A pair of recent experiences led me to draw connections between two seemingly disparate Indianapolis locations. The first: a meeting at Indiana Avenue's historic Madame Walker Theatre. The second: a trip to Chispas, a Westside nightclub known for booking some of the biggest bands in the Latin music scene.
The Walker Theatre is one of the last standing remnants from an era when African-American culture ruled Indiana Avenue. During the Avenue's golden days, the neighborhood's clubs hosted some of the greatest names in jazz and R&B music. It wasn't uncommon to see Aretha Franklin play a week-long gig at a tiny hole-in-the-wall, or Cab Calloway and orchestra headlining a grand ballroom. The Avenue's vibrant nightlife also gave birth to local stars, including Wes Montgomery and Freddie Hubbard.
Considering this information, you might assume the Avenue was praised and lauded by the city officials and arts community of its day. Sadly, that's not the case. During its prime years, the neighborhood was looked down upon by the dominant majority culture as a dangerous outpost for poor folks and ne'er-do-wells, while the music featured in the Avenue's clubs was often discredited as unrefined.
The Avenue came into existence as an outgrowth of Jim Crow segregation practices that marginalized African-Americans, forcing them out of the mainstream to create underground worlds of their own. It's the same style of economic and racial discrimination that has given birth to the immigrant-dominated Westside neighborhood where Chispas nightclub sits. Chispas is one of many immigrant-friendly clubs, restaurants and shops initiating a cultural renaissance in the once-desolate area often referred to as the Lafayette Square Corridor.
I visited Chispas for a concert featuring two iconic Colombian bands: cumbia pioneers Sonoro Dinamita and salsa masters Grupo Niche. In terms of both groups' popularity and influence throughout Latin America, it was roughly the equivalent of seeing The Who and Pink Floyd on a double bill. The concert hall was packed. Over a thousand attendees had gathered in a joyful celebration of music and dance. But you couldn't find any news of the show outside the Spanish language media. Just like Indiana Avenue, the Lafayette Square Corridor has been labeled as too dangerous and rough by the dominant mainstream culture, and the music of its immigrant population isn't considered worthy of our attention.
Over the last several years there's been serious discussion about the future of this westside area. Outside consultants have been brought in and lots of money has been spent in hopes of finding answers to the perceived problems facing the Corridor. But I have to wonder why no one is asking the immigrant entrepreneurs who have already made this neighborhood a popular destination worthy of significant national interest. Why aren't we turning to the successful proprietors of Chispas, Saraga, Guanajuato or the Discount Mall for answers?
Are we ignoring the immense cultural contributions of the Westside's immigrant community as we once did Indiana Avenue's African-American population? Are we giving in to our collective prejudices and making the same mistake twice by underestimating the importance of the cultural transformation currently unfolding?
For Indiana Avenue, the city of Indianapolis has seemed to define its success by creating an environment safe for coporate investment - - the more fast food joints and overpriced real estate developments, the better. Aside from Walker Theater, all evidence of the Avenue's glorious past have been erased. It would be a shame to see the same thing happen on the Westside, especially at this early stage in the community's development. Perhaps one day the Corridor could give birth to an artistic movement on par with Indiana Avenue's - - as happened recently with a segment of Chicago's immigrant community when the city's Mexican-American population developed a new form of music named duranguense, creating superstars out of several Chicago bands.
Perhaps the least we could do to help develop the Westside community is to stand out of its way, and allow the immigrant entrepreneurs to continue forging a positive future for the area unabated. But if we really want to contribute maybe we should start by educating ourselves about the cultures of the varied immigrant groups gathered there, and follow their lead.