Public Interest It is a brilliant Saturday morning, and Organization for a New Eastside (ONE) director Ken Moran herds us onto the yellow school bus for a guided tour of the vacant homes that plague the city"s Near Eastside. Bankers, city government types, print journalists, Legal Services lawyers and federal and state housing officials all dutifully take their seats. Three TV stations are here to film the proceedings.
Organization for a New Eastside member Kim Washington in front of an abandoned house across from Brookside Park: "We are putting the "neighbor" back in the "hood.""
The crowd for ONE"s command performance is a testament to the group"s growing influence. In the past two years, ONE has emerged as one of the most effective grass-roots organizations in the city. Using an in-your-face style reminiscent of the legendary Chicago community organizer Saul Alinsky, the residents of the racially diverse and mostly lower-income Near Eastside have pestered the city to improve curbs, sidewalks and trash pickup. ONE has worked with the Indianapolis Police Department to shut down dozens of drug operations. When issues of slum landlords and predatory lending come up at the Statehouse or the City-County Building, ONE is there, armed with people ready to bluntly talk about how they have been exploited. The tour"s first stop is a house in the 1000 block of North Hamilton. The roof sags, the gutters hang loose, there is a hole in the foundation large enough for a grown man to crawl through. It is owned by an absentee landlord and, Moran says, has been the object of some 72 health code citations in the past four years. This is just one of 10 abandoned houses on the block, and just the first of several areas we will see where almost half of the homes are vacant. The bus stops by Brookside Park and drives by School 15, both of which face abandoned buildings across the street. The structures are more than just unsightly, ONE member Kim Washington tells the bus riders. Her 8-year-old daughter goes to that school and plays in that park. Washington worries that the drugged-up crowd hanging around empty homes could drag a child into the building and assault her. It"s been done, calls out another neighbor from the back of the bus. "When you are hooked on chronic like some of these guys here, you can do crazy stuff like grab a kid." We drive past the Ten De Club - the sign unsubtly promises "Booze to Go" - and stop at Hazel Oliver"s block on North Dearborn. She points out 12 abandoned homes, some with graffiti spray-painted on the boarded windows. Down the street the other day, a young man was shot in an abandoned building and ran out into the street to die. "I"ve dealt with the drugs and the prostitution," Oliver says. "I"m 67 and my neighbor is 77. We have no protection, because we have no neighbors." Oliver"s own situation explains some of the vacancies. In 1989, she took out a home loan so loaded down with fees and worthless credit insurance that 14 years and almost 170 payments later she still has almost no equity in the home. Most of her neighbors saddled with such predatory loans long ago gave up and moved out. We visit a happier place. ONE member Terry Jones badgered Indy Parks into rehabbing a tiny plot of land on Beville Avenue into a park, reclaiming it from junkies and prostitutes. Now Jones helps operate his own summer youth program out of Beville Park, getting up early to clean the park of papers and cans before the kids come. Jones" neighbor "Mac," wearing his Sons of God Christian motorcycle club jacket and looking like he stepped out of a ZZ Top video, walks over to testify to the African-American Jones" park success. Last month, Mayor Bart Peterson used the occasion of his State of the City address to declare a "war on abandoned and unsafe houses." ONE was pleased, of course, but they will withhold their applause until they see results. In a not-too-subtle message to that effect, Moran stops the bus at a home on Jefferson Avenue, the site of a Peterson press conference two years ago announcing a crackdown on slumlords. Like dozens of other homes we have seen today, the building is vacant and, with a broken window and a trash-strewn front yard, not looking too good. The ONE folks have vowed to be polite hosts, but they are not about to pass up a last chance for some advocacy. As the bus returns to ONE"s 10th Street headquarters, City Department of Metropolitan Development director Maury Plambeck, sitting in an aisle seat, is loudly pressed for a commitment to help the neighborhood get funding to rehabilitate some of the homes. Plambeck agrees, and the neighbors cheer. ï Sen. Lugar commits to increased AIDS funding Global AIDS activists who had vigorously lobbied Sen. Richard Lugar ("We Jammed the Phone Lines," NUVO, March 13, 2003) were thrilled last week by Lugar"s announced intention to increase the federal commitment to global AIDS funds. A Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting to review the bill containing the AIDS funding was delayed while Lugar, the committee"s chairman, tiptoed through the minefield of congressional opinion about whether some of the money can be sent to clinics that perform abortions. But AIDS activists - including U2"s Bono, who visited Lugar in his Capitol Hill office last week - are now so comfortable with Lugar"s assurances that they have a new message for Hoosiers concerned about global AIDS: Call Sen. Bayh instead. ï Black robes, red faces Also last week, the Indiana Supreme Court unanimously voted to reverse the Marion County Superior Court"s en banc decision to adopt a City-County Council redistricting plan drawn up by council Republicans. Every Republican Superior Court judge - including one, Cale Bradford, whose brother is a GOP councilor - voted for the plan. Every Democrat judge voted against it. The higher court was not impressed: "We conclude that the Superior Court"s decision to adopt the [Republican] Borst plan, which was uniformly endorsed by members of one party and uniformly rejected by members of the other, does not conform to applicable principles of judicial independence and neutrality." The Supreme Court went on to draw its own council district map. Guarding against the off chance the whole process didn"t appear cynical enough already, council Republicans say they will appeal the ruling. The all-white group plans to invoke the Voting Rights Act and claim the Supreme Court"s map is unfair to African-American voters.