Are Indy neighborhoods gentrifying?

The answer is yes — but local art's role in the process is surprising.

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Walking from the Circle to Fountain Square just six years ago was a dramatically different experience than it is today. The trip trailed alongside Virginia Ave. and passed parking lots and abandoned buildings that checkered the urban desert between the nucleus of the city and what's now known as the arts hub of Indy.

Today, the walk hosts apartments with one-bedrooms priced at over a grand a month, James Beard-honored restaurateurs and a Cultural Trail — which are all reasons why Indy was named one of the most desirable cities for millennials. We spoke with a variety of place-makers, developers, artists and community organizers to examine the complex issues of gentrification and displacement from different lenses.

The word "gentrification" has morphed into an organism of its own with entirely subjective understandings. Its exact meaning is hard to pin down. Like a prescription drug, it's seen by some as a cure to ailing neighborhoods, while others see the overwhelming side effects.

Effects like the displacement of longtime homeowners from a community where they have lived for years. Things like racial, class and economic oppression — especially on those who are underprivileged.

National examples of gentrification include New York's Harlem and Chicago's Wicker Park, where the makeup of these areas has dramatically shifted from diverse population to predominantly white middle-to-upper-class residents in the last two decades. The result has forced long-term residents to more affordable spaces. They are often priced out of their homes and unable find comparable living conditions and usually pushed even further into poverty.

Over the last few years, some residents of Indy have felt similar warning signs.

Those murmurs led Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) to commission the Center for Community Progress to research if and where gentrification is happening in Indy.

What they found was startling.

The study measured Indy's 200 census tracts from 2000 to 2014, revealing that five had measurably experienced gentrification. The neighborhoods included parts of Downtown, Fall Creek Place, Cottage Home and Holy Cross.

According to Jeff Bennett, Deputy Mayor for Community Development with the Mayor's Office, parameters for the report focused on an increase in household income, education and property values.

RELATED: A critical breakdown of (a few) factors at play in Indy gentrification 

"We have lost middle-class manufacturing jobs that were rooted in our neighborhoods over the last 30 years," says Bennett. "When that happens you get the opposite of gentrification."

For city planners, the study caught their attention in another way — through poverty and blight.

The November report noted that:

"Roughly one out of every four census tracts is suffering from what might be called hyper-vacancy, where the vacancy rate is in excess of 20 percent, while another one of four has a vacancy rate between 12 percent and 20 percent, a level likely to reflect at least moderately depressed housing market conditions. Over one-third of the census tracts in Indianapolis saw their housing vacancy rate more than double between 2000 and 2014."

The Mayor's Office was not the only branch whose focus shifted when the report came out.

"I don't think Indianapolis has a gentrification problem. To be candid, I think we have a poverty problem," says Emily Mack, Indianapolis' Director for the Department of Metropolitan Development.

Mack repeatedly noted that, to her, there's no gentrification in Indy.

However, programs that the Department of Metropolitan Development has underway clearly attempt to prevent or reverse displacement — though they didn't cite gentrification specifically.

Mack adds that their current partner programs are focused on keeping housing affordable on the Near Eastside — an area that was highlighted as one of the five locations that have experienced measurable gentrification.

The Mayor's Office has a similar focus on housing.

"What we want to be sure that we are doing is creating opportunities for people to stay," says Bennett.

While both were quick to focus on (what the study targeted as) more pressing issues, like poverty and blight, each has a focus on keeping people in their homes as neighborhoods develop; something that community groups like Spirit and Place and the Kheprw Institute are concerned about on a social level.

Art, Community and Development

LaShawnda Crowe Storm, Community Engagement Director for Spirit and Place, has talked about gentrification for years. But, since January, that conversation has spread to a 10-part series with the Khemprw Institute called Gentrify: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly.

"There were all of these constant rumblings about what's happening in our neighborhoods; real distress over the neighborhood change," says Crowe Storm. "There weren't a lot of places where people felt they could voice concerns or even network with other people and talk about it."

