Community leaders and volunteers are working to turn a site that was once a swimming hole for Black Indianapolis residents into a year-round destination for the Haughville area.
A temporary pop-up park at Belmont Beach on the White River has become a beacon for events in the near-west-side community from early spring until the end of fall, including movie nights, nature hikes, community dinners, open mic nights and more.
Although intended to be a one-season project, the pop-up park is now on its third season and the new not-for-profit community organization Friends of Belmont Beach is working to turn it into a permanent recreation area.
When the pop-up park is open, it offers picnic tables, fire pits, a fountain and art zone.
But once it closes, many of those materials are rolled up and returned to their owners or other parks.
The group’s Haughville Riverfront Vision Plan will propose improvements for Belmont Beach; nearby Rev. Mozel Sanders Park; the River Station area just north of where White River meets Fall Creek; and the surrounding wooded area, dubbed “Floodplain Forest.”
Friends of Belmont Beach began taking community input when the pop-up park reopened April 22.
Additional community engagement sessions are planned for Haughville Heritage Day on July 1 and the closing weekend of the park, Oct. 27-29. Friends of Belmont Beach will conduct virtual and in-person meetings, and boots-on-the-ground canvassing to gather public input, said Ebony Chappel, executive director.
“This is being developed in the community, with the community, and for the community,” Chappel said. “While other people are welcome to enjoy it and support it, it is for Haughville.”
The land Belmont Beach lies on is owned by the Indianapolis Airport Authority and the city of Indianapolis. Indy Parks and Recreation owns Rev. Mozel Sanders Park, and the city’s Department of Public Works also owns propery in the area. Indy Parks might take ownership of the full 50-acre plot to simplify the planning process, said Indy Parks planner Andre Denman.
Friends of Belmont Beach hope to have a fleshed-out plan by December, and the organization is in the process of raising money through its website (belmontbeachindy.org) and through other means to help fuel the improvements.
When Chappel was growing up, the beach was just a heavily overgrown area by the river. Kids didn’t go there, she said.
She and Friends of Belmont Beach President Tedd Hardy have seen the revitalization of the area give west-side residents more access to natural attractions, especially students from nearby IPS Wendell Phillips School 63 who have become frequent visitors to the park to learn about nature.
Greg Harger, a running coach and project manager of the Urban Wilderness Trail on the east side of the river, leads nature walks through the area.
Fifth- and sixth-graders from School 63 have seen deer, coyote and fox tracks, along with an old fox den, Harger said. “Their eyes light up, because they didn’t realize all those things live here.”
Hardy’s background is in event planning. He has, for example, helped organize a Haughville block party in conjunction with Indy Convergence’s Near West Rara, an event that saw a street band move through four near-west-side neighborhoods. Both the band and the crowd grew with the procession.
“If you watch Forrest Gump running, that’s kind of my easiest way [to describe it],” Hardy said. “Somebody started running; everybody followed.” Haitian “raras” are street-procession festival bands, and Indy Convergence worked with the Jacmel Arts Center in Haiti to adapt the tradition to the near-west side.
The event got Hardy hooked on the idea of developing a meeting spot for near-west-side residents.
Now, Belmont Beach hosts events nearly every weekend of the summer.
Although Friends of Belmont Beach is leading the vision planning, several organizations—such as Indy Convergence—are involved in revitalizing the riverfront. Visit Indy and Indy Parks are providing advice and guidance to Friends of Belmont Beach and associated organizations.
Brad Beaubien, director of destination development for Visit Indy, said his organization sees an opportunity to rejuvenate the space and that community feedback will determine the site’s uses.
“Is it fields? Is it playgrounds? Is it water activation? That’s really to be determined based on what the community says they want over the course of this year,” he told IBJ.
After creating the White River Vision Plan from spring 2018 to summer 2019 in partnership with Hamilton County Tourism and Visit Indy, local supporters cultivated the first season of the pop-up park in 2021.
They tested the pop-up park concept laid out in the plan with funding from the Lilly Endowment.
After that first season drew many residents for picnics, basketball and more, Friends of Belmont Beach became formalized as a not-for-profit. The group has been hosting events at the site ever since.
Although the site plan is still being developed, the groups have selected contractors for the eventual work at Belmont Beach and the surrounding areas.
Chicago-based Site Design Group is the lead designer. Indianapolis-based V3 Companies will handle landscape architecture and environmental engineering.
Detroit-based design studio JIMA Studio will decide how to incorporate the history of the site into the vision plan.
A sordid history
Leon Bates, a local historian, said Belmont Beach has a sordid history for the city to reckon with.
In 1916, the Indiana State Board of Health revealed that waterways like the White River were heavily contaminated and unsafe for swimming. This led to the city’s plan to build 19 swimming pools, Bates said.
Due to segregation, just one city pool—at Douglass Park, near East 28th Street and Dr. Andrew J. Brown Avenue—was reserved for Black Indianapolis families.
That pool was across the river and five miles from Haughville, Bates said—a nearly insurmountable trek for early-20th-century residents with limited transportation options.
In 1927, a group of Black entrepreneurs tried to buy nearby land at West 20th Street and Lafayette Road, along the White River, according to research by the late IUPUI historian Paul Mullins.
The group led by Henry Fleming wanted to turn the space now known as Municipal Gardens into a country club and touted plans for a beach, Mullins said on his blog.
“The white neighbors in the area got so enraged, and so upset, that there were—protests was an understatement,” Bates said.
Instead, the city of Indianapolis parks board stepped in and bought the land. Having been shut out of pools and clubs, Black west-siders swam in the White River.
Most were unaware of the contamination, Bates said.
He said cleanup of the White River is an environmental-justice issue.
“Indianapolis has been dumping sewage into or allowing sewage to flow into minority and poor neighborhoods for decades,” he said.
Citizens Energy Group’s 20-year Dig Indy tunnel project, set to wrap up in 2025, aims to clean up the sewage that overflows into the river from the city’s combined sewer system. The White River tunnel opened last summer.
The river is still deemed unsafe for swimming, and the state maintains advisories for those who wish to catch and eat fish from the waterway, according to Discover White River. Work to clean the river continues.•
Correction: This story has been edited to clarify that Tedd Hardy worked on a block party in Haughville that was part of the Near West Rara event organized by Indy Convergence. It also clarified a reference to Indy Convergence’s work with Jacmel Arts Center in Haiti.