Nine times out of 10, when you see "controversial" appear on a press release, chances are the issue in question is merely "problematic" or only surprising if you live under a rock. But the Spirit and Place public conversation between composer and jazz pedagogue David Baker and poet Mari Evans may actually live up to its billing. And that's not only judging by both participants' "no comment" about the event when contacted by NUVO.
The topic at hand? The relationship between urban renewal and neighborhood displacement, specifically as it played out from the '50s through the '80s when IUPUI was constructed on near-Westside land that was once home - and in some cases, was still home - to a vibrant African-American community. The public conversation, to be held next Wednesday, Nov. 11 at Madame Walker Theater, is the culmination of an oral history project during which event organizers - independent contractor Glenn White and IUPUI anthropology professor Paul Mullins - talked with near-Westside residents about their lives on and around the Avenue.
White hopes that the conversation will be the first step in a "reconciliation" between the near-Westside community and IUPUI. An overview for the event submitted to NUVO by White puts it succinctly: "This conversation - along with publication of the compiled memories - can be the beginning of a critical and reflective public discourse in which IUPUI can publicly examine its institutional complicity in urban renewal without ignoring the dramatic public benefits the University brings to the city and its residents." The publication, orders for which will be taken at the conversation, will be available this spring.
It took someone from outside the institution to open this conversation. White, who spent the first six years of his life in the Indiana Avenue apartment complex Lockefield Gardens, is not employed by IUPUI, and only began working with Mullins after he made his proposal for this Spirit and Place event. Mullins is researching race and racism on the near-Westside and, since 2001, has been conducting an archival survey of the community that once lived in neighborhoods that have become a part of the IUPUI campus.
As White notes, this isn't a topic that's easy for institutions to discuss, even when, in the case of IUPUI, it dovetails with research going on within its departments. "These types of encroachments took place - and are taking place - all across the country, in terms of universities and public institutions taking over previous predominantly African-American communities through eminent domain," White says. "IUPUI is one of the first - if not the first - to want to enter into a dialogue to discuss the impact of urban renewal, as its been referred to."
White notes that this conversation will allow community members to voice their concerns, and will give both the community and IUPUI ideas for how to move forward. Towards that end, one of the questions White and Mullins put towards their interview subjects was, "What can IU do to acknowledge and recognize the African-American community that was displaced?"
To briefly recap, Indiana Avenue was the cultural and business center for the African-American community in the first half of the 20th century. The Avenue was anchored by the Walker Building (constructed in 1927), home to hundreds who lived in the New Deal public housing complex Lockefield Gardens and destination for a night on the town at the 25 clubs that lined the avenue by 1940.
Following the war, some African-Americans moved north, the city began to integrate, the highways smashed through the near Westside and Indiana Ave. - and the surrounding environs - began to lose its central status in the African-American community, with a commensurate disappearance of residents, businesses and money.
As Michelle D. Hale's entry in the Encyclopedia of Indianapolis
puts it, "Once the lounges and clubs disappeared all that was left on the Avenue was vice, gambling, a few one-night stands by local musicians, and mostly poor residents living in increasingly dilapidated housing." Hale doesn't attach dates to this transition, but she notes that by 1970, the housing stock on Indiana Ave. had been slashed in half, and the nine-block avenue was reduced to a "cluster of structures on the 400 and 500 blocks."
Even if inexorable economic and social forces contributed to the decline of Indiana Ave., the city had plenty to do with the destruction of the avenue's infrastructure. And this is where IUPUI comes in. Again, using the Polis Center's Encyclopedia
as a resource, Hale notes that, beginning in the '50s, the city began to buy land to the east of the avenue. "Despite reassurances to residents and business owners that revitalization would take place, the city rezoned the area for commercial uses and proceeded to build university buildings, parking lots, and interstates," Hale says.
Both Indiana University and Purdue University have maintained Indianapolis presences since the early 1900s, informally agreeing not to duplicate course offerings. The two schools officially merged their operations in 1969, making possible the construction of a centralized campus. But that campus had to be located somewhere. And once it was established in its current location, it needed room to grow, to realize the possibility of becoming a major urban university, with student housing and adequate classroom and office space.
The partial demolition of Lockefield Gardens came at the close of both IUPUI's expansion and Indiana Avenue's decline. A 24-building public housing complex constructed in the '30s as part of a Public Works Administration project to redevelop depressed residential areas into affordable housing, Lockefield became an anchor of Indiana Avenue upon opening in February 1938. But by the '70s, it was in disrepair and had lost residents. A redevelopment plan introduced by the city that decade was shot down by a federal judge on the grounds that redevelopment would constitute residential and educational segregation. In 1980, a neighborhood-based group, IUPUI and Wishard agreed to vacate all but seven buildings to make way for new development. Demolition took place in 1983, following protests from community groups and historic preservationists. Some of the land cleared has been occupied by IUPUI office space and parking.
Mari Evans, a 52-year Indianapolis resident perhaps best known for her collection I Am A Black Woman
, recalls the Avenue from her home in Lockefield Gardens in her work: "Late Sunday afternoons, the Madame Walker tearoom stylishly packed, crisp gloves, the soft silks gleaming. The Western sky awash with red-orange, vivid to pastel, stroked with delicate purples, sunset viewed with awe from a fourth-floor project window. Lockefield. Ah, yes. Lockefield."
Both Baker and Evans are mum before the event, telling NUVO that they're still working up notes for the conversation. For his part, Baker says he'll let Evans take the lead in the conversation.
Baker himself is a good example of how much gray area and complexity one must negotiate when mapping out the relationship between urban renewal and neighborhood displacement, between IUPUI and the near-Westside. He stands between two worlds: once a resident of the near-Westside community, who played trombone on the Avenue in his salad days, since the '60s he's been an employee of Indiana University, as Director of Jazz Studies at IU-Bloomington.