So she decided to start with discussing the water crisis in Flint, Mich. and whether that could happen in Indy. The conversation snowballed into concern that development in Indy is steamrolling over residents.

"People would talk about working with one group in the Fountain Square area, people felt that their identity was being removed," says Crowe Storm.

She cites the rising housing costs in Fountain Square as the origin of worry.

"This is concerning for people," says Crowe Storm. "So there is the narrative that gentrification is just what happens when housing prices spike, but the reality is neighborhood change occurs over time. And there are lot of different processes that are involved — in what happens with your schools, and your roads and businesses being closed ... begins oftentimes with disinvestment in communities.

"Then communities get super cheap, and a lot of people move in there because you yourself are economically challenged," says Crowe Storm. "And then you start to see a change. In inner-city Indianapolis, where we don't necessarily at this time, it doesn't mean that people aren't working on it but — as of today we don't have a lot to protect someone if you've been living in your neighborhood for decades and suddenly the house next door is worth quadruple the amount it was."

She heard examples of residents asked to sell their homes. When they refused, they received a slew of property code violations — leading them to believe that someone was calling them in as a nudge to sell.

The series on gentrification hopes to find a way to break down the process as it's happening.

"Not just looking at, okay the housing prices have risen — because that's really the end product of people moving into your neighborhoods, homes being risen, torn down, to disinvestments, to new businesses moving in," says Crowe Storm. "In some ways there are two parts to gentrification. There's the part that leads to displacement, because housing prices rise. But there is also displacement because the neighborhood changes so much over time in such a rapid form. The individuals no longer feel comfortable in neighborhoods that they have historically inhabited, so they move."

So she started asking national experts on gentrification to Skype into the meetings, sharing their thoughts and concerns. They began to examine how a neighborhood evolves in terms of race, class and power.

"They could ground the discussion in a universal context," says Crowe Storm. "We could see what was happening here."

For her, one of the first steps to prevent gentrification (for someone moving into a neighborhood as it's developing) is being aware of the culture. She cited an example of when she lived in Chicago and, before she signed the dotted line on her lease, the landlord explained that the area revolved around a weekly classic car event where there were lots of people, noise and food trucks. He warned her that in order to live there, she had to embrace it.

Today, building that connection to people, within a specific place, is at the forefront of her mind.

"One of things for me is if more effort were put towards community-building work," says Crowe Storm. "That's our issue as Americans — that it's always me, me, me. Sometimes it's not about you. Sometimes it's about what's happening in communities.

"People will rally and say, 'Oh, neighborhoods need to have higher property taxes [and therefore values]," says Crowe Storm. "But what about the human factor? Shouldn't I be able to stay in my home that I have owned? That I should be able to stay in a community that — before you thought it was a hot place — I worked to keep it going and take care of it?"

To her, equitable development — like the ability to access policy leaders and local government — is the missing piece that can keep people from being displaced.

"It doesn't happen in a vacuum and it doesn't happen overnight," says Crowe Storm. "How does disinvestment lay the groundwork for gentrification? How does where we put a highway impact a community?"

These kinds of questions impact not only her day job, but her art as well. Crowe Storm is a community-based artist — meaning a gallery isn't at the top of her mind when she makes a project. It's far more likely that her piece is on a lawn or somewhere that's completely accessible and visible. Much of her work centers on the idea of holistic neighborhood development — which is often undermined by gentrification.

When identifying gentrification, many have the "follow the artists" attitude.

"The situation is way more complicated than just 'artists are the cause of gentrification,'" says Crowe Storm. "They're not. Artists are low-income earners themselves. Especially if they are living off of their art. They are usually not doing very well ...

"They might make their home cool or run a business out of their home," says Crowe Storm. "And all of a sudden people like what they have to offer, but they are often pushed out right along with everyone else."

