For years, Indiana Avenue was filled with Black-owned businesses, jazz clubs and artists who worked together to make the area a vibrant hub for African Americans in Indianapolis. A product of segregation, Indiana Avenue — or “The Grand Ol’ Street” — provided Black residents of Indianapolis with Black doctors and lawyers, and the Indianapolis Recorder published from The Avenue from the 1920s until the 1970s.
Today, the only reminder of what Indiana Avenue once was for the Black community in Indianapolis is the Madam Walker Theatre, which was saved from demolition in the 1980s by a group of concerned citizens. Now, the construction of a $70 million apartment complex on the avenue is sparking controversy among residents.
Buckingham Companies, an Indianapolis-based developer, wants to tear down Walker Plaza — an office building for IUPUI — to build a five-story apartment complex that would span roughly three blocks downtown. Due to its proximity to IUPUI, many of the future residents would likely be college students, representatives said.
IUPUI and the Walker Legacy Center formed a partnership in 2018, giving the university a say in some of the programming, as well as office and classroom space in the building.
In response to the plans, Indianapolis resident Paula Brooks created Reclaim Indiana Avenue, a group dedicated to preserving the history of the area. The group’s core focus areas, according to its website, are restorative justice and building awareness.
On the group’s Facebook page, they describe construction plans as a “dream of wiping out the last vestiges of ‘blackness.’”
For several months, Indiana Avenue has been a meeting place for protests and events hosted by local activism groups, including Indy10 Black Lives Matter. In August, Indy10 sponsored a “Black Lives Matter” mural outside of Walker Plaza, with organizers calling the piece — created by a team of local Black artists — a tribute to “ancestors.”
Paul Mullins, an anthropology professor at IUPUI, frequently discusses the school’s role in the gentrification of downtown Indianapolis. He views this construction plan as another attempt to diminish the history of Indiana Avenue.
A clue for Mullins, he said, is in the architecture.
“I think what good design does is recognize the heritage of place, and what Buckingham has done is borrowed a few stylistic elements from the Walker Theatre, but selectively,” Mullins said. The Afro-centric designs incorporated in the Walker Theatre, Mullins said, were not included in the design proposal. “They did make the argument that they would have a public art installation that may have some additional nods to the history of the avenue,” Mullins said, “but the building itself is the first thing you see from the street.”
Like Brooks, Mullins isn’t arguing for Indiana Avenue to return to what it was in the past. He just wants the history of the street to be remembered and protected.
“I don’t think it’s a case of trying to recapture 1940s life on the avenue,” Mullins said. “It’s about recognizing that heritage and making it a part of an avenue that is truly alive. The Avenue could be integrated on the color line and across class, and we can recognize its heritage as a jumping-off point for a more progressive future.”
It isn’t just older generations who are worried about the impact of forgotten heritage. Several IUPUI students, including Aahron Whitehead, a third-year student, feel the school needs to be more upfront about its role in the gentrification of downtown.
“Where IUPUI is built today, there once stood a strong Black community,” Whitehead said in a previous interview with the Recorder. “IUPUI has exploited that community and broke it apart. They exploited and broke apart Haughville, Indiana Avenue and Lockefield Gardens.”
Sha-Nel Henderson, president of the Black Student Union (BSU) at IUPUI, echoes Whitehead’s sentiments. Henderson feels IUPUI doesn’t do enough to teach students about the history of downtown, and she worries more development downtown could lead to more history being forgotten.
The BSU currently has several demands of the university, including requiring history classes to discuss the gentrification that happened downtown, partnering with more Black-owned businesses and more funding for research into health disparities in the Black community. Whitehead argues Black residents of Indianapolis should be offered scholarships or freshman year tuition deferments.
“We want IUPUI to basically repay the community for their actions,” Whitehead said. “They need to help and reinvest into the community to help it grow to become a more urban and innovative environment.”
“We [IUPUI] has a vested stake in The Avenue and in the Walker, even if we don’t possess that building,” Mullins said. “There is no real systematic heritage education that takes place on campus … and that makes it more difficult to have political activism when people don’t have historical knowledge.”
Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.