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AIA Indiana Hosts Dr. Dotson for Presentation on ‘Why Indiana Avenue Matters’

by: Jack Quigley
Dr. Olon Frederick Dotson
Dr. Olon Frederick Dotson
AIA Indiana recently hosted Dr. Olon Frederick Dotson, Associate Professor of Architecture at Ball State University College of Architecture and Planning, and Chairman of Indiana Landmarks’ African American Landmarks Committee, to present ‘Why Indiana Avenue Matters’.

In his presentation, Dotson explains how the physical and institutional abandonment of black neighborhoods in this country affected the west side of Indianapolis, as well as how activist groups like Reclaim Indiana Avenue are kickstarting the infrastructure reinvestment process for one of the city’s most neglected areas.

The Erasure of African American Communities
Dotson started his presentation by showing a photo of the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge Headquarters at 653 North West Street, which was formerly the YWCA for ‘Colored’ Girls. The historic building was torn down in September of 1983.

“These places are continuing to disappear not only in Indianapolis, but all around the country,” Dotson said, “to the point where there is often very little physical evidence that African Americans ever resided in these places.”

Oklahoma’s Greenwood District – a once-thriving African American district on the north side of Tulsa described by many as ‘Black Wall Street’ –serves as one of the darkest examples of the destruction of African American spaces. An angry white mob burned Greenwood to the ground during a deadly massacre in 1921 that left dozens of black citizens dead, hundreds more seriously injured, and thousands without homes and jobs.

Dotson’s great grandmother lived in Tulsa at the time and her church, which was completed less than sixth months before the massacre, was burned to the ground

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“This was a wealthy, healthy, thriving community, which was problematic when white supremacy is the order of the day,” Dotson said. “The scale and magnitude of the devastation is difficult to fathom.”

Dotson said as a young architect, he began to understand that the developed physical space is merely a manifestation of what is produced by our society.

“The organic patterns and configurations of cities and towns where we reside, the civic plazas, parks, and squares where we congregate and interact, and the buildings and homes that we occupy on a daily basis, are all reflections of who and what we are,” Dotson said.

Dotson said he often talks to his students about the symbiotic relationship between the architecture of the prison industrial complex and schools.

“These schools oftentimes are vehicles and gateways to the prison industrial complex – the school-to-prison pipeline – and design actually plays a role in that,” Dotson said.

Physical and Institutional Abandonment
Dotson quoted Brent Leggs, Executive Director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, when discussing the urgent need of preserving African American heritage in the state of Indiana.
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“By preserving historic sites that tell the story of African Americans in this county, we draw attention to the contributions of both ordinary and extraordinary people,” Leggs said. “Such stories might otherwise be lost because of urban renewal and the outmigration of blacks leading to the abandonment of many African American communities, Indianapolis being no exception. By saving African American landmarks, we can stimulate revitalization and foster interest in places that today, seem to exist without history or meaning. Indeed, these places can serve as anchors for reviving a sense of community.”

Aerial photos of Indiana Avenue on Indianapolis’ near west side, where the city’s African American community settled in the early 1900’s, show the slow but consistent demolition and abandonment of the area through the last 80 years. One aerial photo from 1937 shows a newly-constructed Lockefield Gardens – one of the earliest massive public housing developments in the country – surrounded by neighborhoods and businesses.

By 1962, one of the neighborhoods next to Lockefield Gardens was completely gone and replaced by parking lots. Photos from 10 years later show the wholesale abandonment of neighborhoods to the north and south of Indiana Avenue, and by 1986, Lockefield Gardens was torn down.

Today, Madam C.J. Walker Theatre is one of the area’s last remaining landmarks of the African American community and stands in isolation on Indiana Avenue amidst a sea of asphalt parking lots and garages.

Reclaiming Indiana Avenue
Buckingham Companies recently proposed a mixed-use development along Indiana Avenue that would extrude up five stories and form an “urban wall” along the historic avenue. One wing of the proposed facility would occupy the site of Madam Walker’s former house, effectively continuing the erasure of the community’s African American heritage by eliminating one of the few remnants of Indiana Avenue’s past.

“In general, the community was troubled by this offering,” Dotson said.

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An activist group called Reclaim Indiana Avenue was created as a result of Buckingham’s proposal. Dotson said he and some of his peers studied past development patterns of Indiana Avenue to create an alternative proposal that pays homage to the district’s rich history.

Where one of the proposed building wings is located, Dotson suggests reintroducing Walnut Street and California Street, partially as a means to calm traffic as drivers fly south onto the interstate, and partially as a way to honor the memory of Madam Walker. Dotson said by breaking up the buildings and reintroducing some semblance of a street grid, developers can create new public squares and spaces instead of just one superblock facility.

“This scaled-down vision still has a mixed-use development, but with an African American theme that pays attention to and tries to address some of the challenges associated with preserving a legacy,” Dotson said. “Imagine the types of businesses, organizations, and places that could celebrate black space with this alternative proposal.”

Indianapolis Cultural Trail runs through the site, so Reclaim Indiana Avenue proposes that the site serve as a cultural trailhead with a new cultural center that highlights the history of the community and the legacy of Madam Walker. Dotson said a screen illustration depicting Madam Walker and some of her achievements could also cover one of the proposed parking garages as a way of paying homage to her legacy.

While the renderings created for Reclaim Indiana Avenue’s alternative proposal do not reflect buildings which are designed in full, Dotson said this initiative will help people imagine a new environment for Indiana Avenue that brings together entrepreneurial activities, mixed-use maker spaces, and live-work settings.

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“This is the alternative proposal we’ve been trying to offer on Indiana Avenue as a means to start conversation about the preservation of black space,” Dotson said.

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