Reimagining a Neighborhood, The Way It Ought To Be

How does a neighborhood evolve, grow, and thrive, all while honoring the history of those who came before and those who still call the neighborhood home? In this case, it's with a large collaborative, artistic visioning of true community by the residents.

community of people gathered
Community turnout for the inaugural PreEnact Indy in 2017. Photo by Chuck Horn

The arts have a long history of highlighting social issues and creating public conversation that results in measurable change. As an arts administrator with a strong commitment to place, I lead the special partnership between an Indianapolis arts organization, the Harrison Center, and its surrounding neighborhoods.

In this work I have seen firsthand how the arts have addressed community issues such as education, abandoned housing, and even loneliness. The Harrison Center has engaged these issues by starting a high school, launching an urban living center, and helping people tap into the community through porch parties and other gatherings. For our first 11 years, we strengthened the neighborhood by celebrating its assets and telling stories of place through the visual arts. Five years ago, we engaged hip-hop artists and singer/songwriters to celebrate neighborhood stories through music. Last year, we added theater.

Becoming involved with theater wasn’t our goal. Our goal was inclusive neighborhood development. But while we loved the positive effect that the visual arts and music were having on our community, we were struggling with making them fully inclusive. Our work had done much to revitalize our neighborhood, but it also led to changes that not everyone felt a part of.

How does a neighborhood evolve, grow, and thrive, all while honoring the history of those who came before and those who still call the neighborhood home? That was the question posed in 2015 by longtime African-American residents of the Monon16 area in Indianapolis. As community demographics began to shift, there was growing concern about gentrification. Harrison Center staff and artists who lived and worked in the neighborhood began to ask what they could do to combat this trend as redevelopment and social isolation crept closer and closer to their front porches.

Monon16 had already suffered. When Indiana highway planners introduced the idea of interstate expansion in the 1960s, they placed a higher value on commuter convenience than the stability of inner city neighborhoods. The introduction of the interstate displaced hundreds of people and decimated the Monon16 community. The population plummeted and vacant lots and abandoned houses began to appear. What lingered was a deep sense of loss not only for the physical place, but also for the memories of the people who had once lived and thrived there.

Of the Monon16 residents who have stayed since that time and their descendants, 19 percent are unemployed and 32.7 percent live below the poverty level. But still, there remains a strong sense of neighborhood pride and a desire to see it as a vibrant place once again. Residents long for change that won’t result in cultural erasure and economic gentrification. Instead, they want a neighborhood that is growing healthier, where people know their neighbors, where history is honored, and where revitalization includes long-term residents and businesses.

We found it interesting that our Monon16 neighbors described what they longed for in terms of the “good old days.” While reminiscing can be comforting, re-enacting the past does not cast a vision for the future. What was needed was a way to envision what the neighborhood could and should be—just, equitable, and economically vibrant.

I began to wonder if the Harrison Center could help the community imagine the possibilities. How could we create a transitory, but tangible, environment that stirred the feelings of nostalgia our longtime neighbors longed for, but also invited both old and new residents in to experience the history of the neighborhood and the future we want to create, together. To be honest, we hadn’t yet seen a revitalized neighborhood that was also inclusive. But we felt that the arts just might have the power to take us there.

Theater: Bringing a Concept to Life

We chose theater as the art form to help us envision what our neighborhood ought to be. By definition, theater presents the experience of a real or imagined event before a live audience in a specific place. Why not “pre-enact” what we wanted our neighborhood to be by inviting the public to mingle with actors, artists, and residents and transform Monon16 into the set, even if for a brief time, into all that it could be?

We called it Preenactment Theater—the opposite of what you might experience at a living history museum’s reenactment. We named the actual community production PreEnactIndy. The idea was that theater would help us to envision what an inclusive neighborhood might look like and give us something to “try on” or aim for.

An African American mural artist paints on a brick facade.
Artist Ajia Coleman Durham working on the mural she created for True Victory Church of God in Christ. Photo by Chuck Horn

We needed funding, so we applied for and received an NEA Our Town grant, which was leveraged with state and local funds. Over two years of planning and execution, we spent $250,000 on arts-based community engagement (cultural gatherings, murals, art billboards, music, sculpture), script/production, building and set design, theater artists, and staff time.

