Indy's Westside reinvents itself 

When the second-annual international parade takes place Saturday, Oct. 24, on the Westside of Indianapolis, members of dozens of ethnic groups are expected to march, dance, and ride down Lafayette Road as a celebration of the area's diversity.

It will be just like last year's parade, but organizers hope to add a crucial element this year: spectators.

This desire mirrors the mission of the Lafayette Square Area Coalition, a group of Westside businesses and individuals who want to promote their rapidly growing diversity as a way to bring shoppers and diners back to the business district.

"I believe that if someone stood back and really looked at the uniqueness of the area, we could develop this into an international corridor," says Mary Clark, Coalition president.

Involved citizens and elected officials agree. But the organization faces the challenge of marketing an area that's been known in the past for crime, including the high-profile altercation involving four Indiana Pacers outside a 38th Street strip club in 2006.

"The reputation maybe is justified for the past," says Commander Paul Ciesielski of the Indianapolis Metro Police Department's Northwest District. "Today it's different."

He cites the Coalition as one reason the Westside is worthy of promotion: the combined energy of all those who want to change perceptions and draw people to a place that is arguably the most diverse pocket of the city. The Lafayette Square Area Coalition works closely with the IMPD and the City of Indianapolis, from reporting suspicious activity or requesting increased lighting in public places, to celebrating and recognizing new businesses that have opened.

"I like to say things are improving because of my district and people like this," Ciesielski says. "We try to get the officers to realize that this is really what it's all about: trying to make people feel safe."

Rebranding the community

The annual parade is one way to showcase the Westside's attributes, moving beyond a reputation residents wish the area could shake.

"Crime is here, but it's everywhere," Clark says. "In the inner city, downtown, Greenwood — it's everywhere. I think that more emphasis needs to be put on how we eradicate these problems."

That was one item on the docket at the group's September meeting. Clark opened the agenda by rallying the 40 or so attendees.

"Why are we here?" she asked.

"To support the Lafayette Square area," a few people murmured.

Clark, branch manager for National City Bank at 38th and Georgetown Road, has an open, friendly disposition. She greets her customers by name and introduces herself to strangers. When "Miss Mary" speaks, people listen. But she also seeks their involvement, and a quiet response just didn't cut it.

She asked again. "Why are we here?"

This time, the 40 or so attendees were much louder. "To support the Lafayette Square Area!"

"That's right," she said. "Because if we don't shop at home, nobody else will."

Clark became interested in forming the Coalition as she talked to customers at her bank branch. She wondered, "How do I get my customers to patronize one another? How do I make that happen?"

It's a goal she's still working on. At meetings, she discusses the importance of staying local, even when patronizing chain stores.

"If you're taking your money to another Best Buy, I'll find out about it," Clark says with a smile. One gets the feeling she isn't joking.

Best Buy moved to a freestanding store at 46th and Lafayette Road, as did Shoe Carnival. A new Walmart put down roots there, too.

Meanwhile, less than a mile south, Lafayette Square Mall, at 38th and Lafayette Road, lost large anchor stores Macy's and Sears. Sports apparel store Steve & Barry's also closed due to the chain's bankruptcy. New tenants have yet to fill the spaces, and those empty store windows are covered with photo murals, proclaiming Lafayette Square to be a place "Where Shopping Comes to Life!"

The up-and-down retail scene has led people like Clark to reconsider the Westside's niche market. Perhaps it isn't only to be found in big-box retail, but also in small businesses, particularly those showcasing international diversity.

"It's already there: the restaurants, grocery stores — Saraga's probably the most diverse, as far as grocery stores, but there's also African, Vietnamese, and Hispanic grocery stores," Clark says. "It's just turning into an international blend."

"I think that understanding retail the way we know it will no longer exist here, because people can go elsewhere in the city," she says. "Here, we can be known for our food, groceries, clothing, for events, restaurants — people know they can find it here. Please understand: I am not a developer, but think Chinatown, Little Italy. Those are destination places, 'Ooh, aah' places. You go for some education, too."