Local artist and one of the founders of General Public Collective in Fountain Square, Lisa Berlin, added: "It seems like gentrification is happening there ... As a renter, definitely the notion was to cluster up and pitch in to be able to afford things."

Berlin and a close handful of artists came to Fountain Square in 2009 and eventually started GPC when they moved into houses on Morris Street.

"It just seems like there is a lot more high-end stuff going on," says Berlin. "I don't feel pinched yet ... It does seem like some of the things that we access as people with small budgets are in precarious positions."

One of the early iterations of GPC was a studio in the Murphy Art Center, a space that's now owned by Larry Jones of Teagan Development, Inc. Jones also owns Circle City Industrial Complex and has a track record of building artist-incubator spaces.

"This artist and gentrification [problem] — and that they get used to make an area up and coming and cool, and the landlord moves them out hits a certain nerve because it's really completely wrong," says Jones.

He adds that in the '90s, the city put money into the Murphy to rehab it. He purchased the building shortly after with a partner investor Craig von Deylen.

"One of the issues that we always keep hearing is, you have the artists who are brought in, who make it cool, which allows us then to raise rents," says Jones. "Then of course they get moved out and gentrification happens — is the broad term for it.

"But the reality is artists are basically the ultimate small business," says Jones. "They've got an idea, they've got a talent, a skill, a thought. What they are doing is they are looking for a space where they can focus and craft and put that together."

CCIC currently hosts 45 artists on the second floor, each with a few hundred square feet of studio space.

"When the artists become more successful, with their idea, their business or their work becomes more in-demand," says Jones, "As their work gets more successful, what happens is you get more demands placed on you as a landlord.

"As a landlord, the only thing that fixes that is money and the only source for money is the rent," says Jones. "So this idea that it's the coolness that causes rents to go up, it's just wrong."

Within the six years that Jones has owned the Murphy, he says he has rebuilt bathrooms, upgraded security and Wi-Fi and replaced about half of the air conditioners.

According to him, he has raised rent roughly $100 a suite for the artists on the second floor over six years. They have increased rent on the first floor businesses "to help support the artists."

With both buildings, Jones needs a mix of tenants in there to make it financially perform.

"My take personally on the gentrification issues ... the problem is you have existing homes that people are living in and it's affordable to them," says Jones. "And so when you start improving a neighborhood, the good news is there's a demand by others to buy those houses. The problem is while the price they are getting is probably better than those people have ever thought they would get, it's still probably not enough to go buy a comparable home in newer, better shape. That's probably the biggest knock on gentrification.

"That is also the natural progression," says Jones. "If that doesn't happen, then how can the housing stock get any better?

"There's new jobs, there's better opportunities, the neighborhoods get safer, they get cleaner, the schools improve," says Jones. "In other words, it's not all a negative, I guess."

From a sociological perspective, the negative comes with displacement — and that's something that Jim Walker and Big Car are adamantly trying to avoid.

Roughly a year ago, Big Car opened their permanent space in the Tube Factory (a Garfield Park art and community building center). When they moved in, the space was abandoned, as were 10 houses along Cruft Street and the adjacent street. Big Car decided to purchase the houses in conjunction with Riley Area Development Corp. The idea was to have control over houses, offering them to artists.

The difference between this and other artist housing (like a program in Detroit Walker references) is that artists will be able to own the house alongside Riley and Big Car and receive equity. Eventually, when they wish to sell, that money will come back to them; and Big Car will keep the house off the market for another artist to occupy.

Walker calls it a "no-displacement process" since all of the homes, Listen Hear and The Tube Factory were unoccupied when they were purchased.

"They were just owned by absentee landlords who weren't even renting them," says Walker. "Some of them were boarded up."

In return for the low price tag, Big Car asks for 20 hours a month of community service from residents, which could be anything from bringing their artwork to a school or a park or opening up their home as a gallery. The backyards will be public spaces like community gardens or open green spaces. Applications for the homes will go live after the holidays.

