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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

What’s our plan for Indiana Avenue and Black neighborhoods?

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It didn’t take them a week to deface the Black Lives Matter mural on Indiana Avenue. 

The organizers’ response to the defacement was poignant, as they pointed out that part of the purpose of putting the mural on Indiana Avenue was to both raise awareness about the loss of a historic area Black Indianapolis once had, but to also affirm a resistance to the takeover. 

What strikes me about the loss of the Indiana Avenue has been our inability to make the powers that be feel responsible to any entity whatsoever in its continued plunder. 

Of course this is about money.

How do you develop an area of “prime” real estate where gentrifiers (white and Black) aren’t privileged?

I know the city is concerned about gentrification and is working on this issue, but the reality is that one core function of the city is to convert properties that aren’t on the tax rolls to properties that are on the tax rolls. 

Community interests and city interests may not always be aligned, and after redlining and the slow destruction of our neighborhoods, the Black community deserves the benefit of the doubt in development decisions. 

But we collectively need to take some blame for the loss of Indiana Avenue. Did we leverage what political capital we had to make sure city budgets didn’t move until our lone cultural district had the funding it needed? If we lose our cultural district, this has to be our fault — our collective lack of an imagination and focus to defend and protect a space that is basically gone now. 

With plenty of blame to go around, what should we be doing?

Locally, there is a group of citizens who are challenging a development that is supposed to be headed to Indiana Avenue. The group is called Indiana Ave – Now or Never. 

According to the group, Buckingham Companies intends to put 350 to 500 apartments on Indiana Avenue. The public hearing for the private development is supposed to be Sept. 10 at a Metropolitan Development Commission meeting. 

We could attend that meeting and learn more about what is supposed to be happening with this project. 

But more than trying to stop something, what is our plan? And I’m not just thinking about Indiana Avenue. 

What policies do we want in place that will empower our community to protect our neighborhoods from the plunder we are seeing occur rapidly in our community? More than protection, we have to be able to define the destiny of our neighborhoods even when community development institutions aren’t prepared to work with our communities yet. 

Pastor David Greene has been calling for empowerment zones, which, as I understand his vision, are areas where the city and especially private developers would need to engage a group of community leaders before city processes moved forward with development. 

Think the inverse of these Opportunity Zone programs where instead of capital, either philanthropic or for-profit, deciding what could happen to a neighborhood, there would be a group of citizens (as opposed to institutions) formally recognized by the city that controlled the destiny of a neighborhood. 

Currently, private developers do have to engage the community as part of the process, especially if they are seeking zoning changes. 

But the reality is that the power is really on the private developer’s side, as they get to take the initiative by stating what they want and the community often really only has the ability to say yes or no. There is really only a limited ability to appreciate the opportunity costs of selecting one project over another in this situation.

To be fair, some developers do a better job on community engagement than others. The challenge is the unevenness of the industry’s approach to Black neighborhoods.  

An empowerment zone would reverse the decision-making process and invite developers in based on what the community had already envisioned — which is similar to how quality-of-life plans work, but without local community development institutions.  

We lost Indiana Avenue in part because it was gerrymandered out of local community development plans. In fact, Martindale-Brightwood and the far east side have never won designation as community development quality-of-life neighborhoods. 

Right now, community visioning processes are led by local community development institutions that actually do this work pretty well. They might even help empowerment zone leaders develop their plans as a pretext before a neighborhood pursued some of the more competitive designations. 

We need empowerment zones led by residents who can tell the developers what they want instead of vice versa. We must protect the destinies of Black neighborhoods in this city, and Black residents should be empowered to do so on their own terms and not because some said they’re ready.    

What I’m hearing …

Sen. Kamala Harris made history as the first Black woman to be nominated by a major party to the office of vice president. That’s a big deal and she’s earned our support. 

We also got an Indianapolis Commission on African American Males this week. Thank you, majority leader Maggie Lewis and Kenneth Allen. Now the work.

Marshawn Wolley is a lecturer, commentator, business owner and civic entrepreneur. Contact him at marshawnwolley@gmail.com.

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