“Lockefield [Gardens] was the center of the Negro community of Indianapolis.” That’s one of the statements in a report of the Historic American Buildings Survey issued by the U. S. Department of the Interior in 1983. The exact wording of the text of the survey reflected language of that time period. The report continued by stating “Lockefield [Gardens] was part of the first involvement of the Federal Government in providing low-cost housing for the poorest urban Americans. These Negro citizens lived in slum buildings which were crowded, dirty and barely able to stand.”
Initial plans for the construction of low-cost housing for Black families in Indianapolis were approved in 1934. Construction began in 1935. The first tenants moved into Lockefield Gardens on Feb. 16, 1938.
News reports at the time indicated that part of the initial plan for Lockefield Gardens was that the people who lived on those 22 acres of land that was acquired by the federal government were to be moved temporarily to other housing within Indianapolis while the public housing was under construction. Once completed, those families were then to be given the opportunity to move into the new housing at Lockefield Gardens. Those news reports, though, also indicated that few former residents were able to do so. It appeared that a number of people were unable to afford the rental rates for the new housing.
The initial rental rates were revised on several occasions. When Lockefield Gardens actually opened, it appears that the initial rental rates ranged from $18.70 to $28 for three-room apartments and four-room apartments, respectively; those rates included the base rent plus all utilities.
As with a number of New Deal efforts, the concept of the federal government building local low-income housing was not universally welcomed. Prior to the Great Depression, the vast majority of governmental services provided to citizens were ones provided by local, county/parish, and state/commonwealth governments. The federal government had limited involvement in the day-to-day lives of most Americans.
A number of news articles and editorials in Indiana newspapers at the time of the construction and opening of Lockefield Gardens highlighted negative views of public housing. Among the concerns detailed in Indiana newspapers of the time was that the individuals who had lived in the slum that was cleared to build Lockefield Gardens were moved to other “colored neighborhoods” and thus creating new slums; that the government was soliciting people living in privately-owned rental units and thus competing directly with private real estate investors; that the goal of moving people from substandard housing that had been removed from the site of the complex to new housing at that site was unattainable because the people who had been moved out could not afford the rental rates of the new housing; and that the City of Indianapolis would no longer receive tax revenue for the privately-owned property that had been taken by the federal government to build Lockefield Gardens. In addition, news articles detailed poor construction that caused cracks in concrete, damage from rain water and related issues. The government implemented an investigation into the difficulties.
The estimated construction cost was $3,025,000 according to news reports in 1936. It eventually cost, according to other news reports, in excess of $3.2 million.
While local officials and many business leaders in the real estate industry questioned the development of Lockefield Gardens in the 1930s, news reports indicated the initial families who moved into Lockefield Gardens welcomed the new accommodations.
As the years went on, the need for Lockefield Gardens as a segregated housing project for Negroes changed in the 1950s and 1960s. Housing opportunities opened for Black individuals and families as racist policies that had been enforced were no longer considered legal and as “traditional” boundaries that had restricted housing for Black people to specific neighborhoods dissipated.
As those opportunities developed, news reports indicated that there was a decline in living conditions at Lockefield Gardens and a number of people moved elsewhere during the 1960s and into the 1970s. Remaining residents were moved to other housing during the early 1970s in anticipation of a planned renovation of Lockefield Gardens. Instead of renovation, though, the buildings were vacated.
Court decisions regarding desegregation of the public schools in Indianapolis and Marion County impacted Lockefield Gardens in 1975. The U. S. District Court ruled that renovating Lockefield Gardens would create additional problems for the local schools by concentrating Black children in the specific neighborhood. In 1976, the U. S. Supreme Court effectively upheld portions of the overall order of the U. S. District Court that no family housing could be renovated at Lockefield Gardens.
The buildings remained vacant for years as decisions were made as to what to do with Lockefield Gardens. Demolition of major portions of the complex began in mid-1983. Much of the western portion of the original Lockefield Gardens is now part of the campus of Indiana University–Purdue University at Indianapolis.
In 1985, a consortium of businesses, including The Sexton Companies, were approved to redevelop a portion of Lockefield Gardens. As part of this redevelopment, 198 (could have been 199) of the apartments in the initial buildings at Lockefield Gardens were renovated and 294 new rental units were built. The updated complex was opened to new residents in October 1987.
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