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Indiana Avenue looks for more than history: Cultural district faces redevelopment challenges

September 5, 2005

Broad Ripple has clubs and shops. Massachusetts Avenue has galleries and theaters. Indiana Avenue has history.

But history alone doesn't necessarily draw visitors and their dollars, something the organizers of the Indiana Avenue Cultural District know well.

With the third annual Indiana Avenue Renaissance Festival, scheduled Sept. 9-11 at the Madame Walker Theatre Center, the cultural district hopes to capitalize on that history. Although the jazz and blues festival lasts only a weekend, it's a step toward creating a neighborhood associated with arts and culture in the present, not just the past.

Indiana Avenue was named the city's sixth and largest cultural district in 2004, nearly a full year after the Indianapolis Cultural Development Commission designated five others. Those neighborhoods-Broad Ripple Village, Mass Ave, Fountain Square, the Wholesale District, and the Canal & White River State Park, along with Indiana Avenue-receive increased marketing attention and a focus on enhancing cultural amenities.

The unique challenge for Indiana Avenue is to recapture some of its former glory, rather than capitalize on existing energy. As the center of the city's black community in the first half of the 20th century, it has arguably the richest cultural history of any of the six districts. But while other districts encapsulate years worth of redevelopment with small businesses, entertainment venues, arts organizations and museums, Indiana Avenue has lost most of those in the last 50 years.

"We're playing catch-up, no doubt about it," said Dorothy Jones, a member of the district's executive committee and president of BOS Community Development Corp., which acts as fiscal agent for the Indiana Avenue Cultural District.

Organizers in the district have hired consultants to corral ideas from residents and help form redevelopment plans. That process is in its early stages and could take five to 20 years to implement, Jones said.

The neighborhood still has cultural sites that survived the decline that began in the late 1960s. Those sites, noted by organizers and consultants as some of the area's biggest strengths, include the Walker Theatre, Crispus Attucks School and Museum, and Ransom Place neighborhood.

But the challenges are significant. Long stretches of surface parking lots, many by OneAmerica and IUPUI, break up the avenue. West Street has become a major thoroughfare leading to Interstate 65, creating a physical and symbolic barrier. And Ransom Place, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, still has pockets of undeveloped or underdeveloped land among neatly restored homes.

Even the Walker Theatre, which still hosts jazz concerts and theatrical performances, needs updates to accommodate technical needs of most modern productions.

Rectifying those challenges will take months of planning, years of progress, and an as-yet-undetermined amount of money. Those who work with all six cultural districts are encouraged by what they've seen so far, however.

"At most [cultural district] meetings, we'll usually have two or three new people who haven't been before," said Karen Cosaro, a consultant hired to facilitate communication between the city and the indi- to blacks' living, working and socializing with whites. As black families spread across the city, there was less of a need for blacks to have their own businesses, clubs and neighborhoods, she said. An expanding downtown gradually ate up many of the original buildings.

Those that remain, such as the Walker Theatre and the 500 block of Indiana Avenue, have been restored and are home to an eclectic mix of businesses and notfor-profits. But the energy of the oncebustling corridor is mostly gone.

Moore, who's not involved with the Indiana Avenue Cultural District, applauds the efforts to re-create that energy.

"It's always exciting when areas look to their history to inform their present and their future," she said.
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