The 4 1/2 miles of Interstates 65 and 70 spidering through downtown Indianapolis are called the “inner loop,” and talks of major repairs to the north split of that loop have caused a concentrated uproar among those who are imploring the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) to go about its project in a way that’s mindful of the people who live around the area. But this is a problem that dates back long before anyone started talking about a possible total reconstruction of the north split. When Interstates 65 and 70 were constructed in the city from the late 1960s to early 1970s, the highways tore through historically Black neighborhoods, destroying homes and businesses, uprooting families and communities.
“People would just move, and that was it,” Paula Brooks, a primary school student when I-65 came through her northwest side neighborhood, remembered. “I was so young. Once I got older and started understanding what’s going on, it made me angry. I’m still kind of angry about it.”
The government was able to build through private land by a process called eminent domain, which allows the government to take over private property for public use — an interstate highway, in this case. What happened to Brooks’ community happened to others around the city, but the focus of this article is on I-65 coming down through the northwest side from Chicago.
Brooks grew up along what is now the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street feeder to I-65 on the city’s northwest side. She still lives in what’s left of the neighborhood — a third-generation resident — and insisted where she lives is actually the old near west side. She said she was able to walk to her school until the highways came through. Then it wasn’t accessible.
There were two main issues with the highway. The most obvious was location, since it was planted in largely Black and brown neighborhoods. But there is plausible deniability here for government officials because the highway roughly follows its logical path from the northwest. Then there’s the elevation. The highway is above ground through this area, and others, creating what amounts to a wall that separates what used to be naturally connected neighborhoods.
Indianapolis Recorder Newspaper articles from the late 1960s detail the community’s efforts to have a highway below grade to mitigate damage to the area. In July 1967, the Northwest Action Council implored Mayor John Barton to relay its demand for a depressed highway to planning officials. The group cited engineers from the University of Illinois who said a depressed inner loop would improve Indianapolis. In December 1967, the Recorder reported that Father Boniface Hardin, leader of the council, had over 3,000 signatures from the community supporting a depressed highway.
Jim Beatty, chair of the Marion County Democratic Party at the time, brought a consultant from San Francisco to lobby Gov. Roger Branigin for a depressed highway, but Beatty said the governor didn’t even speak to the consultant.
“The governor was probably drunk at the time, frankly,” Beatty remembered.
Beatty said he never felt like they got close to getting a depressed highway system.
“I still think we were right,” he said. “I think the people right now who think 65 should be depressed are right.”
The most commonly cited excuse for not going ahead with a depressed highway was the utility companies didn’t want to pay to move the underground utilities, but Beatty recalled the federal government would have paid 90 percent of the cost, and the state would have picked up the remaining 10 percent.
“When we think about I-65 and how it was built, we also have to look at the race patterns at that time,” said LaShawnda Storm, who helps put on a workshop called Undoing Racism, which teaches kids structural aspects of racism such as poverty.
Indianapolis in 1960 was only about 20 percent Black, according to U.S. Census data. But racial zoning, or “redlining,” concentrated African-Americans in areas deemed “hazardous” and “definitely declining” by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation. That included most of the surrounding downtown area, but those zones were most prominent on the city’s northwest side.
Storm’s mother lived on Eugene Street, close to 30th Street and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street. Now Storm teaches kids about why neighborhoods like her mother’s become what they currently are. It’s a progression, she explained, that starts with something like a highway that goes on to affect business and property taxes, which goes on further to affect things such as school funding.
In its report on possible projects to fix the north split, INDOT gives a sentence to the history of the highway.
“As in many urbanized areas during the early era of interstate highways, construction of the interstates in Indianapolis had substantial community impacts, displacing residents and separating existing neighborhoods in and near downtown.”
And that brings Indianapolis to today, when the city highway system is sparking attention again. The damage of Interstates 65 and 70 are ingrained in neighborhoods at this point. They were decimated long ago. But the residual impact is still there.
“We still haven’t recovered,” Brooks said.
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter at Ty_Fenwick.