Monday, January 15th, 2007
A group of local black leaders in Indianapolis is seeking to extend Martin Luther King St. by renaming Michigan Rd. north of 38th St. after him. The section south of 38th has long been named for King. I do not support this renaming because Michigan Road is one of the three most historic road names in Indiana (the National Road and Lincoln Highway are the others), dating to the 1830’s. Indy is not London or Paris where there are historical sites on every corner. It needs to protect what it has.
But the people advocating this name change have a very valid point. The current Martin Luther King St. clearly is not much of an honor to the man, passing through distressed neighborhoods and decaying industrial districts. I believe this can and should change. Rather than just renaming a different section of road, and one that is already experiencing its own problems at that, I propose that the current MLK St. be completely transformed into America’s premier black heritage corridor as part of a bigger, bolder plan to make Indianapolis one of America’s premier black cities, one mentioned in the same breath at Atlanta and Washington, DC.
This might sound crazy. To pick a great word from the title of a recent bestseller, even audacious. But I believe it takes that sort of big vision to rally people behind a cause. And what’s more, I believe the potential is there in the local black community to achieve it. The black community of Indianapolis, and unfortunately far too many other of our cities, is a huge untapped resource, one that doesn’t get the attention that say new stadiums does. But for the city that starts taking its black community seriously, and engages with it not just around modest goals but no less than in making that community a major force pushing the city forward, I believe there are huge competitive advantages to be reaped. In that regard, this proposal applies equally to any city. So feel free to take the idea!
I don’t have time to outline a complete plan for this transformation. In fact, I don’t have one. But I do have an idea on how to kick start it. And that is the transformation of today’s MLK corridor. I actually think previous generations of city leaders did a very good job of selecting a street to name after King. It starts basically at Indiana Ave., the historic center of the black community in the city. Key historic institutions like Madame Walker Theater
and Crispus Attucks High School are located along the street.
The north end of the corridor is anchored by Crown Hill Cemetery, where many prominent blacks as well as whites were buried (you can already take a tour of their grave sites) and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which has a very well-respective African art collection. So as you can see this corridor already has plenty of assets. So what would it take to turn this existing strong collection into America’s premier black heritage corridor? I don’t profess to have all the answers, but here are a few suggestions:
- Add another major black cultural insitution near the center of the corridor, say at the I-65/30th St. area for easy access. The African American Museum going into White River State Park would have been a good candidate, but at this point it is probably better to leave it in the park because that’s a prominent downtown location and it wouldn’t be smart to put all the cultural eggs in one basket along this corridor.
- If you’ve been reading this blog, you know I’m no fan of the Circle Truss proposal. The idea is good, the execution flawed. Among other reasons, this is because it shows no respect for the black heritage of the area. I would scrap that design and replace it with something new that is 1) world class and 2) reflects the black historic character of the area. This also has the added benefit of turning the gateway into a two-fer. You get a gateway into downtown and also a gateway going the other direction into this corridor.
- Another major gateway area at I-65/30th St. would be great.
And of course something needs to be done about the street itself, which is exceptionally dreary today. I recently did a survey and the pictures below will amply show what I’m talking about. Click for full sized images.
The above pictures are of the south end of the corridor north of 10th St. As you can see, there are lots of fairly seedy looking industrial areas and vacant lots, as well as the typical Indianapolis streetscape dominating power lines. North a bit the character changes to become more residential on side streets, with suburban style strip development.
Believe it or not, this grassy area you are looking at in the foreground is actually a lawn/drainage facility for a post office. The actual building is set so far back off the street I couldn’t even get it in the picture. Even in the hard core suburbs it would be difficult to find such an inefficient use of land. Off further to the left are residential streets with older homes, many of which are in need of repair, plus some old school neighborhood commercial spots. The famous Pa and Ma’s Barbeque is in one of these, though not directly near this picture. Some residential is on MLK itself. Still further north there is more of the same, but the east side of the street is taken up with Crown Hill Cemetery.
