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Can an Indianapolis arts collective do sustainable development right?

Public art and placemaking nonprofit Big Car Collaborative has a new take on artist-led neighborhood development

Being the canary in the coal mine of urban development isn’t fun. Just ask Jim Walker, an Indianapolis artist and community organizer who is all too familiar with the traditional life cycle of "hip" neighborhoods in big cities. Searching for affordable housing, artists enter an area and begin revitalizing, then attracting attention and development, which inevitably drive up rent and push out both the original residents and newer arrivals.

But Walker and his fellow artists in the Big Car Collaborative think they can break that cycle. A forthcoming housing and community development project the group will finish this fall in the city’s Garfield Park neighborhood seeks to not just restore vacant homes for artists, but create a sustainable, affordable, engaged, and thriving community for everyone. Artists, as Walker says, have a lot of non-traditional skills, such as creative problem solving and approaching things in a out-of-the-box fashion. Doesn’t that make them ideal candidates to crack the code of sustainable urban development?

"The role of artists is more than decorating the community and working in their studio in the neighborhood," says Walker. "They should apply, or want to apply, what they’re good at in the service of community development and quality-of-life issues."

This isn’t the nonprofit’s first attempt at using arts to revitalize a neighborhood. The collection of artists, which formed in 2004 with the goal of promoting creative placemaking and socially engaged art, originally set its sights on Fountain Square, located east of downtown, and over the years, helped turn a dilapidated area into a hip neighborhood. Co-founder Walker and his fellow artists, including his wife, Shauta Marsh, began by renting space at the Murphy Arts Center, the first in a series of moves that added public art to the area and helped attract artists to the neighborhood. Walker considers himself a "social practice artist," and views community building as an extension of work he’s done in the past as a journalist and photographer.

"A lot of it was about sharing people’s stories and connecting people to issues and ideas," he says, "which is similar to the work that I do and help lead here."

But like many artists moving into new neighborhoods, they were perhaps a little too successful at bringing attention to the area. The abandoned storefronts that allowed for public art and experimentation soon started attracting upscale tenants, downtown development in Indianapolis created more demand for urban living, and developers saw an opportunity. Fountain Square is now desirable, hip, and more high-rent, filled with the restaurants and galleries, and too expensive for many members of Big Car, not to mention some of the original homeowners. It even has its own tagline: "Funky. Artsy. Retro. Anything but square."

When Big Car set its sights on Garfield Park a few years ago, a traditionally blue collar neighborhood on Indy’s south side with bungalows and boarded up storefronts, the group began with a traditional mix of placemaking and community artworks, such as a Jane Jacobs walk and a community mural.

But it also changed its approach, focusing on a long-term solution to development that doesn’t price anybody out. Left out by poor access to transit, cleaved from the city by the introduction of a new interstate in the ‘70s, and plagued with a glut of vacant houses, the area hasn’t benefitted from the uplift occurring in other parts of Indianapolis. Walker, who now lives in the neighborhood, wanted to find a way to encourage healthy growth in the mixed-income area.

Big Car moved in, setting up shop on Shelby Street, a formerly busy commercial corridor. In addition to creating artist studios and coworking spaces in two former factories, such as the 12,000-square-foot Tube Factory space, which opened in a former airplane parts factory earlier this year, as well as Listen Here, a studio and recording space for art and experimental music, the collective is focusing on a new model of housing that they hope will maintain affordability and not price anybody out.

By partnering with Riley Area Development Corporation to purchase the homes, and using grant money from local foundations and nonprofits such as the Indianapolis Neighborhood Housing Partnership, Big Car will subsidize rent for a series of homes on Cruft Street for artists by roughly 50 percent, in return, asking them to contribute 20 hours a month to investing back into the neighborhood with local arts initiatives. It adds up to a $1.5 million bet on building a different type of neighborhood.

"It’s not about putting in a restaurant that people can’t afford, or tone deaf developments that don’t match up with the neighborhood," says Walker. "We’re really working to make sure that’s not the case. When we own our own property, we have a lot more pull."

Artists will own half of the equity in the home, and when and if they decide to sell, they’ll make a profit. But the artists will have to sell back to Big Car. By setting up a land trust and refusing to jack up rent like other property owners, Big Car will have more control, and ensure that housing in the neighborhood stays affordable. With transit lines set to come to the area as well, Walker and Big Car want to make sure members of the Garfield Park Creative Community, as well as current residents, won’t get priced out and away from much-needed mass transit.

Big Car and Riley have already purchased many of the homes, which are currently being renovated, in part with materials and components fabricated at Big Car studios, and are set to go on sale this fall. In addition to offering homes for sale in Garfield Park, the larger plan also calls for a certain number of rental units to add more affordable housing options.

Walker and Big Car draw influences from a number of projects and artists/developers, from Rick Lowe and Project Row Houses in Houston to Theaster Gates and the Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago. He believes the differentiator that makes these kind of artist-led, grassroots developments work is a focus on turning the area into something different by creating a deeper community connection.

Walker says the group has been active in collaborating with local community groups, such as the Bean Creek Neighborhood Association, to make a conscious effort to involve them in the conversation. They’re part of the planning and even the artwork, since, as Walker believes, it’s all too easy to create a situation where those already in the neighborhood get left out. When communities are hungry for economic development, its important to bring every resource to bear on the issue.

"You see in other midwestern cities, such as Detroit, Cleveland, and Cincinnati, where the need for innovation is really there, that people are open to new opportunities and including artists at the table," says Walker. "This city has really seen that pay off with a lot of growth."