Disenfranchised Design: Development and African-American Placemaking on Indiana Avenue
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.’”
A day after the January meeting of what became the Indiana Avenue Association, the Indianapolis News voiced support for the group’s ambition to “upgrade their environment and transform it into an economic asset as an entertainment and shop section.” However, the News echoed a long Indianapolis tradition of rejecting federal and city funding for such development, instead arguing that “Improvement and development generated by the people themselves is always preferable to contrived public projects. Where there is a choice to be made, we believe it should be in favor of private, voluntary action.” To further complicate planning, newly elected Mayor Richard Lugar was cool to interfere with “the land-acquisition plans of the Indianapolis Redevelopment Commission and the I.U.-Purdue joint campus.” The result was development proponents could not secure funding; demolition projects expressly supported by city hall continued for decades; and IUPUI expanded up to Indiana Avenue, collectively depopulating the near-Westside and razing most of the historic architecture along the Avenue.
Over 50 years later a new wave of 21st-century planners and developers aspires to populate the Avenue and surrounding neighborhoods with new construction ranging from apartments to hotels to restaurants. One of the most ambitious of these projects is a proposal by the Madam Walker Legacy Center and Buckingham Companies to construct a 345-unit five-story apartment complex in the 700 block of Indiana Avenue alongside the recently renovated Madam Walker Theater. The Madam Walker Legacy Center owns the tract, and in 2019 their Board of Directors selected Buckingham as its developer for market-rate apartments that will primarily cater to IUPUI students. The once-busy block is today surface parking lots surrounding the 1989 Walker Plaza office building, which will be razed for the apartment construction.
The Walker Theater Board’s decision to sell its property does not necessarily depart from the 1968 proposal or many subsequent grassroots initiatives that have advocated for an Avenue revival affirming its African-American heritage. However, this project repeats a long pattern of disenfranchisement in which communities have little or no voice shaping design and development, approaching the 700 block of the Avenue as private space rather than a public place where African-American stakeholders, the University community, and present-day neighbors and city residents lay claim to a rich if contested heritage. In the wake of World War II, “slum clearance” engineered by the city, developers, and allies like absentee landlords and Indiana University razed and transformed nearly the whole near-Westside with no systematic input from the predominately African-American community. Boosted by a city eager to protect developers’ profits, planners and speculators razed most of the Avenue’s historic architecture without any especially concrete planning. Merchants and neighbors like the 1968 group certainly contested the transformation of the Avenue, but by 1980 most of the Avenue stood empty.
Materially, this led to a string of parking lots punctuated by inexpensive functional structures betraying no stylistic influences of the Avenue’s own architectural heritage. Contemporary design informed by historic architecture could materialize that built heritage, and there is no shortage of surviving and razed designs that could inspire new construction: the Afrocentric art deco-influenced Walker Theater is certainly the most prominent example, but residential architecture survives a block away in Ransom Place, and scores of retail storefronts, churches, clubs, and theaters survive in historic images even if they are no longer standing. Buckingham’s uninspired ahistorical design proposal for the Avenue apartment project certainly is not unique: apartments that could have been built anywhere dot the near-Westside alongside an undistinguished retail strip where the Sunset Terrace once sat; the 1869 Bethel AME Church is being transformed into a hotel that could be located on any highway offramp; and across from the Walker the Sigma Theta Tau building was constructed in 1989 facing onto an empty IUPUI parking lot instead of the Walker Theater directly across the street.
Beyond these material effects, urban renewal socially separated African Americans from the heritage of everyday life along Indiana Avenue. For some developers and planners, that heritage is simply an irrelevant part of the design process, and those “top-down” developers generally ignore sustained community engagement and construct more-or-less the same buildings wherever they build. For others heritage is an aesthetic style evoking the history of a re-developed space: for instance, African-American heritage is often reduced to a few photographs in a new building, a mural gracing its walls, or sidewalk sculptures that pose as “placemaking” projects. A staple of 21st-century urban planning rhetoric, placemaking is design that aspires to rebuild urban cores depopulated and effaced by postwar urban renewal. Placemaking may be strategic, wholesale fabrication of new communities; it can revolve around tactical interventions (e.g., pop-up parks, guerilla gardening); and it may focus on creative reclamation of ruined or otherwise uninviting spaces. Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa’s 2010 study Creative Placemaking explicitly defines placemaking as an effort to rehabilitate the ruins of urban renewal through “creative initiatives that animate places and spark economic development” in “vacant and underutilized land, buildings, and infrastructure.” This focus on the relationship between urban placemaking design and the failures of postwar renewal draws much of its inspiration from Jane Jacobs, whose 1961 study The Death and Life of Great American Cities was one of the first frontal assaults on urban renewal (much of this design scholarship also borrows from William H. Whyte, compare his 1980 film The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces).