Clark notes that elected officials have worked to connect the coalition to developers, and Mayor Greg Ballard's office also has gotten involved. She compares the Westside to Disneyworld, where even if people look like her, they may not sound like her. Multiculturalism abounds, like the international villages of Disney's Epcot Center — only without long lines for the attractions.

That's one thing the Coalition would like to change.

"We're trying to rebrand our community," she says. "We hope the rest of Indianapolis will acknowledge it and come here."

Clark, a longtime Westside resident, knows rebranding will take time and effort, "Nothing happens overnight."

The discussions among community members and elected officials have created what some term a positive energy. Locals say it's a welcome change, and it can be attributed to people getting involved in the community to combat problems.

When Commander Ciesielski tells Coalition members that crime is on the rise, he also reminds people that the department decides where to put officers based on statistics and community input.

"I'd almost get down on my knees to beg you to help us and get involved," he tells the crowd -- a group of people assembled to do just that.

Local diversity increase

Change, as Clark points out, can take time. When Soneil Pitamber, a 1994 Northwest High School graduate, was growing up on the Westside, the area hardly had the diversity it does now. Pitamber, who is of Indian and Pakistani descent, moved to the U.S. with his family when he was 2 years old. At Northwest, he was in a distinct minority.

"There was me and my cousin: we were the only Indians until my senior year," he said. "At the time, there were no Mexicans. The school was probably 80 percent black and almost 20 percent white, with a tiny percentage for whatever was left.

"You see Indians everywhere now."

The U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey (ACS) marks increases like this through survey estimates. For example, since the official census in 2000, the 2005-07 estimates show Indianapolis's Hispanic population has grown by 70 percent, to represent 6.6 percent of the total population. Meanwhile, the white population has decreased by 3 percent, now representing 66.4 percent of the total population.

An increased Mexican presence can be seen on the Westside, in stores, groceries, and eateries that have appeared in the last decade. Restaurateur Jorge Arciniega, who immigrated to the United States in 1993, opened Mexican restaurant Los Rancheros in 2000. The Westside location at 71st and Georgetown Road sees 90 percent of its business from "Anglos," as Arciniega puts it. In the summer, that ratio changes to 50 percent Mexican, as seasonal and construction workers come to Indiana.

He cites the Westside as an appealing place for immigrants because of manufacturing work at Park 100, and plentiful and affordable apartment complex housing. Others mentioned proximity to downtown — and employers like Eli Lilly, IUPUI, and Wishard — as other draws. For Arciniega and his family, there's also community support: he speaks fluent English, but his mother only speaks Spanish. She can shop without a problem at nearby Mexican groceries, and can walk to other stores in the area. While she depends on her son to translate for her, she's still able to spend locally.

"I think the recent (immigrants) do more of the shopping and things like that here," Arciniega says.

For some Westside business owners, the change in demographics happened relatively quickly and without warning. Georgetown Market, a natural foods store that opened on Georgetown Road in 1973, moved to a new location on the same road in 1997. At the time, owner Rick Montieth was anticipating that he would eventually lose his older client base, and hoped the new store would attract young people. He was surprised by the influx of immigrants to the area over the ensuing 10 years.

"At that time, there was no evidence of any change," Montieth says. "We've had a slow shift in demographics of our customer base. We've always had a good African-American clientele; Hispanics, very little at first, but now more. We try to be aware of what their needs are. In six or seven years, it completely changed."

The people are not all that's changed. Closings at Lafayette Square Mall affect the surrounding businesses. "The mirror I look at, I see all the department stores leaving, there's a concern of people shopping here," Montieth says. "What happens there is a reflection of what happens around it."

"Celebrate the Difference"

On Saturday, parade organizers are planning to use the mall as home base for all those who represent the diverse Westside, along with any spectators. The second-annual International Parade begins at 10 a.m. at the Walmart on 46th and Lafayette Road, ending at Lafayette Square Mall. There will be seven grand marshals representing the community, including Indianapolis Mayor Ballard and U.S. Representative Andre Carson. The third-annual "Taste the Difference" food festival boasts participation from15 different area restaurants, offering free samples of their specialties, starting at noon. In the evening, there will be music and dancing, with a $5 cover charge.

