In the Shadow of the Interstate: Living with Highways
In June 1973 attorney Charles Walton wrote Indiana Governor Otis Bowen on behalf of his client Mary Brame. Brame’s home sat on West 15th Street in the shadow of the recently constructed Interstate-65, which had razed virtually all of the surrounding structures and cut off West 15th Street, leaving the widow alone on a newly closed dead-end street. Walton implored the Governor to purchase Brame’s home, which he argued was “falling apart” because of the interstate’s “noise and vibrations.” The State had built a “fence up against Mrs. Brane’s [sic] home and closed down all the street leading to Mrs. Brane’s [sic] home accept [sic] one narrow extremely short street.” Walton complained that Brame “cannot sleep at night because of the noises from the highway, and as a result of this, her health is failing.”
Thousands of Indianapolis residents were uprooted when the state purchased their homes for interstate construction. Mary Brame was simply one of scores of people who were left to live in the shadow of newly built highways. I-65 and I-70 have legacies of displacing vast swaths of residents in the heart of Indianapolis, but they also left in their wake gutted communities compelled to negotiate a radically transformed streetscape, pollution, and noise from the newly constructed highways. A half-century after most of these interstates were constructed, planners are now once again fantasizing over new highway designs that threaten to once more destabilize many of the same neighborhoods destabilized by 1960s and 1970s highway projects.
As Mary Brame’s lawyers attempted to convince the state to purchase her home, residents of the near-Southside were likewise negotiating a radically transformed streetscape. An April 1972 story in the Indianapolis News characterized the near-Southside neighborhood around the Concord Center as once being “a city-within-a-city, with neighborhood stores and entertainment and a great deal of kinship among the residents.” But the arrival of the interstate bisected the community that been settled on the city’s southern edges for well over a century, and much of the existing streetscape was turned into dead ends at the foot of the massive earth pile holding the elevated interstate. The News admitted that “Now that the interstate is being constructed, a physical wall is being built. … There is no overpass on 1-70, and between 400 and 500 persons who live north of the interstate are isolated” (for background on the community, see the 1974 study The Near Southside Community: As it Was and As It Is and the 2012 The Neighborhood of Saturdays: Memories of a Multi-Ethnic Community on Indianapolis’ South Side).
Most of the near-Southside homes in the space for Interstate-70 were purchased between 1965 and 1969, and construction was well underway in May 1972 when residents wrote the State Highway Commission’s Chair. Ann May and Flora Spurlock focused their complaint on the lack of a “through street between S. West and S. Meridian Streets.” They had appealed to a highway official to create pedestrian passage between newly separated sections of the neighborhood, but they were told that “there was not enough traffic and/or pedestrians to warrant such an opening.” This repeated the complaints of a petition that had circulated in the neighborhood requesting that “a walk be put on Ray Street at Illinois … we are fenced in.” At the Concord Center Association meeting in April 1972 “it was brought to the staff’s attention again that the people of the area was quite upset by no planned through street.” In June a group of residents protested at the corner of Church and Ray Streets with signs carrying mottoes such as “Don’t Fence Us In,” “The Old Folks Want to Walk Through the Neighborhood,” and one toted by a child reading “I Want to Go to Grandma’s.” The protesters complained that state and city highway administrators had been unwilling to meet with residents and renewed their demand for a pedestrian underpass.
Similar stories of mass displacements and scattered communities left in the wake of highway construction characterized much of the city. By the early 1960s, for instance, the neighborhood around Mary Brame’s home was under consideration for Interstate-65, which had in 1957 been announced as a planned leg in a route from Chicago to Louisville through Indianapolis. Mary Lee Belvin was born in Macon County Georgia to Charlie and Hattie Belvin in 1909, and she moved to Indianapolis with her mother sometime after Charlie’s death in Georgia in 1922. They were living in an African-American neighborhood in West Indianapolis along Kappes Street with lodger William Cartwright in 1930. Cartwright, who worked in a creosote factory, married Hattie Belvin in May 1937. Mary Belvin worked as a domestic in the 1930s, and she and Clarence Brame were first living at 439 West 15th Street home in 1945. They married a year later in December, 1946. Clarence worked at the Veteran’s Administration hospital on 10th Street as a general laborer, where Mary was working in food service when Clarence died in 1952.
The final path the interstate took through the heart of the city was resolved over a decade of planning, but the fundamental route had been determined by 1960. In 1958 Indianapolis’ Central Business District plan imagined Interstate-65 winding through the near-Northside, extending south along the eastern edges of the city, and also reaching south on a route along West Street (the latter leg was never built). A provisional plan for the route for I-65 through the near-Northside was proposed by engineers in January 1960, surveying had begun by 1961, and by November, 1963 design and property acquisition began for the path through Indianapolis, which passed through the West 15th Street neighborhood where Mary Brame lived.
