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Revitalizing Fayette Street: A Community-Based Revitalization Plan 

12-09-2015 17:35

In Indianapolis, as in many urban areas of the United States, the best intentions of 1960s urban renewal devastated the central core of Indiana`s capital city. Highways cut a sweeping path through once nurturing and cohesive communities removing housing and business and religious anchors that made the city one of the most beautiful in the Midwest. Where highways left neighborhoods untouched, city planners stepped in to level buildings considered unfit for the future--despite their contributions of the past. For a city with nearly two centuries of history, "progress" meant the loss of many neighborhoods people in Indianapolis once called "home."

The architects of the city designed Indianapolis similarly to Washington, D.C.--in quadrants defined by wide avenues emanating from the city`s core. Indianapolis attracted various ethnic groups eager to move west from the populated eastern areas of early-eighteenth-century America.Those groups worked together to provide shelter and services to others who continued their journey west along the National Road, which divides Indianapolis--and indeed Indiana-- north and south. Among those who prospered in the land once hunted by the Miami Indians were black settlers who built homes alongside newly arrived European immigrants.The area that drew those of African and Mediterranean heritage was know as the westside, the city`s fourth ward, which was situated along the White River near downtown Indianapolis. A marshy, damp area in the early days, it was shunned by other residents because of the tuberculosis and fever that seemed to dwell there, but as Indianapolis grew, the area became more densely populated and more desirable because of its central location.The African-American population swelled following the end of the Civil War, and a greater sense of community and worth took hold. There were the traditional larger Victorian and Queen Anne homes side by side with shotgun-style houses known by many from years lived in the South. There grew a respected and prosperous black middle-class that in 1910 added to its number Madame C. J. Walker, America`s first selfmade millionairess. Her company made black cosmetics and hair-care products and provided good-paying jobs for many in Indianapolis`s African-American community.

Madame Walker lived in the westside neighborhood surrounding her manufacturing headquarters, now a National Historic Landmark, as did many other successful black professionals. That neighborhood is now known as Ransom Place and was recently listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1975 the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, the largest statewide preservation organization in the United States, conducted a survey of residential units still standing in the westside are Even with the clearing of much of the old fourth ward for the construction of the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis campus and the Indiana University Medical Center, some 2,200 units we surveyed then. Today, following almost twenty years of neglect and land clearance in the name of progress, there remain just more than 130 residential structures. Of those, twenty-nine sit in a once dense populated six-square-block area known the upper canal area. Now the focus of commercial and tourism development in its lower extremities, the old Indianapolis Water Company canal built in the 1830s still sits empty at its northernmost downtown end, the upper canal.

In early 1992, under the then recent elected Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, the city attention focused on this last tract of undeveloped downtown real estate. A consultant`s report recommended that all upper canal residences and businesses be acquired (through eminent domain if necessary) and their land cleared. No developer stood in the wings, but the often-used clear-the-land-and-developers-will-come theory was frequently advanced. Residents and businesses alike found out about this decision when they received a letter telling them that their property had been placed on the city`s acquisition list. Stunned, some of them banded together to protest the development decision, but it seemed their pleas for inclusion in the city`s new area plan fell on deaf ears.

Following months of impasse between the city and residents, the African-American Landmarks Committee of the Historic Landmarks Foundation entered the fray. (The committee entered late in the game because it had just been established in June 1992.) It became clear that one voice should speak for the community--a voice that represented the people and businesses most affected by the mayor`s decision. With that single voice in mind the Canal Coalition was born.

Of the residences and businesses that constitute the neighborhood of the upper canal area, many have been in place since the beginning of the twentieth century. At this time of intended change, some residents and businesses prefer to move and others want to stay where they are. (Some have been there for as many as fifty years.) The Canal Coalition, headed by the African American Landmarks Committee, asked the mayor for an opportunity to present an alternative plan of development for the upper canal area. It is this alternative plan-- the Fayette Street Revitalization Plan--that Mayor Goldsmith adopted as the one the City of Indianapolis will follow.

The plan will consolidate twenty of the twenty-nine residential structures into one densely residential block. Ten of the twenty-one housing structures are already in place, eleven would be moved from the surrounding area. Although the moving of houses is not the solution most preferred by preservationists, it is an alternative that works when it comes to inner-city areas devastated by urban neglect and decay. The twenty-one structures will occupy the revitalized 900 block of Fayette Street, once home to many middle-class black families from the turn of the century on.

The wishes of all property owners are being accommodated in this alternative plan. Those who wish to stay and move onto the revitalized block are being accommodated, as are those who wish to move elsewhere. Mayor Goldsmith and the city of Indianapolis have taken a heretofore unprecedented stand in accepting our alternative proposal, and have promised that the money originally slated for area acquisition and demolition will be spent in the revitalization of the new Fayette Street neighborhood. Theirs is the first such support by a city for a community-based revitalization plan, and they are to be applauded for their initiative.

The Canal Coalition worked long and hard to reach a good and just solution for the upper canal area. Compromise and accommodation as well as understanding and respect have been the operative words in the protracted and sometimes confrontational talks that have taken place in reaching this accord. Neither is this solution the end of development plans for the area. This is but phase one of a three-phase goal of making the entire area alive and vibrant as it once was. As preservationists we have learned in this struggle that it is as much fun and as satisfying an effort to remember our past through this kind of innovative consolidation as there may be in using more traditional preservation criteria. It is only through such innovation, accommodation, respect, and care that there will be a future at all for ourselves and our cities.

Publication Date: September/October 1993


Author(s):Claudia Polley

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