August 16th, 2016

The Sprowl Family in the Old Northside: 34 years of change

by Amy Sheldrake Eddy


What changes the nature of a place over a span of three decades?  What spurs transformation in neighborhoods and cities over time?  How do life, energy and vibrancy return to streets and communities that were once considered decayed, lifeless, crime-ridden and worthy of demolition?

Such was the case in the 1960s and ’70s of the Old Northside and many other historic neighborhoods: neglect, decay, abandonment.  Dilapidated houses falling down, burning down, being used for drugs and crime.  But over the past thirty-plus years, the neighborhood has been reborn and restored.  And Lloyd and Lena Sprowl have been both eyewitnesses to and active participants in the transformation of their community happening all around them over the past 34 years.  

Lloyd and Lena Sprowl grew up in Indianapolis and met during high school in the youth group at their church, Christ Temple Apostolic Faith Assembly.  They got married in 1963, when Indiana’s law banning interracial marriage was still in effect.  This law was on the books from 1818 until it was repealed in 1965, two years before the Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which overturned all remaining state interracial marriage bans on June 12, 1967.  Lloyd and Lena had to drive three hundred miles to Detroit to be legally married; the state of Michigan had repealed its own anti-miscegenation law back in 1883.  The Sprowls settled down on the east side in Warren Township after their wedding and raised three children there, a daughter and two sons.  When their daughter Lori was in high school in 1979, they bought a house in the Old Northside, which had been added to the National Register of Historic Places the year before.  They chose “the ugliest house in the neighborhood at the time,” Lena said, and began fixing it up.  A few years later in 1982, they moved in.  

When asked what the neighborhood was like in the early ’80s, they replied, “There was a lot of crime.”  Lloyd said in the first few years, tools were stolen from the garage, and he remembers a time when he was up on the roof of the house fixing something, someone crossed the street and brazenly stole his garbage can in full daylight.  There were quite a few empty houses and many empty lots in the area.  On Central Avenue, stretches of vacant land covered both sides the of the street to the north of the Sprowls for about a block and a half, all the way to 16th street, with the exception of the All Saints Episcopal Church at the corner of 16th & Central, which was built in 1910 and remains an active congregation to the present day.  Historic Indianapolis has more information about the mid-century condition of the Old Northside in a fascinating article about Broadway Street, just two blocks over from the Sprowls’ home:  

“Fires had become so common in the Old Northside that in the late 1960s, the city launched an aggressive effort to condemn homes under the Unsafe Building Act. . . .Between 1960 and 1980, nearly 50 houses in the six-block area of Broadway from 10th to 16th Street were demolished. . . .By the time historic preservation efforts were launched in the mid-1970s, two-thirds of the homes on the [1500 block of Broadway] already had been torn down by the city.  All that remained was a handful of decrepit houses scattered among weed-choked stretches of vacant lots.”

As a handful of energetic neighbors moved in and began fixing up the once-elegant Victorian neighborhood with a vision for historic preservation, the tide turned.  Things began improving, slowly but surely.  By the mid-’80s, through a concerted neighbor-led effort, prostitution, drug-dealing and violence began to disappear from the Old Northside and Herron-Morton Place.  Lloyd and Lena say they formed solid relationships with many “wonderful” neighbors, and their two sons, who attended IPS schools, loved growing up there.  They also built connections with their neighbors down the street at the Talbot House, an addiction rehab center.  Lena recounts how, many years ago, one of the residents struggling to recover from alcoholism would regularly walk over to have coffee with the Sprowls on their front porch.  His life turned around, and today he is the director at the Talbot House.  “God changed his life. . . it makes me so happy to see how his life has changed,” Lena said with a smile.  As to the question of whether they experienced any neighborhood prejudice because of their interracial marriage, she says no.  “No one ever mistreated us.  I think people probably talked about us a little, but no one ever said anything directly to us.”  

Both Lloyd and Lena are now retired from their careers as an electrician at Citizens Gas and a librarian at IPS Montessori School 91, respectively.  They are loving all the positive changes to the Old Northside over the past three decades; they feel that the city and the neighbors have done “a beautiful job restoring the historic character of the neighborhood,” and they are delighted that more new people and young families have recently moved in.  As a newer resident (5 years) of the ONS, I appreciate the Sprowls not only because of their kindness and generosity as neighbors, but also because of their commitment and hard work, together with many others, to bring about the preservation and careful restoration of a beautiful place with important architecture and a storied history.