Postwar displacement suffocated everyday life along the present-day Avenue: empty spaces, a streetscape hostile to pedestrians, and little material evidence of neighborhood history rendered the once-walkable Avenue landscape a vacant void cluttered with vehicles simply passing along the Avenue. Faced with this desolate streetscape, placemakers have justifiably focused on making the Avenue an inviting place, proposing to extend the city’s Cultural Trail along the Avenue, provide attractive Walker Theater programming, and encouraging a breadth of businesses and residential developments along the Avenue. Nevertheless, the fabrication of African-American place along the Avenue hazards being a theatrical simulation of identity; that is, in the absence of engaged design the invocation of African-American history risks materializing planners’ imaginations of African-American life, imitating a Blackness that never really existed. Ethnographically informed design revolves around close documentation of the ways people tactically experience, socially define, and practically navigate the absences left by urban renewal; that contemporary spatiality contrasts with the historical experiences of the people who lived in the 700 block and the businesses and clubs that surrounded their homes along the Avenue. Placemaking design certainly can foster places that serve a breadth of stakeholders, but it can just as easily serve as window-dressing rationalizing gentrification, displacement, and disinvestment.
In many cities like Indianapolis there is reluctance to intervene in or appear to discourage the workings of private development and commerce, and there is perhaps even less zeal to acknowledge the structural racism that fueled postwar urban renewal and contemporary development. However, the Avenue is a public space in the same way as Monument Circle or the Indianapolis Motor Speedway; that is, their social and material consequence is rooted in collective memories and a sense of belonging that many people feel in these places. The Avenue and Walker Theater are of course distinguished by their prominence in African-American memory. Along the Avenue African Americans defied an otherwise oppressive urban landscape and crafted places of creativity, affirmation, congregation, and dignity. Marcus Anthony Hunter, Mary Pattillo, Zandria F. Robinson, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor argue that this sort of Black placemaking is distinguished by its focus on “endurance, belonging, and resistance.” Urban renewal attempted to erase that heritage as a material place if not wipe it from memory by transforming the Avenue into a mere empty space; residential clearance, highway displacement, and University expansion reflect that in administrative imagination the African-American near-Westside was a “blank slate” in which planners could fantasize, engineer, and execute a new city.
Yet community memory of the Avenue and the city’s history of racial displacement has persistently defied the ways planners and developers have reduced Avenue history to a stylistic accent or ignored it entirely. Engaged design can acknowledge the way Avenue history actively shapes contemporary experience; it really will serve the social and functional needs of an existing neighborhood as well as the apartments’ residents; and it affirms the historical persistence of African-American economic, creative, and community life. Of course, developers and planners may well ignore any community stake in the Avenue’s heritage and charge ahead with an uninspired building that intensifies the street’s uninviting character, continues to leaves the Walker Theater isolated, and imagines the Avenue simply as a bottleneck for IUPUI and Medical Center commuters. This stretch of Indiana Avenue faces onto the new Black Lives Matter street mural and could well express a citywide commitment to reconciliation along and across the color line; otherwise, city planners, the developers, and the Walker Theater itself risk perpetuating a history that reduces Avenue heritage to space no different than any other streetscape.
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700 Block of Indiana Avenue, circa 1950s image O. James Fox Collection, Indiana Historical Society
701 Indiana Avenue 1975 image Indiana Landmarks Central Canal & IUPUI Image Collection
Indiana Avenue aerial view 1985 image Banayote Photo Inc., Indiana Historical Society
Palm’s Beauty Shop 1975 Indiana Landmarks Central Canal & IUPUI Image Collection