The role that artists play when a neighborhood is gentrified — being perceived to cause it and being affected by it — is something that Walker saw in 2000 around his then-home of Fountain Square.

"What has happened in Fountain Square is this turnover of art people, who came in when there was this void to fill," says Walker. "And then they all came in there and now they are going elsewhere ... They were nowhere near the first people there. To say that all of the artists got gentrified out of Fountain Square is kind of like saying the French people lost part of America. They were just the people that came in and then moved out, but they were people who were taking away America from Native Americans. The artists didn't take away Fountain Square from the locals. The locals had left. That's what we are seeing here."

To him, the Fall Creek Place neighborhood is the best example of change in our city. Walker also adds that the report run by the Center for Community Progress focused on racial change in neighborhoods. According to census tracts, Fountain Square has not lost diversity and therefore wasn't flagged on the report. The data only reflects up to 2014.

Danicia Monet, a local artist, is currently conducting research on the lack of "co-working spaces" in communities of color. These innovation incubators are often the result of placemaking and, in large, absent in communities of color.

"I think placemaking is something that we are going to be worrying about in 20 years but we should be worrying about now," says Monet. She hopes to see more studies on the impacts of placemaking in Indy.

Many city leaders, artists and community advocates walk a fine line of revitalization without destruction. That's trying to be reclaimed in neighborhoods like Broad Ripple.

"When a space loses its authenticity, and loses the artists, then it starts to lose value in certain things," says Walker. "I think people have seen that with Broad Ripple [outside of the Art Center], and they want to bring it back. They want to bring artists back."

The only way to fix that is to lease a space for more than you could potentially make.

"It's a challenge for artists to say they don't want to participate [in gentrification], says Walker. "They are probably going to. Where are they going to go if they don't go to a neighborhood where the spaces are cheap and empty?"

To him, the biggest opportunity in Indianapolis is the potential behind suburban retail spaces.

"How do you turn an old empty Wal-Mart or Marsh or Aldi into something? How do you build community around that?"

Reimagining abandoned spaces is something that's on the rise in Indy. A group of Indy artists are taking it head-on with the House Life Project.

The idea is pretty simple — to allow artists to use abandoned homes as studio and installation space, all while hosting weekly community gatherings where neighbors can make art.

Only time will tell how the project might alter the neighborhoods. At the very least, it's causing the Indy art community to see blight differently. They also just received a $20,000 grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust to "expand its work in visual and performance arts programming in the St. Clair Place Neighborhood."

"I consider gentrification to be a big, messy issue that is often a very different problem in different kinds of cities," says Meredith Brickell, Project Leader with the HLP. "... [Art] can bring attention to the reality (good and bad) of neighborhoods that are affected by high rates of vacancy and poverty. It can bring cultural resources to an area with limited access to the arts."

Brooke Klejnot, Executive Director of the Broad Ripple Village Association, sees art as the foundation for Indy's growth.

"Art and culture enriches the human experience, so in my opinion, it is an essential part of community and neighborhood development," says Klejnot. "I'll share two specific examples in Indy in the last 10-15 years that point to how the arts can catalyze investment. One is the Harrison Center for the Arts in the Old Northside, another is the Murphy building in Fountain Square. Those two buildings became destinations for First Friday and demonstrated the potential of the neighborhood. The programming set the tone for the commercial tenant development around it and soon thereafter residential development.

"Aesthetics matter," says Klejnot. "The look and feel of a place produces an emotional response, so arts programming shouldn't stop with events. People are happier when they experience something visually interesting. Neighborhoods and commercial districts benefit from strong mural programs and heightened design standards for buildings and signage. The preservation of buildings with historical significance and distinctive architecture is important to maintain an area's unique identity."

One of the greatest fears for those who would be displaced from their homes and a communal identity that they spent years crafting is being lost somewhere between the overlap of aesthetics, development and cultural assimilation.

The question remains: How will Indy develop without leaving some behind?

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