Melissa Bowles hops a ride in a white church van every Tuesday and Thursday to get to Neighborhood Fellowship church for a Bible study with other mothers.
Bowles lives only eight blocks from the church, located at the corner of 10th and Oakland streets on Indianapolis’ east side. But the 23-year-old says she wouldn’t walk a single block in her neighborhood, at any time of day.
What would happen to her if she did?
“Raped, jumped, mugged,” Bowles blurts out immediately as she leans forward on a metal chair in the foyer of the church. “Every minute of the day.”
Crime statistics back her up. In the zip code where Neighborhood Fellowship is located, the risk of robbery and theft are triple the national norm, and the risk of rape is double. The murder rate is 58 percent higher.
Fear isn’t the only consequence of those numbers. An IBJ analysis of research by economists at Harvard and Stanford universities shows that Indianapolis’ high rate of violent crime is depressing the incomes of residents, both rich and poor, around the Indianapolis area.
In fact, Bowles, who is a certified nurse assistant, is out of work right now. Someone stole her purse during a picnic in a neighborhood park, and she’s waiting to get new ID before she can take a new job at a nursing home.
“When I was younger it felt like there wasn’t as much crime,” Bowles said.
The Harvard and Stanford researchers found that the number of arrests per capita for violent crime in Indianapolis is more than double the average rate among 25 large metros where incomes are growing faster than the national average.
So how did crime get so bad in Indianapolis? Many city leaders say it’s a symptom of the two other problems researchers say are correlated with depressed incomes: segregation by race and income and large numbers of kids growing up in single-parent homes.
According to the Harvard and Stanford researchers, segregation by race in Indianapolis is 69 percent higher than in the top 25 metros, segregation by income is 17 percent higher and the number of children being raised by single moms is 15 percent higher.
Jim Streitelmeier, the pastor of Neighborhood Fellowship, has a specific year when he thinks Indianapolis’ social problems really took off.
That’s when Indianapolis Public Schools began busing black students to predominantly white schools in order to, at long last, integrate them.
It’s also the year Indiana passed a no-fault divorce law. Such statutes sparked a surge of divorces here and across the country, increasing the number of kids in single-parent homes.
Streitelmeier, 50, who attended an IPS elementary school when busing began, remembers it as a blessing. The experience of mixing with different students has continued to help him as an adult, he says, where he mixes with everyone from gang lords to the staff of Gov. Mike Pence, from impoverished parishioners to wealthy donors and volunteers from Zionsville.
“My life was integrated. My life was only improved by getting to know so many new people,” he said. “But in high school, it was a race war.”
Long history of segregation
Before busing, open racial conflict had been rare throughout Indianapolis’ history. But the tensions had been bottled up for a long time, according to Richard Pierce, a historian at the University of Notre Dame.
Unlike most other northern cities, Indianapolis already had a large population of black residents in the early 20th century. Even today, Indianapolis has a higher percentage of black residents than the 25 large metro cities where income growth is running farthest ahead of the national average.
Blacks in the early 1900s seemed to be doing relatively well here—with higher rates of home ownership and fewer residents per dwelling than in such places as Cleveland, Chicago and Detroit.
Because of those benefits, black leaders chose to fight segregation through “negotiation” and through normal political procedures, rather than open protest—which they feared might spark a white backlash. But Pierce concluded that this “polite” way of protesting actually prolonged the effects of segregation versus other northern cities.
Economic changes around World War I brought a wave of black residents to northern cities, including Indianapolis. That growth sparked a backlash from whites, Pierce wrote in his 2005 book, “Polite Protest: A Political Economy of Race in Indianapolis, 1920-1970.”
After having operating integrated high schools for nearly 60 years, the Indianapolis Public Schools re-instituted segregation in 1927 with the opening of Crispus Attacks High School.
Black residents fought quietly against that decision and, eventually, were successful in convincing the state Legislature in 1949 to outlaw segregation in schools. But the IPS school board used a variety of tools, especially gerrymandered school districts, to maintain segregation, Pierce wrote.
The districts could be reliably gerrymandered along racial lines in large part because housing remained segregated. As late as the 1960s, the Indianapolis Real Estate Board had a “whites-only” clause in its by-laws and policies against real estate brokers showing homes in white neighborhoods to black buyers. In a 1963 conference conducted by the Indiana governor, it was reported that only 100 out of 4,500 homes for sale in Indianapolis were available to black buyers.
