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‘Beyond Gentrification’: the history, future of Indiana Avenue

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Indiana Avenue looks a lot different than it did in the 1950s, and it continues to change.

A webinar at 7 p.m. Nov. 10 will shed light on the history of the Black neighborhood and what the future of Indiana Avenue could look like.

Dr. Olon Dotson, associate professor of architecture at Ball State University and chairman of Indiana Landmark’s African American Landmarks Committee, will speak on plans to demolish the Walker Plaza building at 719 Indiana Ave. to build an apartment complex. Developer Buckingham Companies is leading the project, and several community members take issue with the fact that the proposed design does not reflect the history of Indiana Avenue.

“What we’ve tried to do is provide an alternative to scale it down and offer homage to some of the critical history of the site,” Dotson said. “It would foster and encourage Black community and Black spaces, and more importantly be a reminder of African American history.”

Proposed apartment design from Buckingham Companies (L) compared to Dotson’s vision (R). (Photos/provided)

Dotson will go over his alternative design during the webinar, as well as discuss the “erasure” of the Black community on Indiana Avenue that has taken place over the last several decades.

At one time, the street was a hub of Black life and culture, with churches, restaurants and entertainment venues. Now, Dotson said, Madam Walker Theatre is the only reminder Black people used to live – and thrive – on Indiana Avenue.

“The avenue has been physically, socially and institutionally abandoned to the point where it’s really beyond gentrification,” Dotson said. “[Gentrification] has essentially changed the character of the neighborhood.”

Dotson said there have been recent attempts to reflect on the avenue’s history by bringing businesses meaningful to the Black community back to Indiana Avenue. For example, Dotson hoped to bring a Creole restaurant into the former home of Arlene’s House of Music, where he used to work. That plan fell through, and the building now houses the Kurt Vonnegut Center.

Dotson’s goal, along with other concerned citizens, is not to make Indiana Avenue what it once was. Dotson said that wouldn’t be possible without institutionalized segregation. Instead, advocates want to build Indiana Avenue up to the level of other metropolitan neighborhoods in Indianapolis while paying homage to the Black Hoosiers that built it up in the past.

“The Madam Walker Legacy Center anchored a once vibrant community where Black Indianapolis residents socialized, shopped and worshipped, but decades of discriminatory federal housing policy, IUPUI expansion and highway construction engineered the neighborhood’s demise,” said A’Lelia Bundles, historian and great-great granddaughter of Madam CJ Walker. “Rather than undermine the opportunity to restore that vibrancy, I hope our city’s stakeholders will use this moment to collaborate on plans to transform Indiana Avenue into as welcoming a commercial and residential destination as Broad Ripple or Fountain Square.”

Remembering Indiana Avenue’s past, Dotson said, is necessary for a better future both for the avenue and for the Black community of Indianapolis.

“It’s important to develop a sense of history to strengthen our sense of self pride,” Dotson said. “Often, some of the things we see happening on our streets is born out of self-hatred. Also, those who don’t know history are bound to repeat it.”

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

The Indiana Avenue Matters program will be held virtually from 7-8 p.m. Nov. 10. Sign up for the free webinar here.

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