Putting Theory Into Practice: How a Bus Tour Demonstrated Neighborhood Revitalization in Indianapolis
by Ulises Silva, Detroit LISC Communications Program Officer
A theory can look great on paper. But seeing that theory applied in a real-life setting can make all the difference between having people agree with it, and having people enthusiastically working to apply it.
That’s what happened on November 15, 2011, when Detroit Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) took a bus full of Detroit community development partners and community stakeholders to Indianapolis, Indiana. There, our colleagues at Indianapolis LISC hosted a lunch, a panel discussion, and a bus tour throughout some of their Building Sustainable Communities neighborhoods. The goal: To see how the Building Sustainable Communities (BSC) strategy was already making a real difference in neighborhoods not unlike those in Detroit, and to demonstrate the viability of BSC as a theory that can work to revitalize Detroit’s neighborhoods.
An Early Start
A five-hour bus ride meant an early start for the group of about 50. The bus left the Michigan Welcome Center and Mercado shortly after 7 a.m., and while there wasn’t any coffee to go around, there were breakfast burritos, yogurt, fruit juices, and water aplenty. After breakfast, and after the group had a chance to wake up a little more, Detroit LISC Senior Program Officer Michelle Story-Stewart kicked things off by screening two BSC videos—from Chicago and Indianapolis—for the group.
A while later, after noticing that many within the group were actively discussing business matters, Story-Stewart asked them to share some of their discussions with everyone, including any new projects they were working on. This led to a healthy bus-wide conversation regarding the work currently being done in Detroit, and presented a chance for the different stakeholders to learn about what others were doing in other neighborhoods.
It was an impromptu exchange of information that presented a picture of all the different but interconnected revitalization efforts happening across Detroit, and a good prelude to the BSC demonstration in Indianapolis.
A Lunchtime Introduction to Indianapolis LISC
The bus arrived at Indianapolis and at the John H. Boner Community Center shortly after noon. A buffet of Mexican food had been set out for lunch, and Indianapolis LISC staff was already on hand to welcome the Detroit crowd and share some of LISC’s history in Indianapolis.
Indianapolis LISC Executive Director Bill Taft kicked things off by talking about Indy LISC’s shift toward holistic comprehensive community development and BSC. He discussed the importance of the Quality of Life (QOL) planning process, and how six months of QOL planning had uncovered unique challenges and opportunities for each of Indy LISC’s five target BSC neighborhoods.
Just how important were the QOL plans in establishing the blueprints for comprehensive community development? When Indianapolis was selected as the host city for Super Bowl XLVI, the city encouraged the NFL’s Legacy Project to think big and target an entire area, not just a single youth center. The Super Bowl Host Committee realized that the resident-driven QOL plan in the Near Eastside neighborhood provided a well-conceived and viable blueprint for community development work. As a result, the NFL and Indianapolis organizations including LISC began to make concentrated investments in the Near Eastside based in part on that QOL plan.
Bill Taft explained that of the $125 million invested in that neighborhood, only $1 million came from the NFL. The other $124 million came from civic partnerships and private resources, demonstrating the value and strength of focused collaborations between different partners. The strength of these partnerships, Taft explained, will hopefully continue the work started by the Legacy Project well after the Super Bowl.
Indianapolis LISC staff offered remarks on some of the work supported by the local LISC office. Program Officer Aaron Laramore discussed the importance of fostering strong collaborations between convening agencies, partners, and LISC. Senior Program Officer Sara Van Slambrook reiterated that importance, explaining how community development groups had to break out of their silos in order to work more effectively together. “Most success,” she said, “is where multiple stakeholders are working together and collaborating.” Program Officer Rachel McIntosh discussed the Fostering Commercial Urban Strategies (FOCUS), a program designed to jumpstart commercial development and opportunity in Indianapolis’s urban neighborhoods. Senior Program Officer Tom Orr discussed the Centers for Working Families (CWF) sites in Indianapolis, and how they help to increase family wealth and income by focusing on assets instead of on deficits, and by encouraging more of a coaching paradigm to help clients identify and clarify choices and goals.
The lunchtime presentation helped to establish Indianapolis LISC’s theoretic and strategic approach to neighborhood revitalization. Now, as everyone got back on the bus to begin a two-hour tour of Indianapolis BSC neighborhoods, it was time to see that theory put into practice.
A Neighborhood Revitalization Theory Brought to Life
Bill Taft led the neighborhood bus tour through the North Eastside and Southeast Indianapolis neighborhoods. The tour began with a street right across from the John H. Boner Community Center, where LISC and other partners were concentrating investments to restore and rehabilitate existing homes. Like Detroit, Indianapolis’ housing stock is solid, and consists primarily of large single- and multi-family homes with beautiful classic architecture. As the bus rode by the streets bristling with construction activity, one got the sense that such focused investments can have a tremendous impact, even in areas with significant blight.
