October 26th, 2013

A Lifetime of Loving the City

by Emily Vanest

mary with josh nottingham

Mary, with Foundry Provisions owner Josh Nottingham

Come into our neighborhood coffee shop, Foundry Provisions, any morning, and you might get your coffee and sandwich courtesy of  Mary Howard.  At nearly 78 years old, Mary is the most senior barista at the Foundry, and a warm, gracious, hospitable, welcoming presence there as well.  When Mary started at the Foundry this year she didn’t know about iPads, “had never seen a Square,” and couldn’t set up a sandwich.  “I had to keep looking up at the menu,” she says.  But working at the Foundry is “who I am,” she says. “It helps me believe that I still have a future, that I’m accepted and needed and beneficial.”  Working at the Foundry gives her a place to create relationship  . . . and Mary is one beautiful, wise, energetic senior citizen.  She also lives downtown, currently rehabbing a once-dilapidated home in the Garfield Park neighborhood, with the help of a number of formerly homeless men.

Mary’s warmth and her love for the city of Indianapolis are absolutely contagious. For the first eight years of her life, Mary lived on a farm outside Indianapolis.  “ I grew up in Shangri-La,” she says.  “I went to a one room school house . . . we walked everywhere.”  But when World War II began and her mother was forced to become the family breadwinner, Mary and her 6 siblings moved into town.  Her parents bought a house at 1921 Talbott.  Her mother worked 12 hour days, 7 days a week, and on the side, made pies for an area restaurant and took in laundry for five other families; Mary and her grandmother did the ironing.  On Friday nights, Mary and her grandmother would walk over to the local movie theatre, home of Greg’s Place, today.  “I loved the city,” Mary said, “I went to church at Central Christian on Delaware.  I went to school at Shortridge.”  Her Shortridge friends were girls from the suburbs whose parents were wealthy and well-educated and who travelled to Europe for summer vacation.  “When I was asked what I did for summer vacation, I had to say, ‘I carved soap,’” she laughs.

Eventually Mary moved away from downtown, but never lost that first love for the city.  When she met Shad Howard in her 60s, he was rehabbing a house at 2346 Capitol.  Mary fell in love, with Shad, and a new neighborhood.  She said, “we are not going to put all this energy into a house and then sell it.”  She moved into what was, in the early 90s, a very rough neighborhood.  She got involved with Weed and Seed, learning how to work with city officials who, like Mary, wanted to create “a neighborhood that fed the children and loved the children and cared for old folks.”  The city sent Mary to conferences to see how other cities were finding grassroots solutions for community development problems.

In a park right behind her house, Mary and a neighbor began caring for their neighborhood’s children.  “On hot days, we’d string my garden hose over to the park and let them play.  On rainy days, they’d play in our 3 car garage.”  When Mary realized that the older neighborhood kids needed something to do, too, she developed “the painting project.”  She hired a college student to supervise neighborhood teenagers who painted garages and porches for widows and anyone else who needed help.  “KIB and the Parks Department really helped.”

When Mary’s husband fell and could no longer navigate the stairs in their home, they moved to the suburbs, but the itch to return downtown never went away.  One afternoon, after having lunch at Arsenal Tech high school’s student-run restaurant, “Colonel’s Cupboard,” Mary and Shad decided to drive through the city’s urban neighborhoods . . . “for old times’ sake,”  Mary says.  When they saw the adorable turn of the century house for sale in Garfield Park, they were smitten and bought it immediately.

mary howard

With Nikki Owens and Kyle Ragsdale at City Gallery

I asked Mary, “Why downtown?  Why do you love it so much?”  Mary pauses for a few moments.  “I used to sell real estate,” she says, “The main thing I noticed as I went around the city was that one house could make a  huge difference in a street . . . in a neighborhood . . . Just one house.”  Mary wanted to make that difference.  “It’s hard work,” Mary says, “but as long as we have life, I think we should be using it well.”