Urban renewal in the 1960s and 70s changed the landscape of many American cities. In Indianapolis, an African-American neighborhood was largely bulldozed to make way for a new university.
But now archeologists are finding evidence there suggesting that it wasn’t as blighted as portrayed before it was destroyed. They say the neighborhood’s history deserves a rewrite.
When 86-year old Tom Ridley pulls out a picture of a bustling Indiana Avenue during its heyday, he cradles it in his hand like an old family photo.
I carried papers down through here when I was a little boy. Here’s some of the buildings that used to be on the avenue. Like barbershops, grocery stores, shoe shops, anything you just about want,” he said.
The area was the economic center of the city’s vibrant African-American community. It was known as a rowdy post-prohibition jazz mecca, Oscar Robertson’s playground, and home to cosmetics magnate Madame CJ Walker, not just the first African-American female millionaire, but the nation’s first female millionaire period.
Tom Ridley says Walker’s factories propped up the neighborhood until waves of real estate agents started knocking on doors when property values declined in the late 1960s.
“Indiana Avenue lost all their buildings. 90 percent of them. I think maybe there’s maybe only three buildings left on the whole street. It has changed a lot,” Ridley said.
Indiana University began buying up land here – three thousand plots in total – and razed buildings to build a new regional campus as part of the city’s urban renewal efforts. Now, in place of jazz clubs and barbershops are acres of parking lots that line Indiana Avenue.
Paul Mullins is an archeology professor at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis who is leading the dig. He wants to unearth the truth about Indiana Avenue’s 1960s reputation as a blighted neighborhood – one that, he says, made it easier for university officials to pay less for the land.
“We want to complicate the dominant narrative. That there was a simply a declining, mostly African-American neighborhood here. And we want to paint a picture. We want to complicate easy caricatures. And archeology does it very well,” he said.
So far the dig has turned up crystal light fixtures, medicine bottles, and other items suggesting middle class wealth.
Student Brenden Muncie says each item helps fill out the neighborhood’s character.
“It seems like this area was actually thriving, so when we dig through and find things that peopled owned that obviously wouldn’t belong in an area that was actually blighted. The notion that the area was blighted was probably what made it easier for the university to clear out the land the university was built on,” he said.
Mullins says the neighborhood was gone in a short period of time, with little effort made to preserve buildings. He says more could have been done to keep pieces of the neighborhood standings.
“There are plenty of houses of this age that have been rehabilitated and have become bourgeois shrines here in Indianapolis and everywhere else. Certainly they could have preserved them,” he said.
That’s Bill Crawford. He led neighborhood groups against the city and university, and during this time he became a state legislator, now ranking among Indiana’s most powerful.
“The neighborhood was savaged by policy makers. We were not involved in the discussion. No one has sufficient clout to be included in the meeting. It was primarily a group of old white men and political figures.”
“Had the developers not arrested development [in the neighborhood], we could have revitalized the whole area economically,” he said.
Crawford says urban renewal ruined the neighborhood, with the loss population leading to poverty and declining property values.
But, Glen Irwin, IUPUI’s Chancellor during this period, says the neighborhood was already run down. Where there was blight, he says, there are now thousands of jobs and millions of dollar circulating through the area.
“We paid a good price. We had real estate people bargaining on these all the time. There was considerable uproar in the local community about that. But these were the most dilapidated buildings you could imagine,” Irwin said.
University of Illinois Professor Chris Fennell says similar digs around the country are starting to draw attention to the cultural and historical importance of what was lost in many American cities during their headlong rush toward urban renewal.
“There’s definitely a growing number of these nationwide. And it’s a difficult process. But it’s one that, at the end of the day, people move forward in their thinking by working through it. Even though it’s going to cast very awkward and negative lights on certain periods and certain players in American history,” he said.
“Quite often folks will just assume there was a rational reason to move an entire living neighborhood. And say no, pull out the history. This was almost expropriation.”
Even though the vast majority of the neighborhood is missing, city leaders here began touting Indiana Avenue as a cultural destination for tourists a few years ago.
But for Ridley, who has lived in the neighborhood for most of his 86 years, what’s left in the dirt under the parking lots can’t make up for what was bulldozed.
“So they can talk about bringing it back. If we had more of the old buildings still around, you could talk about some the things that were around here! But we don’t have that, see, they’re gone. All we can show them is parking lots,” he said.
And it’s those very parking that has kept has neighborhood’s rubble so well intact. The items pulled from the dig will soon find permanent home in one of Indiana Avenue’s few remaining buildings – Madam Walker’s vaudeville theater.
A version of this story appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered.