Head south toward Lucas Oil Stadium, and it’s nearly impossible to tell that you’re driving through the remnants of a once thriving neighborhood made up largely of African Americans and Jewish immigrants. These communities lived side by side from the 1920s — when many Jewish immigrants settled in the United States — until the 1960s, when many in the Jewish community began to migrate north toward Carmel. A decade later, many of the remaining African American families were displaced by the creation of the interstate.
Despite the years that have passed and the differences in what the area looks like today, former residents of the south side neighborhood still gather every summer for a community-wide picnic on the first Saturday in August. While the tradition started in 1975, researcher and IUPUI anthropology professor Susan Hyatt didn’t learn about it until 2008. Since then, she’s gotten to know the former residents and learned more about what the community used to look like.
“That first picnic was in 1975, so we’re talking almost 50 years ago,” Hyatt said. “After all this time, people still feel so attached to the neighborhood that they keep coming back, even though the neighborhood doesn’t have the same physical existence.”
Beverle Miller remembers attending the picnics as a child in Babe Denny Park, previously called Michael Street Park. While many in the neighborhood were displaced in the 1960s and ‘70s, the area is still important to many former residents.
“People still consider this their backyard, and it has so much value to us,” Miller said. “Everyone at the original picnic were working-class men, and they worked in the community and loved their community.”
Miller’s fondest memory of the annual picnic was the 2008 community gathering, because it was the last one her father, Joseph Miller, attended. That year, the park was filled with returning former residents and their families.
When Hyatt attended her first picnic, she started talking to people about their memories of the old neighborhood, which she presumed had always been a predominately Black community.
She said she was fascinated by the fact that there used to be a large Jewish population in the area. By chance, she met Benjamin Linder, grandson of Lee Mallah, a Jewish woman who had lived in the neighborhood. Linder helped Hyatt research the community and helped bring Jewish families who used to live in the area to the picnics to reconnect with their old neighbors.
“I’ve been there since 1958, and I’ve always taken pride in the community and am proud of where I come from,” Miller said. “We’re still able to have that connection, but a lot of times in the African American and Jewish communities, we realize that some of the same things happened to us, and we can look back and understand why we stay connected.”
Hyatt has attended picnics — as well as have her anthropology students attend — to learn more about the former residents and their stories since 2008. In 2012, she published her book, “The Neighborhood of Saturdays: Memories of a Multi-Ethnic Community on Indianapolis’ Southside,” which includes firsthand accounts of the neighborhood and depictions of the picnics throughout the years, which often include time for residents to share their memories of what the community used to look like. To Hyatt’s mind, no other community like the “Neighborhood of Saturdays” exists in Indianapolis today. Miller said the book gave people the opportunity to record their history.
“It’s almost like our story was never told,” Miller said. “When we had an opportunity to tell our story, we wanted to tell it. You always hear the story of Indiana Avenue and Crispus Attucks High School. But a lot of people didn’t know we still exist.”
Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848 or email at BreannaC@indyrecorder.com. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.