Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Cultural Manifesto: Death of Indiana Avenue

Posted By on Tue, May 27, 2014 at 3:45 AM

click to enlarge Wes Montgomery - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • Submitted Photo
  • Wes Montgomery

My experiences with Indiana Avenue's glory days all come secondhand, primarily through the music legacy of the Avenue's signature artists. But I've also explored the Avenue scene in the archives of Indy's most important Black paper The Indianapolis Recorder.

A brief glance at the entertainment section of a vintage Recorder immediately reveals the Avenue as a cultural boiling pot that simmered night and day. One of my favorite Recorder writers is the late St. Clair Gibson, a hep-talking, streetwise scribe who covered the Avenue in a semi-weekly column during the street's heyday from the 1930s to the '70s.

"The joints were jumping with fine brown frames and their cool poppas playing like mad in the bistros until past curfew, which was 4 to 5 a.m. every morning including Sunday," Gibson wrote of the Avenue in February of 1978.

Gibson covered the Avenue during a time when Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway made their Indiana debuts there. And the locals were just as impressive: Scrapper Blackwell, Leroy Carr, Freddie Hubbard and Wes Montgomery are just a few of the names that earned their reputations on the Ave. Now what's left of the Avenue exists more in legend than actual brick and mortar. One Wikipedia editor transcribing the history of the Ave put it rather bluntly when he wrote, "Indiana Avenue now consists of a few historic buildings and a plaque."

I always assumed the demise of the Avenue was an organic process, an outgrowth of loosening segregation policies that allowed Black culture to evolve beyond the thoroughfare's confines. While I've always felt disappointed that city officials never attempted to preserve the Avenue, I never imagined they intentionally contributed to its demise.

But the more I learn about the Avenue, the more I understand that it didn't die from natural causes. It was murdered; killed by businessmen and real estate developers with the assistance of local government officials. As IUPUI expanded and Downtown's business district grew, the demand for property on the Avenue rocketed in the end of the last century.

One of the most egregious examples of this greed for space occurred in 1988 when city officials attempted to have the Avenue removed from the National Register of Historic Places to facilitate the demolition of several Avenue buildings protected by the Register's preservation guidelines.

"They're killing the spirit of black Americans. Everything has been taken away from us." Indianapolis City-County Councilman Glenn Howard said in response to the action during a Recorder interview from the period.

The city's attempt to remove the Avenue from the Register wasn't successful. But according to the Recorder, developers got what they wanted anyway in a questionable deal with the Historic Landmark Foundation. Eventually the buildings fell, and by the early 90s the presence of African American culture on the Avenue was essentially gone.

The Recorder's wise-old scribe St. Clair Gibson had seen it all coming. For years he'd issued stern warnings to the Avenue's residents and by the 1970s his outlook had turned bleak.

"We dug the diggings along the main stem the other evening, and what we gazed our optics upon wasn't too encouraging," Gibson wrote in 1978. "The old Avenue just isn't what she used to be. Which is downright cruel if you are a lover of the old street flavor. Those were the days when certain joints never closed. Now it's all gone, and just a memory lingers on."

Each edition of A Cultural Manifesto features a mix from Kyle Long, spotlighting music from around the globe.

1. Lamont Dozier - Going Back to my Roots
2. Magic Drum Orchestra - Sunshine of Your Love
3. Mo Kolours - Mike Black
4. Fatima - Ridin Round (Sky High)
5. Quantic - Muevelo Negro
6. tUnE-yArDs - Water Fountain
7. Gregory Porter - Liquid Spirit (Patchwork Peterson Remix)
8. Claudette & Ti Pierre - Zanmi Camarade (Tropical Treats Edit)
9. Musi-O-Tunya - Sunkha
10. Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 - African Smoke
11. D'Angelo - Spanish Joint (2014 Edit)

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