Author Archives: Paul Mullins
In the wake of World War II planners, developers, and elected officials spearheaded urban renewal projects that transformed Indianapolis, Indiana’s material landscape and depopulated its central core. Yet over the last 20 years the descendants of those ideologues have been gradually repopulating the Indiana capital city’s core and constructing a historicized landscape on the ruins of the post-renewal city. A relatively similar story could be told in nearly all of postwar America, where urban renewal, the “war on poverty,” and a host of local schemes displaced legions of poor and working-class people. Some creatively re-purposed structures have survived urban renewal in Indianapolis, but much of the near-Westside’s historical landscape has been erased, remains under fire, or only survives in radically new forms. It may be pragmatic (or unavoidable) to accept such a transformation of the historical landscape, but urban renewal’s material effacement of the African-American near-Westside—and the way it is now reconstructed or evoked on the contemporary landscape–inevitably will transform how that heritage is experienced.
The most recent target in Indianapolis is Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, which has sat on West Vermont Street since the congregation purchased the lot in 1869. The congregation’s origins in Indianapolis reach to 1836, and the church members were vocal abolition supporters and orchestrated movement through Indianapolis on the Underground Railroad. Bethel was among the African-American city’s most prominent institutions, hosting myriad people for worship, leisure, education, and activism alike: in 1870, residents gathered in the church to celebrate the passing of the 15th Amendment (securing African-American voting rights); in 1904 the first meeting of Indiana’s Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs was held at Bethel; in 1926 African Americans gathered at Bethel to protest a wave of segregation laws reaching from racist neighborhood covenants to high school segregation; and neighborhood residents gathered at Bethel throughout the civil rights movement.
Yet after World War II the near-Westside was subject to waves of Indiana University Medical Center and state government expansion followed by the establishment of IUPUI and construction of the interstate. In 1983 the city widened West Street and then embarked in 1985 on a project to transform the central canal immediately alongside Bethel. The city championed a new style for the canal neighborhood that planners dubbed “Contemporary Italianate” (PDF). The Italianate theme was a clumsy allusion to Venice’s canals and a scatter of late-19th-century Italianate buildings in Indianapolis. The “contemporary” dimension of the canal’s new style optimistically focused on the present and dodged the neighborhood’s African-American heritage, arguing that “the past cannot be successfully recreated except in a `museum’ environment like Williamsburg, and few people choose to live within those constraints.” A “Venetian style pedestrian bridge” (PDF) replaced the Vermont Street auto bridge that once ran in front of the church, which left Bethel at a dead end. Across Vermont Street from Bethel construction began on the Canal Square apartment complex in 1989 (PDF), one of a series of apartment and condominium complexes to be built along the freshly cleared canal (Canal Overlook was the first canal complex to break ground in 1987 [PDF]).
Like many urban churches, Bethel’s congregation shrank as the surrounding neighborhoods emptied. As the aging Bethel building declined, the congregation launched fundraising campaigns to address foundation problems and the need for a new roof. Yet this month Pastor Lewis Parham soberly acknowledged that “We were totally just disappointed. … People want the building to stay, but people don’t want to do what it takes to keep it here.” Last week plans were announced to turn Bethel AME into two hotels, one redeveloping the existing church and the other a hotel and 10,000 square feet of retail space in the parking lot alongside Bethel. Sun Development and Management Corporation announced the sale agreement with the congregation and heralded it as “a dynamite development along the canal.” The developer has pledged to preserve as much of the original structure as feasible, but no concrete design has been unveiled or reviewed by preservationists.
Urban churches have been particularly vulnerable to the wrecking ball and re-development. For instance, construction of St Bridget’s Catholic Church began in June, 1879 at the corner of St. Clair and North West Streets (now known as Martin Luther King, Jr. Street). The church was dedicated January 1, 1880 and the bell blessed at month’s end. The church originally was home to a predominately Irish-American flock led by Father Daniel Curran, who was born in Ireland in 1841. Daniel Curran became the first Pastor at St. Bridget’s, and he apparently evangelized to African Americans from the outset. In 1892 Curran created St. Ann’s Colored School, enrolling 76 students in a segregated school alongside St. Bridget’s. In 1903 the Indianapolis Recorder observed that “St. Bridget’s church has thirty negro families and sixty negro children in its parish school.” In 1914 the editor of The Catholic Truth indicated that “there is in Indianapolis a progressive colored Catholic movement in charge of our good friend, the Rev. D. Curran of St. Bridget’s church.” Curran served 38 years before he retired in 1916, and his successor Father John McShane served St. Bridget’s 32 years. McShane wrote in 1931 that “ordinarily the colored folk are good, peaceful neighbors; we have never had any trouble with them.” He observed that “I have had under my spiritual jurisdiction former slaves whose Catholic masters treated them as human beings, allowing them a liberal education, and many of the privileges of their own families. Naturally, these favored few are today our best and most representative colored Catholics.”