With the groundwork laid, next we needed a script. The neighborhood had spent a year developing a quality-of-life plan that set goals for a racially and socioeconomically diverse population, good transportation, connectivity, quality public schools, affordable and market-rate housing, business incubation, and cultural amenities. We used the data collected for that plan, and in addition interviewed longtime residents, attended neighborhood association meetings, and hosted informal gatherings to get to know the neighbors better.

We collected over 65 common hopes and dreams—including quality schools, neighborhood businesses, safe and affordable housing, shared meals, and sitting on porches. These were shared over a six-month period in a public art installation on the main thoroughfare of the neighborhood, on a temporary storefront covered in pink “sticky notes,” loosely inspired by the work of artist Candy Chang. We used the collected information to build a script that was based on the challenges and pains and the socioeconomic backstory of the neighborhood, but inspired by hope for its future.  

At the time, the Harrison Center was a visual arts organization with no theater experience. By networking with funders, we met key people in the theater community and pitched our vision. We found a good fit in Sapphire Theatre, a social practice theater company that would direct the production and lead set design. They knew how to use the power of theater to enact social change. We needed hundreds of actors to fill our three-block stage, and added 12 other theater companies to the cast.

Communicating our concept was difficult and took many hours of education and coaching as we needed the actors (who were used to working from a script) to be ready to interact and engage with the public. The local African-American living history museum, Freetown Village, understood exactly what we meant and embraced the opportunity to “pre-enact” a story that was just and equitable.

Over the two years of planning, we added many other community partners as “extras” including three schools, two churches, existing businesses, neighborhood associations, school groups, and social service nonprofits to produce a grassroots, community-connected experience of revitalization in real time.

Setting the Stage

We defined the “stage” as three city blocks, which at one time had been the heartbeat of the neighborhood. Every vacant lot and building, existing business, street lane and sidewalk became part of the set. Set designers built 11 temporary facades on vacant lots and activated the abandoned buildings. They became a theater, three restaurants, a financial services center, a barbershop, neighborhood welcome center, and a variety store. Each set was designed to depict the neighborhood resident’s hopes and dreams.

tent setup
The Dream Theatre set hosts performing artists during PreEnact Indy. Photo by Chuck Horn

For instance, the neighborhood has sidewalks, but no one felt safe using them because they are narrow and the traffic moves too fast. Rather than close the street to cars as you would for a street festival, set designers widened the sidewalks for pedestrians and calmed traffic by narrowing the road to two lanes. But we didn’t stop there. We decided to really make sure cars would slow down by building a cafe with outdoor seating in the middle of the street, inviting cars to “pre-enact” by slowly driving right through the production.

Other set design elements included reclaiming billboards (which normally advertised fast food) as frames for art that celebrated the neighborhood story, and using painted banners to depict windows on oppressive solid brick facades. We repaired and completed original murals. One mural was painted on the side of a storefront church. It depicted members who lived, worked, and worshipped in the community. The congregation loved the mural and the honor it brought to the people who had worked in and served the community. A Harrison Center artist worked side-by-side with the original muralist to complete the piece. The church’s commitment to neighborhood outreach and new partnership with PreEnactIndy created a relationship that previously had not existed. The mural’s figures beckon others, both painted and real life, to join a loving community.

As the event drew closer, we narrowed our focus, highlighting a handful of themes that continually resurfaced in our conversations: food deserts, safe gathering places, healthy relationships, neighborhood history, a hub for music and culture. We purposefully began erecting parts of the set in advance of the production to set the stage for what was to come and to create word of mouth buzz. In addition, we partnered with teens from a year-round college readiness program to write blog and social media posts—all celebrating the stories and memories we captured during our meetings with neighbors.

How a Neighborhood Should Be

PreEnactIndy incorporated asset-based community development and involvement with local institutions into the process of community building. Parks, schools, government figures, churches, and businesses all played a role.

