Monday, January 15th, 2007

Towards a New Vision for Black Indianapolis

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.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Civic Branding, Economic Development, Historic Preservation, Strategic Planning, Talent Attraction, Transportation
Cities: Indianapolis

6 Responses to “Towards a New Vision for Black Indianapolis”

  1. Crocodileguy says:

    Love the ideas! I would love to see MLK as 2 lanes + turn lanes/median. I like the idea of public art along the medians. I think if something could be done like the Fall Creek Place project along Delaware St., then it is certainly possible along MLK.

  2. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the post. I’m glad you like it. It’s too bad there seems to be little appetite in Indy – or any city – for this type of project.

    Speaking of Fall Creek Place, I now think the drive up Delaware/Washington Blvd from downtown to Westfield Rd. is one of the nicest in the city.

  3. kiki says:

    I really do like the ideas that you have mentioned in order to reconstruct MLK and make African American Heritage a key factor along the corridor. I noticed that this article was written in January but this is my first hearing of the street renaming and wanting to better the corridor. In what ways could one get involved in this matter. Please let me know!!

  4. deuteronomy says:

    U-phile, you have provided some excellent and thorough insights on ways to improve the MLK corridor. You have rightfully acknowledged that this is an uphill battle in Indy as well as just about any city–just not a lot of will in using urban design initiatives to improve MLK Streets, most of which are in decaying, low-income neighborhoods. Compare Indianapolis to New Orleans, where there has been some attempt at turning the street into a Boulevard, with sculptures and pedestrian paths in the median (or what New Orleans calls “neutral ground” and is usually prominent on most major streets in NOLA). However, I’m not sure these design elements are in reaction to it being a Martin Luther King street or simply because it really does go through what is probably the worst part of New Orleans, a city with many many poor parts of town. The entire one side of the street is one dilapidated housing project after another, so even with the aesthetic improvements, most people pre-Katrina were terrified to drive along the street even though it’s a convenient thoroughfare. Many of the projects are now slated for demolition, and much of the housing around there is slow to recover from the storm.

    That said, your recommendations for Indianapolis might have a bit more sway along Indiana Avenue, a more definitively historic African American corridor in Indy, and one that already has targeted a certain degree of cultural improvement funds. What would you think in regards to that?

    Lastly, I just want to make sure your references to Evanston, IL are really the best analogy. Having formerly lived in Evanston, I can say that you are dead-on that both Oak Park and Evanston are suburbs with a solid middle-class black and white population living side by side. However, Evanston is not integrated in the least. The black population of Evanston (probably less than 10%) lives in a very segregated and distinctively lower-income section in the southwest part of town, close to the Chicago and the Skokie line and centered around Evanston Township High School. It is not a ghetto by any means but it is still nowhere near the wealth and opulence that most of the white population in Evanston enjoys—and the line between the “white” and “black” parts of time is more profound than anything I’ve seen in Indy, Chicago, or anywhere else. A first-time visitor driving though Evanston would be able to witness and identify leaving one part of town and entering the other. Perhaps your analogy to Oak Park is more effective; the black middle class seems to be less divergent in prosperity from the whites in that suburb.

  5. deuteronomy says:

    One more thing…
    The most recent issue of “Planning” magazine has an article on the past history, and the controversy, of naming streets after Martin Luther King, especially in cities where the naming rights have extended into predominantly white neighborhoods. It’s an interesting read.

  6. The Urbanophile says:

    deuteronomy, thank you for your thoughtful comments.

    I might take issue with one thing though. There are definitely mixed race neighborhoods in Evanston. While it is true that the north Evanston lakefront is almost all white and the area around ETHS is largely black, I used to live just south of the Chicago/Main area, at Monroe and Custer. This is a clear mixed race area, or at least it was, with a significant number of blacks and whites, along with more than a smattering of latinos and other races, such as some of my Korean co-workers. To me this made it one of the best places to live in Chicagoland, assuming you could hack the property tax bills (the real most pressing force of gentrification in Evanston).

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