The transformation of the St. Bridget’s neighborhood hastened the church’s decline, and in July, 1994 the Archdiocese closed St. Bridget’s. In July, 2000 Sexton Companies announced their plans to purchase the property from the Archdiocese and build apartments where St. Bridget’s stood. The Archdiocese accepted the offer and noted that they did “not believe it was good stewardship to continue to invest money in empty buildings.” A meeting was scheduled for December 6, 2000 to develop a preservation plan to accommodate Sexton, but the Archdiocese did not intend to change their plans. A crane and bulldozers appeared at the site December 1st, and neighbors filed a request for a restraining order, but over the weekend the church was partially demolished.
Yet other spaces in the near-Westside have been modified for new uses. For instance, Phillip’s Temple Church at 1226 Martin Luther King Jr. Street sits immediately north of Crispus Attucks High School and alongside Flanner House Homes. Built in 1924, the church was home for almost 70 years to Phillips Temple CME (Christian Methodist Episcopal, formerly Colored Methodist Episcopal). The congregation was established in December, 1906, when the Indianapolis Recorder reported that Bishop Charles Henry Phillips had appointed Rev. John F. Taylor to “open a Mission of the C.M.E. churches at 1204 Northwestern Ave.” The congregation laid the cornerstone for a new church on Drake Street on June 14, 1908 with Bishop Phillips in attendance, and the newly constructed chapel and the congregation took Phillip’s name. The church grew quite rapidly during World War I migration, and in 1919 Governor I. Jackson was appointed as its Pastor. Known as the “Master Builder” in the church’s history, Jackson spearheaded a construction project for a new church around the corner from its Drake Street chapel. Phillip’s Chapel was renamed Phillip’s Temple when the new church on North West Street opened in 1924. The church could seat 1500 worshippers and was reputed to be the largest African-American owned auditorium in Indiana.
In November 1992 Phillip’s Temple relocated to East 34th Street. In January 1993 the church became home to Grace Memorial CME and then Revival Temple Apostolic Church occupied it within a year. In 2011 the building was finally abandoned and it was purchased by Indianapolis Public Schools, who intended to raze the building for a parking lot (compare MW LaFary’s images of the church from 2012). IPS delayed the demolition, and in August 2015 the church was purchased by Van Rooy Properties to be rehabbed as apartments.
The erasure of African-American materiality from the near-Westside was simply one dimension of the city’s changing postwar landscape. In 1960 Indianapolis Recorder columnist Andrew Ramsey concluded that White suburbanites “have sold their old houses of worship either to Negro congregations or operators of parking lots, filling stations or other commercial venture and have built country club types of houses of worship in their racially exclusive suburbs.” Ramsey lamented that while suburban churches supported evangelization in Africa they ironically ignored the “central city from which they fled,” where African-American congregations claimed abandoned White churches and remaining White residents refused to worship with their African-American neighbors.
The reclamation of African-American space and heritage extends beyond churches alone. For instance, the former Willis Mortuary is today being surrounded by a new apartment complex. Cassius M. Clay Willis established his undertaking firm in 1890 and graduated from the Massachusetts School of Embalming five years later, managing his firm at several locations on Indiana Avenue. In April, 1913 the Indianapolis Recorder reported that Willis and his son Herbert had purchased a double at 632-634 North West Street, and in August they announced they were open for business at the new location on North West Street. Willis’ most famous neighbor was probably Madam C.J. Walker, who purchased the home at 640 North West Street in May, 1911 and built a factory in the backyard. Walker moved to New York City in 1916, but production and offices for the firm remained on North West Street until they moved to the Walker Theatre next door in 1927. The Walker home itself was last listed as a residence in 1965, appearing vacant in both 1964 and 1965, and it was apparently razed soon after.
