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. 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