So how then to improve the street? I would propose that the entire length of MLK be reconstructed as a boulevard style roadway. There are two ways one could go here. One would be to narrow the street to two lanes, which given the light traffic would be no problems, or the other is to widen it into a grand European style boulevard. There are pros and cons to each. The extreme south end which is just a continuation of West St. might have a different type treatment than the rest. I would incorporate the good ideas from the 38th St. reconstruction, and tweak them with an African American twist. Some elements to include would be:
- All new pavement and drainage, of course. I would suggest using the reconstruction period for sewer and water work as well.
- There is probably environmental contamination that would need cleanup
- The power lines have got to go. I’m under no illusions that Indy can get rid of them off every street, but if this is going to be America’s premier black heritage corridor, they clearly have to go. The substation near 18th should be relocated to facilitate this.
- Use the formalistic design elements from 38th St., as well as adopting the wayfinding signage and crosswalk treatment.
- Extra wide sidewalks of 10-12 feet on both sides.
- On street parking allowed.
- Extensive and decorative street lighting.
I’ve advocated adopting the street lights and stop light masts from the Circle Centre area citywide. These could also be used here, but potentially adusted to put a black heritage stamp on them. A few ideas, and these are just brainstorming ideas, on how to put that stamp on the corridor include:
- Instead of green on the stop light and street light mast arms, use African influenced colors. And don’t be afraid to be bold in adding designs as well. They don’t need to be solid.
- Find some African grasses or other plants that could survive here and use them in the median planters.
- Replace the maple leaf design from the 38th St. medians with the Indiana Black Expo logo.
- Commission public art works – which must be world class – from the best black artists locally, around the country, and around the world to make the street one long linear gallery.
- Additional historical markers
This is just to give a flavor. Obviously a huge amount of thought would need to be put into this.
A few other things that could be done from a cultural perspective:
- Better connecting the institutions I mentioned above to the street and the corridor itself.
- Integrated, coordinated marketing and branding of the corridor and these institutions.
- Additional funding to help beef up things like the Attucks museum, etc.
- Potentially make the area a focus for various community festivals and the like.
The nice thing is that the corridor is already stacked with cultural items. Those are the hardest to put in place. Reconstructing roads is just a matter of money and concrete.
Beyond that, a focus needs to be put on building a mixed use, medium to high density, live-work-play environment along the street. Obviously this means a lot of rehabbed residential on the side streets, but also a lot of new residential/commercial spaces along the street itself. I think a big part of building a major corridor like this is building street life and higher densities along the street itself are key to this. Care should be taken to avoid leaving major gaps in the street fabric (such as, alas, the post office above), which create a black hole that must be crossed. High quality architectural design should be a key consideration here. A big focus could be luring the headquarters of black owned businesses to anchor the street.
This is a corridor that is also prime for improved transit. Everyone knows what a joke IndyGo is. But with the right densities in this corridor, and the right institutions in place, this is a potentially great corridor to link downtown with MLK corridor itself, the IMA, and the major industrial job centers on the northwest side. Interestingly, the Directions transit study showed that a northwest line would have the highest number of boardings. But it doesn’t take a zillion dollar investment in light rail to make this work. Bus service would do just fine, with newer equipment and 10-15 minute headways. (Longer than 15 minute headways makes bus service dramatically less useful because you just can’t show up but are tethered to a schedule). Even in a place like Chicago, which has a large and well-patronized elevated train system, the buses actually carry more people.
A few other considerations:
- The corridor should ideally target a mixture of income levels. This has been done elsewhere. Professionals and the like are a key to the area, but over gentrification would be bad.
- The target should actually be to build a mixed race neighborhood. Believe it or not this can be done, as places like Oak Park and Evanston, Illinois have proven. This would be a corridor focused on black heritage for sure, but not another segregated Indiana Ave. Rather, it would be something for the whole city.
- Figuring out how to incorporate more elements with statewide and national appeal would be good. I think a lot of what I’ve talked about is of primarily local interest.
Clearly, this is just a preliminary sketch drawn by someone who is neither black or nor as familiar with the black heritage of the city as he should be. Think of it as the proverbial business plan on the back of a napkin. Pretty much any of the details could be changed, but I think the idea, both for the corridor and the community at large, is sound. Yes, the cost of doing something like this for the MLK corridor would be high. But ultimately the payoff for unleashing the potential of the black community is so much higher. And the very real costs, both in human and financial terms, of doing nothing, is far higher still.