Cassius Willis died in 1920, his son ran the firm until his death in 1952, and the final funerals were conducted in the building in 2009. The building subsequently sat vacant until it was purchased in 2015 by Olaf Lava LLC, who planned to bulldoze the building and build apartments covering both Walker’s home and the space where the Willis Mortuary now sits. But Indiana Landmarks prevailed on the developer to integrate the former mortuary into their design, and the building will survive with the new apartments ringing it.
After the city spent the postwar period razing most of the near-Westside, it has now paradoxically embraced bourgeois development without imagining any contradictions with African-American heritage. Inevitably the wake of urban renewal has effaced the near-Westside’s historical landscape, leaving ambiguous distinctions between Italian-themed architecture, 19th-century churches, and historical facades on new buildings. Phillip’s Temple, the Willis Mortuary, and Bethel AME will perhaps emerge as preservation victories that provide traces of the African-American near-Westside, and all of these renovated spaces invoke some sense of historicity and sound reminders of the city’s African-American past. In the absence of much surviving material culture, Indianapolis and many more cities likely will be dependent on the developers of bourgeois apartments and hotels to creatively narrate that history.
1925 The History of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church in America: Comprising Its Organization, Subsequent Development and Present Status. 3rd edition. C.M.E. Church, Jackson, Tennessee.
City of Indianapolis
1985 Lower Canal Improvement Project. Browning, Day, Mullins, Dierdorf, Indianapolis, Indiana.
Mary and James Kenny
2004 The Church that Refused to Die: St. Bridget’s. Brigittine Press, Indianapolis, Indiana.
Phillips Temple image Indianapolis Star
St. Bridget’s Catholic Church and School, image circa 1990s; St. Bridget’s Catholic Church Demolition and following demolition, December 2000; and Willis Mortuary image undated Indiana Historic Architecture Slide Collection, IUPUI University Library
Last week Indianapolis’ tourism agency Visit Indy proposed building a beach along the White River, the waterway that meanders through the heart of Indiana’s capital city. The idea modeled on temporary beaches in Paris (where swimming is not allowed in the Seine) was greeted with some skepticism: today, much of the river has a well-deserved reputation for pollution reaching back over the last century. The river and its urban tributaries have long been fouled by combined sewer overflows, industrial discharges, and upriver farm wastes, and many stretches of the river are inaccessible and unappealing. The Indianapolis press seem unable to imagine the White River as a tourist spot with something akin to a beach, but the river has a rich history of waterfront leisure that has included beaches from Ravenswood and Broad Ripple south to the edges of present-day downtown. Some of the most polluted stretches of the White River also wind through predominately African-American neighborhoods and attest to how segregation shaped African Americans’ experience of the river.
In 1916 the Indianapolis News delivered an alarming report that the White River from Washington Street south “is devoid of natural fish life and birds.” Below the West Washington Street bridge the State Board of Health’s John C. Diggs pronounced the river “a malodorous, septic stream, bearing on its surface floating matter of sewage origin,” concluding that the river “was of the same character as ordinary household sewage.” Two years before he told the American Chemical Society conference that “White River is a comparatively small stream, yet it is used as a source of public water supply and sewage disposal for over 300,000 people.” The 1916 study had already recognized that certain stretches of the river were more polluted than others. At Broad Ripple “the river is free from floating matter or objectionable odor”; at Crow’s Nest just south of Broad Ripple “water is clear, free from floating matter”; and at Emrichsville Bridge (just south of the present-day 16th Street Bridge) the “water is clean but has a slightly weedy odor.” However, the African-American near Westside lay directly north of the industrial pollution wreaked by companies like the Kingan and Company meat packing plant, near which “the surface is a black scum” and “bubbles of gas rise to the surface.” Their neighbors Van Camps were responsible for “pieces of tomatoes…on the surface of the water.” Read the rest of this entry
In 2014 a panel of 25 senior scholars developed an ambitious array of “grand challenges” for archaeology (PDF), the “most important scientific challenges” that the discipline could or should address. Their report published in American Antiquity includes a host of fascinating if astoundingly broad subjects that confidently aspire to structure how archaeologists frame a grand narrative for the archaeological past.
This month archaeology bloggers are examining the “grand challenges” in their own corners of the discipline, many of which are not addressed by the American Antiquity paper (see the hashtag #blogarch). Inevitably such an ambitious project cannot hope to address all the questions that matter to various scholars and public constituencies, so bloggers are suggesting some questions that remain outside the panel’s grand challenges.