Clark says the parade will feature participants from a variety of backgrounds: Vietnamese, Korean, American Indian, a variety of Latino and African groups, Filipino, and Indian, to name several. In last year's inaugural parade, the colorful event attracted hundreds of participants, but few came to watch from the sidelines. Organizers hope this year will bring support from people all over Indianapolis and its outlying areas.

"Last year, we had 70 different groups participate, but less viewers," says parade director Raju Chinthala. "Our goal is to get more viewers so they can see the parade and how ethnically diverse it is. We want people to celebrate in the Lafayette Square area."

Chinthala, general manager of the Quality Inn at the airport, lives on the Westside and is a Coalition member. He owns Manoranjan Inc., a small business that brings first-run Indian films to the Georgetown 14 Cinemas.

"The importance of this parade is the theme itself: Celebrate the Difference," he says. "We're so diversified in terms of business as well as residents. We have so many different types of restaurants, grocery stores, boutiques, music stores. Nowhere else in the city do we have this kind of diversity as we have in the area.

"If we educate ourselves and learn about other cultures, this will be a more friendly neighborhood," he adds.

Georgetown Market Store Manager Lisa Patterson is involved in the "Taste the Difference" event, and Georgetown Market is a member of the Lafayette Square Area Coalition.

"We joined as a business in the area that's interested in what we can do to move the area forward," she says. "First of all, people have to be here in the area to see what's here. We want to focus on getting people here."

"In Chicago or bigger cities, they all have these little pockets, and I think it's really nice that Indianapolis can have that, too," says Patterson. "If people patronize the independents and the Mom and Pops, it'll keep money here in the community and provide jobs."

City-County Councilor Maggie Lewis has helped plan the day's activities again this year as the Coalition's event chair.

"As a resident of the area, I want to focus on economic development and the positive impact on the area," Lewis says. "This is a parade to showcase the diversity in our area. There are people coming together — IMPD, businesses, neighborhood associations — collectively, people are really working to share this story."

Can the positives outweigh the crime?

While Commander Ciesielski declines to share statistics, he does say that the nearby neighborhoods pose a greater security problem than the mall itself.

"The crime (at the mall) is no different than every other mall in America: shoplifting, vehicle theft," he says. "No one's getting killed or robbed. The outlying areas have some challenges, but it's not the shopping area.

"Citywide, burglaries are up, larcenies are up, all of those theft-type crimes," Ciesielski explains. "I know it's part of the economy. Where people used to be stealing iPods, now they're stealing meat."

Still, reputations are hard to change, and high-profile crime will hurt an area's image. When an undercover narcotics officer shot and killed a suspect in the new Walmart's parking lot last spring, Ciesielski's first call was to Mary Clark.

"I knew it would probably be a PR nightmare," he says. "This happens everywhere, but it doesn't always result in action."

Arciniega, of Los Rancheros restaurant, says he has had no trouble living and working on the Westside. Still, he says crime seems to be changing lately. "It's a little more intense. There are a lot of people in a little place. It's too crowded. But there aren't problems every single day."

Many agree that the shopping district has borne the brunt of nearby neighborhoods that suffer from a combination of neglect, poverty, and crime. Lewis takes issue when Westside crime is reported to have happened in the "Lafayette Square" area, even when incidents occur far from the shopping district. It's contributed to a nickname that's plagued the mall for some time: Lafayette Scare.

"It's not the name we prefer, but those are the kind of stories people put out there," she says. "As long as it's on the Westside, people call it the 'Lafayette Square Area.' Any chance we get, publicly, we say, 'Can you not use that terminology?'

"No one has been able to say our numbers are so off the charts, don't come shop here," she says. "It's still a safe place to shop. We're not naïve to think that there's no crime in the area. But can we share the positive of what happens here?"

Improvements and developments

The city's West 30th Street Corridor Plan (www.indy.gov/west30thplan) makes recommendations for land use and development along West 30th Street, between the White River and Lafayette Road and the CSX Railroad. Nearby schools like Marian University and Cardinal Ritter High School have gotten involved, offering recommendations for usage and volunteering service hours.

