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Preserving Indianapolis’ Black communities, history

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Of Indiana Avenue and the communities that stemmed from it, many were created out of literal slums.

Over time, the area grew into the historic gem that allowed Black entrepreneurs and families to thrive.

Today, a lot of that shine has been lost to time, but there’s a renewed focus to bring back the luster.

Black communities historically have been the first on the chopping block when it comes to making room for development and highways, with the impact of Indy’s near-west side still very much obvious. But, descendants and city representatives are working to commemorate and hold on to what’s still standing.

In 1904, Claudia Polley’s great-grandparents moved to Indianapolis’ near-west side, an area that would eventually become a beacon of hope, commerce, entertainment and so much more. Polley remembers some of that but has seen more of the decline. “The west side of Indianapolis used to have houses and business run by Black people everywhere, and now you don’t see that.”

In the early days, Black people had little option outside of the slum swelling on and around the canal. So, eventually on some of that land, these surrounding communities were birthed and, for a time, made the most of it. Polley said, “California Street in Ransom Place was once known as the Negro Meridian Street. Because you had the most prominent families living in the homes there.”

But into the 1960 and ’70s, the area would face another blow, displacement and erasure, literally changing the shape of the community.

Polley said, “It was a combination of the highway and the creation of IUPUI that simply systematically and very intentionally erased the Black west side of Indianapolis, and working in tandem really. The federal government had the interstate system, that was it was starting under the (Dwight D.) Eisenhower administration.”

WIth the grabbing up of land, some things were saved: Ransom Place, Lockfield Gardens and Fayette Street. A small portion of the canal also was preserved.

Lourenzo Giple, deputy director of planning preservation and urban design for the Indianapolis Department of Metropolitan Development, said, “If you had a thriving Black or brown community, this was a way for us to dismantle it. So, Indiana Avenue was a perfect example of that.”

Advocates and city representatives say it still created the opportunity to nearly decimate communities.

Today, the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission is making efforts to hold on to what’s left. Referencing the highways system, Giple said, “It bifurcated neighborhoods and literally bifurcated families, because families live in blocks together.”

Working with Polley and others, the Urban Legacy Lands Initiative and other groups are identifying historic areas and helping provide protection. Giple said, “In Black and brown communities, the history has been important before, but those communities, they’ve just been our history, and they haven’t seen the value in saying that these things are very important and important to the fabric of Indianapolis.”

Polley says Urban Legacy Lands Initiative and other groups are still fighting back against erasure, recently pushing back on a plan to build a five-story student housing apartment complex in the heart of Indiana Avenue, utilizing both the community OGs and youth to get the work done.

Ebony Chappel, a volunteer with Urban Legacy Lands, said, “The work that they are doing to preserve and bring awareness to and even continue the legacy of the strides African Americans have made in the city is incredible. So, a few of us from the community have gotten together to figure out how we can elevate that work.”

She said, while there are preservation efforts in the works, now’s the time to focus on how the Black people have impacted the city and showcase its richness. “I want us to focus on how we can empower ourselves, how we can support one another, and a big part of that comes from getting active and getting engaged. So, we hope that people see this as an opportunity to imagine the future.”

Polley says this work is about more than holding on to the legacy but also honoring people who fought to keep what left. “Know your history. Knowing the fact that people cared enough to work for you and other people around you that means a hell of a lot.”