The Changing Face of Indiana Avenue

This post originally appeared in Indianapolis Monthly

“Shirley! Shirley! Somebody tried to kick the doors in!”

Pastor Louis Parham studies a broken frame in his office at Bethel AME Church, the city’s oldest African-American place of worship. Shirley Jones, a member and trustee, rushes in to see.

Parham sighs, resigned. A would-be robber is the least of his worries this February morning. Sitting on his desk are three proposals from developers eager to get their hands on this prime piece of Canal Walk property. And for the first time in the 147 years the congregation has occupied the spot, the members are seriously considering selling.

Illustration by Curt Merlo

Illustration by Curt Merlo

Bethel can handle its expenses just fine, clarifies Parham. The problems run deeper, though, down to the foundation—or lack thereof. In existence since 1836 as part of the Underground Railroad, Bethel did not build its church upon a rock when it moved to this location in 1869, but on the bare ground. Today, the National Register of Historic Places site tilts, sinks, shifts, ready to crumble unless $2 million for repairs shows up soon.

A last-ditch capital campaign last fall yielded a lot of promises and a $100 gift card. Mortgage debt prevents Bethel from taking on new loans. And those are just the financial challenges. A century ago, Bethel acted as a social hub for Indiana Avenue, the center of the city’s African-American culture. Up the street, Madam C.J. Walker’s beauty empire thrived in an elaborate headquarters. Lockefield Gardens—the country’s first high-rise public housing—debuted in the mid-’30s with hot-and-cold plumbing, a luxury. Weekends pulsed with jazz coming from the clubs and bars and restaurants along the stretch. At the Avenue’s height, Bethel hosted up to 500 members.

But as desegregation, economic hardship, and other factors unraveled the fabric of the Avenue, Bethel became one of the last echoes of that golden age. With nearby IUPUI’s growth, demographics also changed. Bethel’s worship style no longer appeals to the students and young professionals bringing density back to the area. The average congregant age is 64. Membership has dwindled to 149. And now Bethel’s home is dangerously unstable. All of which make those proposals on Parham’s desk harder to ignore.

The pastor grimaces as he explains the predicament: “There’s a truly heartfelt desire to stay here. That’s what the heart says. The intellect says, You can’t stay.”

Long known as a commuter school, IUPUI’s population now skews to the typical post–high school student, one seeking a more traditional college experience—on-campus or nearby housing included. The university has expanded its residential options, and in the past few years, developers have swooped in to take advantage of the shift, too. Mixed-use apartment complexes began shooting up in the vicinity, from The Avenue at Indiana Avenue and 10th Street to the 9 on Canal, just up the waterway from Bethel. Few view the wave of growth as a bad thing. But a fraught history between IUPUI and the Avenue complicates the issue.

In its early-to-midcentury heyday, the district shimmered with activity. “It is hard to explain how it felt in 1940 for a young eighteen-year-old man-child to walk down Indiana Avenue on a warm summer evening, dressed in a tailored suit, shoes shined, and a Duke of Wales shirt and tie, with his friends at his side,” writes Thomas Howard Ridley Jr. in his memoir, From the Avenue. “There was live jazz all around us and pretty, smiling girls checking us out. At the time, we didn’t think life could get any better.”

Blacks and immigrants gravitated to the land near the White River because it was affordable—whites avoided the malaria-prone area. But from that cheap real estate sprang beauty shops, tailors, clothing stores, churches, restaurants, grocers, the Indianapolis Recorder, and clubs such as the Sunset Terrace, which drew big acts like Duke Ellington and local jazz talent like Wes Montgomery.

David L. Williams, an IUPUI adjunct professor of Africana Studies and author of Indianapolis Jazz, grew up in Lockefield. Now he teaches in buildings erected where he used to play. “We were so insulated, we didn’t really realize the total effect of segregation,” says Williams. “It was a world within a world.”

Dorothy Pipes, an 89-year-old raised on Blake Street in a home later sold to IUPUI, recalls that same tight-knit community: “You never went on the Avenue when you didn’t see somebody you knew.”

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