Not until the 1960s did Indianapolis pass an open housing ordinance, and even then the law was relatively weak, Pierce wrote.
The housing segregation led to natural school segregation, based largely on geography. Finally, the U.S. Department of Justice intervened and sued the schools in 1968. That case eventually led to federal Judge S. Hugh Dillin’s busing order in 1973.
“Indianapolis fought school desegregation with a ferocity rarely matched by any other northern city,” Pierce wrote.
Flight to the suburbs
After Dillin’s busing order, the 20-year-trend of whites trickling out into the township districts on the periphery of Marion County turned into a flood. Pierce noted that because of the Unigov structure, which combined most city and county governments into one in 1970, the city’s leaders had little incentive to discourage such white flight. That’s because voters and their tax revenue were no longer moving outside the city boundaries.
But when in 1976 Dillin also ordered busing to the township schools, many families moved outside of Marion County to Hamilton, Johnson and Hendricks counties.
“I’d like to say it was pure racism, but maybe it was just American independence, saying, ‘You’re not busing my kid,’” said Streitelmeier, wearing a hoodie sweatshirt to keep warm in his book-lined office, which he keeps unheated on days the church sanctuary isn’t in use.
Former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson, who spent much of his career in the Indianapolis real estate business, said what is commonly called white flight actually became “high-income flight of all races.”
“Before that hollowing out occurred, it was quite common for people of different income levels to live close to each other,” Peterson said. As mayor, he added, “I was a strong believer in the importance of mixed-income neighborhood development, because there seems to be much greater stability in mixed-income neighborhoods.”
Without a mix of incomes in Indianapolis, many neighborhoods went from stable to chaotic. Streitelmeier noted the odd juxtaposition of having high crime and single-parent homes in Indianapolis while Carmel has been honored by Money magazine recently as the best place in the nation to live and Zionsville has been ranked the safest city in the nation.
Drugs, crime and broken families
Since the 1960s, the number of children raised in single-parent homes has surged across the country, among both blacks and whites, for reasons that aren’t fully understood.
In the 1980s and 1990s, many conservatives blamed federal welfare programs for making it financially more attractive for low-income women to have kids without being married.
But those incentives largely went away after the 1996 welfare reform package passed by Republicans in Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton. Yet the rate of never-married moms in low-income neighborhoods has continued to rise.
“You just can’t blame government policy anymore,” said Ryan Streeter, who has worked as an adviser to former Indianapolis Mayor Steve Goldsmith and to Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. He is now executive director of the Center for Politics and Government at the University of Texas.
“You can drive through whole swaths of Indianapolis and every woman there doesn’t know anyone who’s been married before they had kids,” he added. “It really seems to be a shift in cultural attitudes as much as anything else.”
Abandoned neighborhoods and broken families, beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, created fertile ground for the rising availability of drugs. According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, Indianapolis’ plethora of highways and heavy truck traffic provided easy access for drug-trafficking organizations and made it a convenient transit hub to reach other Midwest cities.
The growth of drugs fueled a jump in murders in the 1990s and occasional spikes since then. An all-time record of 150 criminal homicides were committed in Marion County last year.
“Drug-related disputes do not get resolved by logic or mediation. Turf wars between rival drug-trafficking organizations or gangs get resolved by somebody pulling out a gun,” said Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett, who was previously the U.S. Attorney prosecuting criminals in Indianapolis and southern Indiana. He took office on Jan. 1 promising to improve policing while also addressing broader causes of crime such as poverty and mental illness.
Family issues also contribute to serious crime. Nearly half the 150 criminal homicides committed in Marion County last year were part of domestic disputes.
The segregation of the city by race and class has also contributed to the problem. Hogsett has observed that too many police officers do not know the residents of the communities they serve.
That estrangement discourages Bowles and her fellow eastside residents from calling on the police to bring order to their neighborhood, she said.
“I don’t think the police even try,” said Bowles, who lives with her husband and two-year-old in a rented house near 12th and Rural streets. “We hear gunshots outside the house every other night. Our house has been robbed four times since we’ve lived there, and we’ve only lived there a year.”