Actors perform a scene in a pop-up neighborhood barbershop.
Actors preenact a scene in a pop up neighborhood barbershop. Photo by Chuck Horn

PreEnactIndy was a one-day performance that blurred the lines between professional theater and community festival. Although we were expecting a crowd, we were still surprised to actually see people walking along this street—in a neighborhood where that just didn’t happen. The temporary redesign of the physical space invited neighbors to walk, helped them envision what they wanted for their neighborhood, and invited them to talk about it. Here are some examples:                                           

  • Beckwith Commons. A community park honoring Indianapolis resident Frank Beckwith, the first African American to run in an American presidential primary in 1960. The space featured a Speaker’s Corner encouraging people to gather and engage with spoken word artists, classic civil rights speeches, student performances, and hear speeches by the mayor, city council member, and Congressman.
  • 30th Anniversary Celebration. A re-commitment ceremony of a neighborhood pastor and his first lady with an open cake and punch reception for 2000.
  • Brother Nature Market. Locally-focused artisan market featuring fresh produce, and artisan goods and services like landscape & garden design and grocery delivery.
  • Welcome Center & Hip Hoperetta Tour Station. Attendees could pick up a headset and take a musical tour/listen to songs written about the neighborhood.
  • Club Monon. Showcase celebration of jazz and blues.
  • Dunbar Library & History Center. A chance for longtime residents to share, celebrate and collect the history of the area in the historic/abandoned location of Dunbar Library, the first African-American branch of The Indianapolis Public Library.
  • The DREAM Cultural Community Center. Programs and performances that promoted and preserved part of Indy’s culture and community, with a design that paid homage to The Dream, a beautiful movie theatre that once stood in Monon16.
  • Monon Barbershop. Friendly neighborhood barbershop for stories, styling, and socializing.
  • Shoe Shines & Stories. Attendees could get their shoes shined and connect with neighborhood history at the same time.
  • East Side Variety. A penny candy and variety shop that had once been part of the neighborhood was brought back to life
  • Middle of the Road Café. Seating and socializing in the streets, which gave the community a public place to gather and forced motorists to slow down.

We wanted Preenactment Theater to make our neighborhood look better and act better for a day, and we wanted to cast a vision for a neighborhood that ought to be equitable and diverse. Six months into the planning, several new “gentrifier”-type businesses moved in—including a whiskey distillery and a “foodie” restaurant. My first thought was “It is too late for preenactment. Gentrification is already happening.” But then, I realized that Preenactment Theater was needed more than ever.

I went to those businesses and said “How are you going to PreEnact? How are you going to love your neighbors, and how are you going to change your business practices to be more equitable?” When I first asked these questions, the business owners looked at me like I was crazy. But within a month, they all came back to me with specific action items to change the way they did business—committing to hire locally through the neighborhood workforce development center, choosing to pay a living wage, and making their products more accessible to lower income neighbors.

What happened next caught me by surprise. I was running around telling people that they needed to preenact, when it dawned on me that I needed to preenact, too. I tend to be a Type A personality, and while I get a lot done, the language of preenacting felt like an invitation to a kinder, gentler behavior that I wanted to share. I started thinking about how I could preenact at work, at home, and in my neighborhood. I realized that I could be more just and equitable in many ways. A year and a half later, I still think about personally preenacting everyday.

Another surprise was how theater created such an inspiring vision, not just for the new businesses or for myself, but for others. Preenactindy resulted in what I call “heart changes” that are living on: Neighbors changed the way they related to each other—and are now porching together. Others have started a community garden. One woman who lost her neighbors when all the houses around her were torn down 30 years ago is now rebuilding community by inviting her new neighbors into community. Monon16 and its two adjacent neighborhoods (both in various stages of gentrification) are partnering to fight a new interstate expansion threat and are cross-porching in each other’s neighborhoods.

With nearly 5,000 attendees in 2017, we hope PreEnactIndy’s encore in 2018 will be even bigger. We want PreEnactIndy to continue to serve as an example, not only for our city, but for individuals and communities across the country, spurring equitable neighborhood development. Through collaboration of the arts and theater we can honor the history of longstanding neighbors while inviting a new generation to share in their story and explore what’s possible.

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