August 31st, 2017

The Anti-Gentrification Project: PreEnactIndy

by Amy Sheldrake Eddy

This article originally appeared in the September issue of “Life on Tinker Street.”

PreEnactIndy.  You may have heard the term or seen the billboard art at the corner of 16th & Delaware, but you still have so many questions:  what, where, when, how and why?  The term “pre-enactment” isn’t very common, although you can get a sense of the meaning by picturing its opposite:  reenactment.  Reenactment describes a dramatization communicating the realities of the historical past to an audience in the present.  In contrast, pre-enactment refers to a performance depicting a situation or event which has not yet happened; it is expected or hoped for in the future.  PreEnactIndy is the name of a singular performing arts event happening this fall, on October 7th, at the eastern edge of my downtown Indy neighborhood, in an area known as Monon16 (shorthand for the intersection of 16th Street and the Monon Trail).  The Harrison Center for the Arts is collaborating with thirteen theater groups, three schools, local artists, and several neighborhood businesses, churches and restaurants to put on an all-day public event that will bring to life a three-block stretch of 16th Street.  Set designers will make vacant buildings look vibrant, and actors will portray business owners and neighbors collaborating to improve their community.  PreEnactIndy is a professional theater event which will feel a bit like a street festival, with the goal of envisioning the neighborhood as a just, equitable and economically healthy place.  The script for performances will be based on the socioeconomic history of the community; it is “a way to understand both the pain of the neighborhood’s past and what its dreams are, to build hope for the future,” says Joanna Taft, executive director of the Harrison Center.  “It’s not meant to be just a band-aid or a temporary prettying-up of buildings.”  PreEnactIndy has been described as an “anti-gentrification project,” the first creative placemaking effort of its kind in the country; it aims to serve as a model for other arts organizations and community nonprofits seeking to help struggling neighborhoods and combat gentrification.

How will this project fight the dangers of gentrification?  The definition of gentrification varies widely, as do experts’ analyses of its outcomes or implications.  However, in discussions of the negative socioeconomic effects of the gentrifying process, one fear consistently looms large:  displacement of the established residents of the neighborhood, often poor, often racial minorities, by rich outsiders.  Instead of economic development at the cost of displacement, PreEnactIndy envisions a dynamic, equitable and healthy neighborhood where everyone is included in economic prosperity.  (Read more details here.)  For the past 10 months, interns and artists from the Harrison Center have been talking with longtime residents of Monon16, connecting them to each other, hearing stories of the neighborhood’s lively past, and recording their hopes and plans for the future of their community.  Summer interns created orange butterfly-shaped “post-it notes” showing Monon16 neighbors’ handwritten wants and needs, and attached them to an artist-built wooden storefront installed along 16th Street.

In conversations with older residents of Monon16, interns began to discover pieces of the history of the neighborhood. The picture which emerged–of a thriving, connected community–was vastly different from the bleak reality of the Monon16 landscape over these past four decades of decline.   At one time there was a fish market on the commercial corridor of 16th Street, which served as the heartbeat of the neighborhood.  The IPS John Hope School #26 spanned kindergarten through 9th grade and was an important cornerstone of the African-American community, say alumni who graduated in the 1950s.  The Paul Dunbar Memorial Library, a branch of the Indianapolis Public Library established in 1921, was located inside the school, although the library had its own entrance and served not only students but the entire neighborhood.  During this period the community also included many African-American churches, several schools, parks, a swimming pool, department store, doctor’s office, cafe, and pet store.  (Read more history here.)

The origins of the Monon16 (formerly Martindale) neighborhood, as described by HistoricIndianapolis, were tied to the railroad-driven industrial boom of the 1870s and 1880s.  It quickly grew into a thriving 19th-century working-class suburb, with many manufacturing facilites and machine shops built along the Monon Railroad.  Martindale “developed primarily as an industrial area.  Modest homes were built nearby, and many of residents walked to work at one of the companies along the Monon Railroad.  They included National Motor Vehicle Company, Atlas Engine Works, Eaglesfield Lumber, Indianapolis Gas Works, Indiana Veneer Company, and Thomas & Skinner Steel Products. . . .The end of service on the Monon Railroad resulted in many buildings along its route in the Martindale area being abandoned or falling into disrepair between the 1970s and 2000s.”  As industrial jobs relocated and the interstate carved its way through the neighborhood in the 1960s, many working-class and middle-class families also moved out.  Churches and church members left the neighborhood over the next twenty years; although some of the area’s historical churches remain active today, their members drive into the city from homes in the suburbs.  The area was designated a federal poverty target area in 1967, and crime increased in the following decades.  Today, in the Monon16 area, almost one third of residents live below the poverty line and one third of its properties are vacant.  But over the past few years, new businesses have begun to fill long-vacant buildings, and new developments are being constructed along the Monon Trail, both residential and commercial.  No longer declining and dilapidated, the Monon16 neighborhood is on the brink of major changes.  PreEnactIndy seeks to answer the question, timely and relevant for many urban neighborhoods, of how to restore and revitalize a community sensitively and inclusively, without pushing out its citizens and trampling on its heritage and history.  That’s why, on October 7th, three blocks of 16th Street at the heart of the neighborhood will be re-envisioned as a lively, healthy, and inclusive community.  This creative placemaking endeavor will show neighbors what to work toward, as well as giving performing arts organizations new tools for community engagement.

Activities/attractions for the day will include: open houses and building tours, interactive workshops, artisan market with locally-made foods and handicrafts, games, food trucks, public art, flower arranging lessons, a wedding and interfaith prayer event, affordable housing fair, IPS school fair, a bake sale, pop-up coffee shop and outdoor beer garden.  Among the organizations collaborating to bring about PreEnactIndy are Sapphire Theatre Company (directing), the Indiana Repertory TheatreFreetown VillageAsante Children’s TheatreHerron High SchoolThe Oaks AcademyIPS School 27, True Victory Church, the Flower Hut, the Felege Hiywot CenterFestivaHotel Tango Whiskey, and many others.

As one longtime resident of Monon16 said, “It takes a village to raise a child.  We need that village again.  Let’s come together and make changes in our community together–neighbors and business owners.”