INDIANAPOLIS – The City of Indianapolis is working to restore the heart of the city’s African American culture and business community.
In the mid-20th century, Indiana Avenue was that heart. Bars and nightclubs attracted some of the greatest musicians of their time. Blues, jazz and big band artists put the city on the Midwest music circuit that included St. Louis, Memphis, Chicago and beyond.
”Even some of the world’s top black performers in the day, they had to come through Indiana Avenue,” said Ebony Chappel of Friends of Belmont Beach. “We always talk about the Harlem Renaissance. We talk about other places that people went. That stuff happened right here and its time we honored that and find a way to bring that energy back for the future.”
Eventually, the construction of I-65 bisected northern parts of the neighborhood. The advent of the IUPUI campus changed the complexion and the vibe of the community. Longtime neighbors and businesses drifted away.
Now the City is prepared to launch an effort to convince developers and community members to reimagine the Avenue and restore some of its former luster.
”It’s a chance to do something that, to be frank, do something that our city has failed to do and that is to preserve the history and legacy of black neighborhoods,” said City County Council President Vop Osili, the democratic councilor representing Indiana Avenue.
The Department of Metropolitan Development (DMD) is seeking input from developers on how to reinvigorate the community. New construction will pay homage to the area’s past while integrating with the surrounding neighborhood.
Currently, the Madama C.J. Walker Center and the Kurt Vonnegut Museum & Library anchor the cultural community.
In the summer of 2020, street artists literally took their work to the pavement of Indiana Avenue. They painted timely messages and ground murals reflecting the atmosphere of social discord in the city.
That year, neighborhood activists beat back a developer’s plans to build student apartment housing to service the IUPUI community. They argued that it did not reflect the character of the area.
”We don’t want skyscrapers to create nothing but shadows on the Avenue,” said Rick Oldham, owner of Musicians Repair & Sales at the corner of Vermont and Capitol Streets at what once was the foot of the Indiana Avenue entertainment district. ”So I think it needs to be reimagined where we have some of the old, some of the new, but some input of trying to retain some of the culture that was there and move us into the future where Indy has been going the past few decades.”
The likenesses of several Indianapolis jazz greats, including Freddie Hubbard and Wes Montgomery, grace the exterior wall of Oldham’s store.
”All of these guys made themselves famous playing in all the clubs all up and down Indiana Avenue,” Oldham said. “They all made themselves famous. They all played, they all learned to play at IPS.”
Planners are asked to envision development paying homage to the Avenue’s heritage but recalling that it was once a vibrant residential and business community.
”Spaces for live performances, restaurants, things the really speak to that cultural history and heritage,” said Chappel. ”Indiana Avenue could be an example of what it looks like for Indianapolis to honor its rich cultural history outside of homogenized white and blackness.”
Mayor Joe Hogsett’s administration steadily sought development plans and visions for somewhat dormant areas and neighborhoods surrounding downtown. This includes the west bank of the White River, the near east side and South Meridian Street.
Typically, such planning precedes City infrastructure investment and incentives to private developers to build office, business and residential sites that qualify for tax increment financing.
Indianapolis set an April 27th deadline for consultants to respond to the request.