"We caught the corridor on an upswing," says Dennis Slaughter, senior planner for the project.

And not all closed stores are remaining vacant. A new convention center has taken over the space formerly occupied by Value City Department Store on West Pike Plaza Road, and has booked its first event: Mexfest, a concert and festival on November 21, from 2 p.m. to midnight. Lafayette Square Mall has added Shopper's World and Xscape family entertainment to its lineup.

The last Coalition meeting included a brief presentation from Lafayette Square Mall General Manager Phil Thornton, who said the building's outside is getting a facelift with new landscaping, refacing, as well as adding more security cameras, and brighter outside lighting that uses less energy.

"We're going to totally redo the outside," he reported. "You won't even recognize it next spring."

Forty-six-year-old trees will be replaced with red maples, grasses and rose bushes. Also planned are monitors inside each of the four entrances, so visitors will see themselves on a screen when entering.

On a recent Sunday, plenty of shoppers wandered the mall and ate at the food court. Some watched their children clamber about the enclosed play areas. Tiffany Boggs and Phillip Garrett, both 21, were "just poking around" the mall, pushing one-year-old daughter Haylee in a stroller. The family just moved to town from Missouri, and came to Lafayette Square Mall because it was the only mall they knew about.

"It could use a little bit of work," Garrett observes. "The outside looks run down."

"The inside's cool," Boggs quickly adds. "I saw some stores I'd come back to."

Olivia Hamilton and Ericka Tucker, both 19, like going to the mall because their friends hang out there. "It's fun shopping here because it's the mall everybody goes to," Hamilton says.

"We see people here on the weekends that we haven't seen in a long time," Tucker says, checking on her one-year-old son, Devon, in his stroller. The mall is the place she goes to buy outfits for special events, like the Circle City Classic.

When he has free time, Indianapolis CPA Martin Thumin strolls a few laps around the mall tiles. On this particular Sunday, he is wearing a white Dobbs hat, two-tone shoes, and a handkerchief in his suit pocket. "I dress this way every day," he says.

As a regular, he has plenty of observations to share. "Since the place changed hands, there aren't as many people here during the week as there used to be. Saturday and Sunday are about the same. Some of the stores are gone, and the people who frequent the place are less white than they used to be.

"It's well-managed, kept clean, and I've had no problems here. No issues."

Looking beyond the surface

Saraga International Grocery Manager John Sung has a solid local client base, but he says his customers from Fishers and Carmel are somewhat reluctant to make the drive to his store.

"They ask, 'Why you open that store over there?'" he says. "People say they're scared to come here. In five years, we've had no problems at all, but people have a bad impression."

Sung says there have been occasional incidents, like car break-ins in the parking lot. As so many others have mentioned, those problems are not unique to the Westside. "Those things happen everywhere, even in Fishers and Carmel," Sung says.

He cites the area's diversity as his main reason for opening shop here five years ago in the old Kmart on Commercial Drive. Local grocery stores are changing their offerings — or marketing specifically to various ethnic groups — based on the changing face of Indianapolis's Westside.

At Saraga, the names on employee timecards are African, Asian, Hispanic — fairly reflective of the store's customer base. Saraga offers aisles of products from across the world. "We still have a lot of people traveling here from far away to get some product they can never find," says Sung, who is Korean. "There's diversity in this area, but actually they're all over the place — Burmese, Chinese, Indian, they come from all over."

Sung has visited Chinatown in San Francisco and New York to see what products are available that he might carry. He thinks the Westside could feasibly include an Indianapolis Chinatown.

"I believe this is the best area for that," he says. "It's the most centered area of the city — it has a lot of diversity and can be developed."

On Saturday, the parade route will draw participants and spectators alike down Lafayette Road, directing them to the mall. If organizers have their wish, hundreds will enter to eat, shop, and celebrate what the area has to offer. Post-parade activities — "Taste the Difference" and the nightlife events — will be held in the former Steve & Barry's location.

The store remains unoccupied but that will change, at least for one day, when a vast array of food, music, and languages fills the empty space.

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