Over ten years ago the Near West side of Indianapolis presented itself as an area in early transition. By researching its rich and diverse past, it’s clear that the phenomenon of being lost and rediscovered is very much part of the Near West narrative. In considering my own story with the area, I am reminded that this Indianapolis community has never been motionless, but always non-stop. Its transformation directly connected to the expansion of mobility.
In 2005, I nervously presented my grad thesis titled, (I)dentity Architecture: The Case of a Community to a jury of peers at the University of Michigan. I argued that visioning with limited local knowledge can carry social and economic implications that can feign and marginalize a community, including its terrains, architecture, and cultures. The research looked closely at the commoditization of culture in urban development corridors.
For the good portion of a year, I visited similar districts and corridors from Grand Rapids to Los Angeles. During that time, I experienced environments ranging from local citizens appearing to be characters in their own environment, to masking a corridor as an obvious distorted cultural product.
It’s an unusual phenomenon.
After all, if good development means feeding a demanding market, we will have no problem covering lunches according to author Richard Rodriguez. He insists themed environments do work by feeding the “cultural loneliness in American lives.” As we move toward an ever diversifying global nation, it is important that we understand how urban spaces effectively communicate and reflect a creative reality.
A Solution ?
At the end of that thesis argument I offered a way out of this identity quandary - An elegantly designed Center for Arts and Culture. In my best fountainhead moment, I proposed an iconic, well organized architecture that expressed a structure of program layering, open galleries, and naturally lit offices. Its translucent facade would share a similar effect to Steven Holls’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. In considering the areas future, its construction promised to activate a corridor, rediscover aged infrastructure, and reinforce connectivity. This careful layering of architecture would be the magic bullet for change in the Near West community. So I imagined.
While it was true that such a center for art and mutual cooperation should exist – Today I’d consider something better than a magic bullet.
In 2013, w/purpose was commissioned by Keep Indianapolis Beautiful to work alongside local partners who were motivated to transform a vacant property having been awarded KIB’s Project Green Space Grant. The creation of Purpose Park grew from a pure commitment around a collective space that binds people together, serves local needs, networks residents, and constructs what author Villa Raul Homero calls, “symbolic spatial practices” or local events, parades, and activities promote assembly.
For most American communities, including Hawthorne and Haughville, the celebration of its arts and cultural assets typically did not take place in formal architectural spaces, rather in appropriated public environments such as parks, plazas, markets, and streets, where families celebrated the traditional practices of food, dance, sports, or music.
Local artists who had a social call to express themselves did not have access galleries or studios to voice their frustration, joy, or social view. Instead, landscape, infrastructure, and public domain became visual canvas to proclaim who they are and what they were about. It was these spaces where the messages of reality were expressed. It was through these physical and public assemblies that the bending perception around your “hood” or “barrio” would be overturned.
You can imagine the surprise and joy of local Near West residents when they received a letter from the Indianapolis City Council to acknowledge and pass Special Resolution on behalf of Purpose Park and its iconic yellow 1964 Pontiac Bonneville. A nod to the areas transit history and protection of rights, including assembly, which was and continues to be the foundation of the civil rights movement. The official park is now the center of local assembly, play, healthy food, and activity.No membership fee. All welcomed. Until dusk at least.
The development of leftover spaces like Purpose Park and “Non Stop” Station position a community on the verge of major change by reinforcing a strong identity and extending local stake in exchange for advocacy, labor, or clean-up.
It is during this process that new knowledge is exchanged and “expert” residents commit to organized cultural/identity programs, connectivity efforts, and development futures. For w/purpose, the icons for mobility (Car/Train) are ideal representations of decentralized modes of cultural. We hope to continue to connect new cultural centers throughout the Near West community.
Rediscovery of course does not have to always be a nod to the past. Sometimes it means leaning forward to set an appropriate platform for bigger plans. We have seen the train of change coming for some time. It is not the architectural bullet originally imagined. It is better.
We hope to continue our work alongside Keep Indianapolis Beautiful and Near West residents to inspire their nonstop attitude and thrill of rediscovery. We are blessed to have shared in a handful of creative place making opportunities with so many inspiring minds and spirits. Special thanks to fabricators Indianapolis Fabrications and Cutting Edge Craftsmen for their fabrication and dedication to their craft.
Cheers to you all!