Much of the NSF project was greeted by a chorus complaining that the respondents to the paper’s “crowd-sourced” online surveys was demographically problematic: 79% of the respondents were from the United States; two-thirds were age 50 or older; and 62% of the respondents were male. Observers dissatisfied with the grand challenges in the American Antiquity paper argued that the questions reflected the survey respondents and scholars who authored the final “big picture” research questions (compare Diggin’ It and SEAC Underground). Read the rest of this entry
This week artist Bernard Williams’ Talking Wall was installed on Indianapolis’ Cultural Trail. Williams’ work sits along Blackford Street on the IUPUI campus, sandwiched between two parking decks in the midst of what was once an African-American neighborhood. Talking Wall collects a series of symbols representing that African-American heritage, emerging after a long discussion over African-American public art stewarded by the Central Indiana Community Foundation (CICF), Arts Council of Indianapolis (ACI), and the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee (GIPC). On an otherwise non-descript stretch of the trail the work aspires to illuminate African-American heritage and evoke a historical landscape lost to most people’s memory. For a piece that ambitiously celebrates its aspiration to promote conversation, though, it remains somewhat unclear exactly what sort of discussions a phalanx of planners hope to secure from Talking Wall. Talking Wall emerged from a tortured ethnographic failure of planners to fathom African Americans’ investment in public artistic representations of African America. That failure and the subsequent effort to cast the subsequent Talking Wall community art project as reconciliation and civil discussion may frame a more interesting insight into privilege and the color line than any artwork. Read the rest of this entry
Last week a stirring Civil War memorial in Sterling, Virginia was ridiculed for its commemoration of a Potomac River engagement known as “the river of blood.” The gorgeous riverside site on the Trump National Golf Club was dramatically remodeled after Donald Trump purchased the former Lowes Island Club in 2009. Part of that remodeling included the placement of a war memorial between the 14th and 15th holes commemorating a slaughter of “many great Americans, both of the North and South” whose blood reputedly turned the Potomac crimson. The plaque at the bottom of a flagpole exclaims “It is my great honor to have preserved this important section of the Potomac River!–Donald John Trump.”
Northern Virginia has a rich landscape of Civil War sites, and the memorial to Civil War dead is perhaps earnest, but there is no evidence that such a battle occurred along the shores of the present-day Trump course. When Trump was challenged this month over the details of this otherwise undocumented battle, he replied with characteristic arrogance that the location “was a prime site for river crossings. So, if people are crossing the river, and you happen to be in a civil war, I would say that people were shot—a lot of them.” When pressed that he had manufactured a historical event, Trump dismissed demands for scholarly verification: “Write your story the way you want to write it. You don’t have to talk to anybody. It doesn’t make any difference. But many people were shot. It makes sense.” Faced with scholars’ challenges, Trump protested ““How would they know that? Were they there?” Read the rest of this entry
Our memories and experiences of the holidays are profoundly accented by scent: the fragrance of baking cookies, the pungent scent of pine trees, and the distinctive whiff of our family members’ homes are among many peoples’ strongest sensory memories. Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past described a rush of “involuntary memory” incited by the scent and taste of a madeleine, painting a picture of sensations that provoke emotionally rich recollections. Countless web pages provide directions for simmering water jars, stove top concoctions, and homemade potpourri that will make your home smell like a Yuletide wonderland. For those of us too impatient to boil star anise, orange slices, and cinnamon sticks, an enormous industry caters to consumers’ sensory imagination, selling us smells that fortify our own clouds of pumpkin pie and turkey: numerous marketers hawk familiar scents like evergreen or vanilla, but many like American mall behemoth Yankee Candle sell fantasy scents, with Angel’s Wings, Cozy by the Fire, Winter Glow, and Cat’s Whiskers among its 2015 holiday fragrances.