In May 1961 the Indianapolis Recorder had already bitterly concluded that “The battle is lost. Many Northside residents who, earlier last year, tried in vain to get Interstate 65 built anywhere except on the route proposed by the State Highway Department, are chiefly concerned now with the relocation and depreciation value of their homes.” For instance, African-American chiropractor Robert O. Pettiford wondered in a public meeting “Where will the people move, if the State Highway Commission runs a freeway through our neighborhood? How can older residents, many of whom own their homes, buy new noes [sic] with the money they would get on a 20-year-depreciation basis?” Pettiford’s home at 2623 Paris Avenue was in the proposed right-of-way; he remained in the home until 1966, which now lays under the interstate. Pettiford argued that “The neighborhood is an old one and many of the residents have their homes paid for. If the government takes off on the values of homes over 20 years old, how can these residents, many on pensions or with other types of limited income, buy homes equal to theirs with the money they would get? Take a fellow neighbor I know. He owns a nice house that’s worth maybe $3,000 on the market. He can’t get another house for $3,000. And he wouldn’t have enough to make house payments.”
In October 1963 Mayoral candidate John Barton advocated eliminating the interstate’s route through the northside south of 38th Street, a route he argued would “displace 4,000 to 5,000 residents.” The Indianapolis Recorder reported favorably on Barton’s resistance to the interstate, saying “that if he is elected mayor, he will make every effort to find another route `that would not wreck an entire neighborhood and the social relationships of thousands of people.’” The Recorder reported that Barton’s statement on the predominately African-American neighborhoods in the interstate’s path acknowledged that “Aside from the fact that they havel ived [sic] in the area for years, they cannot afford the increased tax and mortgage payments that will be necessary if their present modest, well-kept homes are taken from them.”
Barton’s complaint also lamented the interstate would destroy Lake Sullivan, and much the same argument was made in April 1965 by Allen W. Clowes. Clowes’ home in the exclusive Golden Hill neighborhood was within a quarter mile of the planned Interstate route. Clowes formed the group Livable Indianapolis for Everyone in December 1964 and lobbied against the interstate by calling it a “`Chinese wall of dirt’ which will do untold harm to this city’s future.” Clowes appealed to the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee, a community advisory group that Barton formed in December 1964 after his election victory. In June 1965, though, GIPC backed the proposed interstate plan, rejecting Clowes’ case for a different route or a below grade (a.k.a., “depressed”) interstate (cf Kevin Kastner’s 2018 analysis of the below grade option).
The Indianapolis Redevelopment Commission expressed concern in January 1964 that there was insufficient housing to accommodate the residents displaced by interstate construction, but the Chamber of Commerce persistently dismissed resistance to the interstate. In June 1965 the State Highway Commission’s director complained that it had already paid out $1.3 million purchasing properties in the right-of-way, making a change of route or construction financially infeasible. Once a critic of the interstate’s route, in 1965 Mayor John Barton backtracked on his pledges and deferred to highway planners, saying he simply “wants the highway constructed in the best and most economical way.” When Barton’s re-election campaign came in 1967, the Indianapolis Recorder and its readers were consistently critical of Barton, who lost the election to Richard Lugar.
In 1966 Representative Andrew Jacobs Jr. introduced the Homes Before Highways bill, which “would prohibit the acquisition of land or construction of public works until adequate and comparable replacement homes and churches are available to the displaced.” Jacobs told an Indianapolis housing conference in June 1966 that “I have observed a kind of callousness on the part of authorities who refuse to change ever so slightly the northwest route and use conveniently open fields in order to avoid displacing literally thousands of Indianapolis citizens from their homes, churches, and schools. Under the presently proposed routes of Interstates 65 and 70, 17,000 people would be displaced in the path of the new Indianapolis highways.” In September 1966 supporters of the Homes Before Highways legislation proposed to hold a march in Indianapolis that would include Martin Luther King Jr. The Indianapolis News suggested that there was “little support” for a King visit, and argued that a “factor weighing against a King-led march here is the potentially explosive atmosphere it might create. Many Negroes point out that Indianapolis has posted a race relations record second to none and openly question the wisdom of an appearance by King in this community.” Governor Roger Branigin hoped to avoid a protest led by King, so in October he agreed to meet with Homes Before Highways supporters led by Reverend Mozel Sanders. Branigin offered to encourage “more generous settlements for persons dislocated by public improvements,” which included the displacements associated with highway construction as well as Indiana University’s property acquisitions for the future IUPUI campus. No relocation payments were made before 1967, but Homes Before Highways was a factor securing relocation payments to 3,598 households by the Highway Department. Nevertheless, in June 1970 the Indianapolis Recorder would conclude that “When the plans for the inner-city legs of 1-65 were first drawn groups of interested citizens were organized with the slogan `homes before highways’. But after the 1967 elections that slogan became just a group of meaningless words. As our charisimatic [sic] mayor [Lugar] was dealing a low blow to the sepia and poor voters of the city by ramming Uni-Gov down their throats, the state highways commission was busy building walls to divide the ghetto into little islands.”