At its core, the BSC strategy is about improving the quality of life of residents, particularly those in distressed neighborhoods. And to do so, it weaves five interconnected elements (physical development, economic development, increasing family income and wealth, improving access to quality education, and fostering safe, healthy environments) into a single action plan bound by a simple philosophy: that we all deserve to live in neighborhoods where we can live, work, play, and raise children in. This became apparent as the bus passed by a brand new residential complex that will be home to low-income senior citizens, and as it drove down the commercial corridor on 10th Street, which now features Indianapolis’ first co-op grocer.
Challenges remain, particularly on the 10th Street commercial corridor, but the signs of a community pulling together to improve itself are visible everywhere. Even a vacant lot overgrown with weeds represents hope for tomorrow: next month, ground will break on that lot for a mixed-use commercial/residential building that will continue to transform the surrounding landscape.
Passing by Arsenal Tech High School was another reminder of how BSC takes a comprehensive approach to community development. As part of its partnership with the NFL, LISC and the national NFL Youth Football Fund Grassroots Program have succeeded in bringing a new playing field to Arsenal Tech’s football stadium. And not just any field. Taft explained that the field will be the same one used by one of the teams playing in Super Bowl XLVI in 2012. The new field will help renovate Arsenal Tech’s stadium, and give local youths a new, safe place to play.
Part of the BSC strategy is identifying existing neighborhood assets to build around. In Indianapolis, this, too, is a theory already being put into practice. Resident QOL plans haven’t just identified homes and commercial corridors to revitalize, but also neighborhood structures that, while not currently in use, offer strong development possibilities.
One of them is this school house, which is located right next to Arsenal Tech High School but which is no longer in use. As part of the QOL plan in that neighborhood, the traditional structure will be restored and repurposed as a new firehouse.
The bus drove by another neighborhood that is not as far along as North Eastside, but that nonetheless demonstrates the interconnectedness of the BSC strategy. On one hand, there is a brand new apartment complex that provides affordable housing and also improves the surrounding landscape. Right across from it, a former factory has been converted to a new charter school. Across from that is a new playground for children. Within this small space, three elements of BSC are already in play: physical redevelopment for the creation of quality affordable housing, improved access to quality education, and a safe, healthy environment for children to play in.
The bus drove past downtown, and toward another one of Indianapolis LISC’s BSC neighborhoods, Fountain Square in the Southeast Side. Fountain Square, with its unique commercial corridor, its small-town feel, its fantastic housing stock, and its protected bike lanes, is fast becoming one of Indianapolis’ most attractive neighborhoods—a remarkable turnaround for a neighborhood that was once considered to be in distress.
What made Fountain Square so special within the context of this bus tour was that it provided a glimpse of what was possible through collaboration, dedication, and focused investments. Indianapolis LISC, its community development partners, residents, civic agencies, and the philanthropic community pooled resources and expertise to form a shared vision for holistic community revitalization. Through a carefully crafted Quality of Life plan, residents established the blueprints for revitalization. The results of those blueprints were evident throughout the attractive, vibrant, and up-and-coming neighborhood. Fountain Square represents what can happen if partners employ, buy into, and commit to a strategy like BSC.
The bus tour ended at the Southeast Community Services building, which houses several services, including one of Indianapolis LISC’s CWF sites. Here, a panel of local community development leaders and stakeholders shared their experiences in implementing BSC. They provided valuable information about the QOL planning process, about nurturing collaborations between different partners, and of starting up a successful community organizing initiative to engage as many residents as possible for the QOL planning process. Joe Bowling, a Community Builder at Near Eastside Community Organization, had, perhaps, the most encouraging and inspiring piece of advice for all of us: “It’s important to instill a culture that it’s not about one organization. It’s not about getting one’s name in the paper. It’s not about self-interest. It’s about the community. What’s best for the neighborhood should be the primary concern. The community should always be first.”
Working Together, We Can Succeed Anywhere
Indianapolis LISC has been implementing BSC over the past several years, so their level of work is a few years ahead of us here in Detroit. But with Indianapolis and Detroit being two classic Midwest, blue-collar cities heavily affected by a prolonged recession, the successes achieved in Indianapolis provide a promising blueprint for similar successes in Detroit. Indianapolis LISC’s successful implementation of BSC offers the hope that the theory of comprehensive community development can work to revitalize neighborhoods in distress, and can work in Detroit neighborhoods.
And key to that success is the collaboration and shared vision between all of us who dedicate ourselves to the pursuit of a better quality of life for our friends, partners, and neighbors across Detroit.