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City calls for revitalization of Indiana Avenue

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An initiative that aims to revive Indiana Avenue is officially in the works.

The Indiana Avenue Certified Strategic Plan aims to honor the Avenue’s “rich history” by redeveloping and preserving an area along Indiana Avenue stretching north to 16th Street, east to Capitol Avenue, south to Military Park and west to the White River, Mayor Joe Hogsett said during a press conference at the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library Feb. 23.

The plan is a partnership between the Department of Metropolitan Development (DMD), Reclaim Indiana Avenue and Urban Legacy Lands Initiative. Hogsett said DMD is accepting proposals from consulting teams, community organizations and residents to begin drafting the plan.

“We are here today to invite proposals to develop a certified plan for Indiana Avenue,” Hogsett said. “This plan will honor the rich history of the avenue while developing on its considerable assets.”

As they prepare to “define the avenue’s future,” Hogsett said he acknowledges the city of Indianapolis’ part in the avenue’s traumatic history.

An aerial photograph looking south of Lockefield Gardens before redevelopment. Indiana Avenue is the roadway that is near the middle of the left side of this photo to the far right bottom of the photograph. (Photo/Ray Hartill, courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Once the cultural hub for the African American community, culture, music and commerce, the rich history of Indiana Avenue reached beyond the boundaries of the city. As one of four diagonal thoroughfares of Indianapolis, the historic block was home to the Walker Manufacturing Company — now the Madam Walker Legacy Center — and Indianapolis Recorder Newspaper until 1975.

Urban renewal drove widespread displacement, and the people left on the avenue suffered from unsafe roads, degrading infrastructure and noise and air pollution for too long, said Paula Brooks, third-generation resident, activist and founder of Reclaim Indiana Avenue.

The people of Indiana Avenue are deserving of “a clean, safe and healthy environment,” Brooks said, and this plan aims to finally give them that.

“We’re here to reveal, protect and restore the rich heritage of Black Americans,” said Claudia Polley, founder and president of Urban Legacy Land Initiative. “Our work is to help all of you realize the depth, the value and the future of Indiana Avenue.”

City-County Council President Vop Osili said the plan is a chance to envision a future “that would make all of our grandparents proud.”

“It’s a chance to do something that — to be frank — our city has generally failed to do,” Osili said, “and that is thoughtfully preserve the history and the legacy of Black neighborhoods and plan in concrete and specific terms for inclusive and racially equitable development and redevelopment.”

Rebuilding around the Madam Walker Legacy Center

The Walker building is the last functioning historical landmark on Indiana Avenue, Kristian Little Stricklen, president of the Madam Walker Legacy Center, said. The Walker has remained entirely Black-owned and operated in its 95-year history, giving a place for Black entrepreneurs to have office space.

The theatre, which was historically a place for movies, has hosted Black artists and local heroes such as Wes Montgomery, J.J. Johnson, Freddie Hubbard, Babyface and Mike Epps.

“A lot of times we refer to it as ‘The Apollo of the Midwest,’’’ Stricklen said. “When you think of what the Apollo means to Harlem, that’s exactly what the Walker means to the Avenue.”

Ever since IUPUI’s campus was built, there has been a community desire to see something other than parking lots and knocked down buildings along Indiana Avenue, said A’Lelia Bundles, journalist, biographer and great-great-granddaughter of Madam C.J. Walker, for whom the building is named.

“That’s why this proposal that Mayor Hogsett is offering is so important because if this development does not happen in an equitable and visionary way in 2023, it really is the last moment to do the right thing,” Bundles said. “That means 50 years from now, we’ll look back and say there’s nothing there that has any anything to do with the heritage of the neighborhood.”

Bundles said the Walker Legacy Center is the anchor point of the avenue, and the redevelopment project should be built up around the Walker instead of everything around it having nothing to do with the culture and heritage of the neighborhood.

“We are happy that the city is willing to do the work to invest back into the Avenue,” Stricklen said, “and maybe reignite a similar feel for that area that is similar to what had been in the past but of course making it relevant to today.”

Indiana Avenue used to be home to everything from storefronts and jazz clubs, Witherspoon Church, a drug store, a bowling alley and a cleaners, Bundles said, adding that she hopes it will once again be home to a flourishing Black community.

Though the initiative was announced last week, Stricklen said the Walker Center is “open to hearing more” and is waiting to see what the process for the Indiana Avenue Certified Strategic Plan will look like. 

Responses for the Indiana Avenue Certified Strategic Plan are due to DMD by March 23.

This story has been updated.

Contact staff writer Chloe McGowan at 317-762-7848 and chloegm@indyrecorder.com. Follow her on Twitter @chloe_mcgowanxx.

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