Richard Lugar’s victory over Barton in the 1966 Mayoral elections revived hope that the new Mayor might lobby the state to build the interstate below grade, and Victor Gruen and Associates’ February 1967 planning study of the University Quarter district containing the future Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis campus advocated shifting the interstate to the west side of the White River. But in February an external planning consultant for the city advocated building the interstate as planned, concluding that “the present route would aid in the conservation and development” of the city neighborhoods it intersected. In the wake of these defeats, activists largely abandoned efforts to relocate the northwestern leg of the interstate and instead intensified their arguments on the construction of a below grade roadway, but this was eventually unsuccessful.
In 1966 Mary Brame was living alongside at least five households on West 15th Street as well as a Church of God in Christ congregation. However, a year later only Brame’s home and the Church at the margins of the interstate’s right-of-way would remain, with Brame, her sister Charlie (Sharlie), and their 80-year-old mother Hattie Belvin Cartwright living in the West 15th Street home. In August 1967 four generations of Mary Brame’s family were living in Indianapolis, and Hattie was living on West 15th Street at her death in February 1970. In July 1969 the highway department indicated that it had purchased 5000 parcels and had only another 50 to secure, and 90% of the construction contracts were completed. By October 1969 a lane of the interstate had been completed from 30th to 22nd Streets, so demolition and construction was certainly underway on West 15th Street. In January 1972 the final section of I-65 winding alongside Mary Brame’s home opened.
Just over a year later Mary Brame’s lawyer would write to the Governor hoping to secure a purchase of her property. On July 23, 1973 the State Highway Division’s Executive Director R.H. Harrell responded to Mary Brame’s lawyer confirming that in 1967 the state had secured 241 square feet of Mary Brame’s backyard. Harrell wrote that “Proximity to a highway is not a compensable damage consideration,” specifying that “noise has not been recognized in Indiana as compensable, but it is a burden the public must accept in order to live in a modern society.” Harrell concluded that “in good conscience we cannot spend the taxpayers money for land or improvements that are not needed for a public facility.”
Walton’s letter on behalf of Brame indicated she was interested in selling, but she may well have not been living in the home when he wrote the Governor in June 1973. Brame appears to have moved in 1973, apparently living with her sister Charlie (Sharlie) Taylor at 221 West Vermont. Eventually they moved to 3610 Graceland Avenue, where Mary was living at the time of her death in May 1995. Mary was buried in Floral Park Cemetery. Her sister died 10 years later in December, 2005.
In August 1973 The Indianapolis Star reported that Interstate-70 was “either under construction or complete in some areas where bridges are needed.” Three months earlier Bernard J. “Bud” Gohmann renewed the Concord neighborhood’s appeal for a pedestrian-friendly streetscape when he wrote Governor Bowen complaining that “between South West and South Meridian Streets [the interstate] runs without any exchange or underpass road for a good distance.” The new roadway “will, in fact, divide a community of poor people in half with those north of the road left with little access to stores, shops, etc.” Like Ann May and Flora Spurlock a year before, Gohmann sought a connecting street to “give the area residents a sense of unity.” The residents’ entreaties did eventually secure a modest victory in the form of a passage from Kenwood Street to Capitol Avenue. The state announced in October 1974 that they anticipated I-70 from Harding Street to East Street would be completed in October 1975, and traffic was using the new interstate in September 1975.
By 1978 the city was trumpeting the possibility to encourage “light industrial development” in the depopulated portions of the Concord neighborhood on the north side of Interstate-70. The Indianapolis Star’s description of the area concluded that “Vacant lots are prevalent, and many of the houses are dilapidated. Even the staunchest neighborhood supporters concede that this section is probably beyond saving.” The city believed the neighborhood’s recovery hinged on appealing to industrial developers who would be attracted to the ready interstate access, which ironically was responsible for the 40% population loss in the area since 1970. The newspaper considered the north side of the interstate in the Concord neighborhood to be in need of wholesale transformation, admitting that “Many who live there, though, are committed to it and refuse to sell.” The Star soberly defended the social and material interests of the state, concluding that “Before new structures can be built, old ones must be razed. That sometimes means moving people, often hardworking, older people who may not want to leave an area they’ve lived in for years.” The city’s efforts to remove the final residents verified the community’s initial anxieties about the disconnections the interstate would create between Concord neighbors on the north and south side of I-70.
Nearly a half century after the Circle City’s interstates were constructed, the city is once again taking aim on many of the same neighborhoods, homes, and even the same households that it depopulated and transformed in the 1960s and 1970s. Rather than imagine ways to transform the environmental injustice, social upheaval, and unseemly design of high-speed suburban arteries like Interstate 65 and Interstate 70, we instead are fantasizing ways to craft an even more massive roadway that once again risks transforming some of the city’s oldest neighborhoods.
Albert Hazen at Terry’s Market, circa 1951, Neighborhood of Saturdays Collection IUPUI University Library
Norma Jo Moore’s Family, ca. 1953 Neighborhood of Saturdays Collection IUPUI University Library