Christmas is an especially lucrative time of year to sell scents. In 2012 Yankee Candle’s European Managing Director championed holiday scents when he said “imagine Christmas without all the wonderful scents it comes with, and you’ll understand why home fragrance is so important at this time of year.” Perhaps the most distinctive entrant in the holiday consumer scentscape is the Poo-Pourri toilet spray. Poo-Pourri has sold over 10 million bottles of its’ “before you go” toilet spray, which promises that its natural oils will eliminate your foul bathroom cloud before it becomes part of your Yuletide sensory memories. Poo-Pourri concedes that the fragrances of the holidays inevitably include the unavoidable intestinal impact of Grandma’s butter-laden sweet potatoes. The toilet spray’s elevated holiday sales suggest that at least some of us are self-conscious that our young relatives’ memories of Christmas fragrances will involve pine trees, Yankee Candle vanilla, and the unmistakable post-digestive cloud that will forever be associated with you. Rather than have your friends and family remember you as a malodorous Chewbacca, Poo-Pourri promises you’ll instead be associated with the English garden scent you always left in the holiday potty. Read the rest of this entry
Perhaps no bodily function inspires as much public awkwardness as menstruation. A host of consumer goods have long promised to resolve a pantheon of discretely acknowledged bodily realities like body odor, belching, acne, farting, bad breath, and bowel practices, and the success of such products is measured by their very invisibility: that is, nobody cares about your deodorant until you smell foul, we have little to say about toilet paper unless it inflicts injury, and tampon failures are discussed in only the most delicate company (or reddit). The market for such personal hygiene products extends back over more than a century, and it is enormously profitable: for instance, in 2014 the ten leading American deodorant brands accounted for $1.06 billion in sales. Read the rest of this entry
In April, 1969 James Saint Clair Gibson reported on the opening of the Sportsman’s Club, a country club being built by African-American investors in the city’s northwestern suburbs. Gibson contributed columns to the Indianapolis Recorder from 1936 until his death in 1978, often writing under his pen name of “The Saint” and dispensing acerbic commentary about life in African-American Indianapolis. Gibson’s report on the Sportsman’s Club inventoried its promised offerings of swimming pools, tennis courts, and golf links, but Gibson could not pass up a comment on the club’s apparent exclusivity, observing that memberships cost “$$$$ (hundreds) per year, and according to what we hear—they are being gobbled up right and left by our succulent (?) middle-class.”
The Sportsman’s Club aspired to provide a cross-class, multiethnic social club. However, Gibson perhaps captured his readership’s wariness of exclusive country clubs, which were segregated along class lines and had historically been places where African Americans performed service labor. The caricature of White hyper-wealthy clubs may have made the notion of a predominately Black club seem especially archaic at a moment when many once-segregated citizen rights were being transformed. Perhaps the most unsettling implication was that the club illuminated the reaches of American life that remained utterly segregated. Country clubs would indeed be one of the last bastions of segregation long after other spaces and citizen rights were effectively integrated. Read the rest of this entry
In January, 1928 the Indianapolis Recorder dryly proclaimed that “it is indeed gratifying to see how many of our group have taken up the ancient and honorable game of GOLF since the city turned the cow pasture at Douglass Park over to us for a golf course by the placing of six tin cans around said pasture.” In 1926, the African-American newspaper had spearheaded the course’s construction, arguing that “Indianapolis Negroes want to play golf.” By 1928, though, it lamented that the six-hole course at “Douglass park has plenty of hazards, bunkers and the like, but they are not artificial. They are just as God made the land, rough, uneven, uncut grass, trees in the fairways, even the `teeing ground’ is like a bunker.”
Much of the 20th century battleground for African-American citizen privileges and human rights was waged in public spaces like workplaces, schools, and the voting booth. Nevertheless, that activism reached into nearly every corner of everyday life, finding some of its most powerful activism at seemingly prosaic lunch counters, bowling alleys, and municipal parks. African America’s grassroots struggle for citizen rights in seemingly mundane leisure places like golf courses was a critical dimension of 20th-century African-American activism. Such activism remains preserved in traces of the contemporary landscape, but the significance of such spaces—and the persistence of many color line divisions in those very places–risks passing without notice today.
Indianapolis’ first public nine-hole course was built at Riverside Park in 1900, just as golf began to be played in the US; simultaneously, the Great Migration and color line segregation were transforming the world of 20th-century African-American golf. In 1901 Henry Alfred Fleming, an African-American caddy at the Indianapolis Country Club, was appointed as Riverside Park’s golfing instructor. Many African Americans like Fleming found work as caddies at the nation’s earliest country clubs and golf courses, quietly becoming skilled players themselves. John Shippen, an African American and indigenous Shinnecock Indian, was a caddie who played in six U.S. Opens alongside White golfers between 1896 and 1902, but golf clubs and tournaments soon excluded people of color. Fleming’s position as an African-American golf instructor at a public course would be nearly unimaginable by 1910, when golf became a segregated mass leisure. Read the rest of this entry