Opinion and Forefront

TAFT: Jobs will bring back worn neighborhoods

December 24, 2011

Bill TaftThe older neighborhoods of Indianapolis grew up around clusters of factories surrounded by the homes of their workers. When these factories left these neighborhoods, it curtailed their vitality, and neighbors were faced with far more limited employment opportunities. This loss of purpose triggered a spiral of neighborhood decline in both real estate values and residents’ life opportunities.

Unless Indianapolis can bring jobs back to our urban core, we will be fighting an endless battle against the social byproducts of jobless neighborhoods and residents who are disconnected from a culture of work. Economic development in Indianapolis must include strategies for creating links to employment for urban residents if our neighborhoods are to ever return to vitality.

The near-east-side Super Bowl Legacy neighborhood is a prime example of this history of urban job loss. The RCA radio (later television) manufacturing plant once sprawled across several blocks near Michigan Street and Sherman Avenue. In the 1950s it employed 8,200 workers, representing about two-thirds of all neighborhood households. Employees made good wages and purchased homes, joined churches and fraternal clubs, and fostered a rich civic and political life.

Employment in the plant declined in the 1970s, and by the 1980s it had moved to Bloomington, then later Mexico. The loss of RCA jobs triggered a rapid decline in neighborhood vitality, as well-compensated homeowners were replaced by a growing number of underemployed families. This change resulted in rising crime, housing decay and abandonment, and the loss of neighborhood businesses. Eventually, the neighborhood led the nation in home foreclosures as unemployment ran rampant.

The RCA closure illustrates a story repeated in most of Indy’s urban neighborhoods, starting in the 1970s and continuing to this day. Our economy has largely shifted from urban manufacturing to a knowledge-based regional economy rewarding highly educated workers and supported by low-wage, low-skill service workers.

This shift has replaced high-paying manufacturing jobs with low-wage service jobs that will not support a family. Evidence of this shift is most obvious in core neighborhoods, which have suffered widespread disinvestment as their residents became increasingly poor.

Today, while our region carries an 8.3-percent unemployment rate, core urban neighborhoods suffer with over 20-percent unemployment. This rate is even higher among minority men, who face particularly bleak employment prospects and high incarceration rates.

Obtaining higher-wage jobs is difficult for workers who often failed to complete high school. The lack of jobs disrupts the formation of stable families, and feeds “underground” economies and high crime rates. For men who don’t find work soon after leaving prison, the recidivism rate is over 37 percent.

I am thankful there are promising employment efforts under way in core neighborhoods that are taking on this challenge. Recycle Force is a job training enterprise in the old RCA plant that provides formerly-incarcerated men with training, jobs and access to eventual permanent employment.

Another recent initiative called Working4Green that is managed by Employ Indy will use the city’s demolition of thousands of vacant homes as an opportunity to train unemployed urban residents in basic work skills while deconstructing homes in a green manner. In Fountain Square, the need for environmental cleanup of old industrial sites led to creation of a job training program at Southeast Community Services that is producing certified remediation specialists and placing them with local employers.

To truly succeed, these training programs will need to increase their scale and connect graduates with solid, living-wage jobs. These new jobs will ideally be in the same core neighborhoods suffering through high unemployment.

If this is to happen, one of the new challenges for Indy’s economic developers is to repurpose old manufacturing sites into places of contemporary employment. Between improved public education, increased job training and better physical proximity to employers, Indianapolis can see vitality return to urban families and the neighborhoods they call home.•

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Taft is Indianapolis executive director of Local Initiatives Support Corp., a not-for-profit that invests in neighborhood redevelopment projects. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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