’ core. Forrest was a bulldozer operator for American Aggregates Corporation, a sand and gravel firm that managed a quarry on South Harding Street not far from the Martins’ home.
While much of the postwar generation moved into suburban tract homes, the Martins were among the many families who moved into mobile homes. Blue Lake Park had opened in 1954 as a “De Luxe Trailer Court” in a rather quiet area just west of Eagle Creek. The community was advertised as a “sportsman’s club” surrounding the modest Blue Lake, an old gravel pit like those Forrest Martin worked in on nearby Harding Street. Despite the proximity to West Indianapolis industries, the dump along South Harding Street, and Indianapolis Municipal Airport to the southwest, the 50-acre Blue Lake community promised an idyllic escape from the city: the tiny quarry lake offered boat docking and fishing privileges to its residents, city buses ran along Morris Street through West Indianapolis and into downtown, and adults hoping to escape children may have been glad to find the community did not allow any residents under 16 (or dogs).
Blue Lake Park would remain home to more than 60 years of families until this week, after its landlords were permitted to evict all of the residents after an initial eviction notice in August 2019. Faced with a requirement to install 21st-century sewer connections, the owners balked at the expense and notified residents they had 60 days to move out. After contesting the eviction notice through the Fall, the Attorney General’s office resolved to award just over $50,000 in total payments for the residents’ homes, but the modest payments (one resident received $1200) cannot hope to fund moving and securing new housing. February 21st was the deadline for residents to move themselves if not their trailers or risk being physically removed by authorities. Mobile home communities are the nation’s most common unsubsidized form of affordable housing, with about 18 million people living in trailer communities, and the Blue Lake Trailer Park eviction is part of a national pattern of housing insecurity that comes down especially hard on impoverished trailer communities. Read the rest of this entry
On July 25, 1934 a crowd of perhaps 5000 people gathered at Indianapolis’ Crown Hill Cemetery to glimpse the final rites of John Dillinger. Sergeant Otis Baker was in charge of a detachment of police officers instructed to stand guard over the grave when the services ended, and the Indianapolis Star reported that “down the road from the Dillinger lot a group of Negroes was seated quietly on the grass, watching the proceedings with solemn and eager eyes. Sergt Baker said one of them had approached him, carrying a tin cup; he wished, the Negro explained, to `get him a cupful of earth off’n Dillinger’s grave,’ but Sergt. Baker declined to let him or any one else inside the roped-off enclosure.”
The African-American man hoping to secure earth from Dillinger’s grave was simply one of many people seeking the souvenirs of America’s most celebrated criminal. Just three days before, Dillinger had been killed outside the Biograph theatre in Chicago by federal agents, and his corpse and bodily trappings instantly became relics. As Dillinger was being removed from the Chicago sidewalk, “Chicago thrill seekers dipped their handkerchiefs and rubbed their shoes in Dillinger’s blood on the street.” Offers of $1,000 were made for the outlaw’s shirt and $100 for the bricks stained by Dillinger’s blood, and pieces of paper with Dillinger’s blood sold for a quarter. Dillinger’s “blood-stained” hat was being exhibited in the Justice Department within weeks of Dillinger’s death, where “Dillinger relics were first placed in a glass case in the anteroom of the office of J Edgar Hoover chief of the investigation bureau. So many employes [sic] took time off to inspect the new display that Hoover moved it to his inner office.” Read the rest of this entry