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How a block party augurs the equitable future of Indianapolis

A cross between a street fair, tactical urbanism, and historical re-enactment, PreEnactIndy uses the past to see a better future

People hanging out on a road closed off to car traffic.
PreEnactIndy, a cross between a street fair, tactical urbanism, and historical re-enactment, reimagines a stretch of 16th Avenue in Indianapolis.
Susan Peters

Three years ago, Joanna Taft, executive director of the Harrison Center for the Arts, an Indianapolis institution that promotes the visual arts, was thinking about the different ways her organization was impacting the surrounding neighborhood, a majority black area in the near-north part of the city known as Monon 16.

How could the organization do a better job of not just being part of the neighborhood, but helping the neighborhood define itself, of making sure art played a role in revitalizing the area for everyone, instead of being a precursor to the standard gentrification narrative? The answer, as Taft and Harrison Center staff found, was not just looking at how the neighborhood was and is, but helping to envision what it could become.

The concept, PreEnactIndy, is a cross between a street fair, tactical urbanism, and historical re-enactment. Every year during a Saturday in October, a few blocks in the neighborhood, 16th Street from the Monon Trail to Dr. Andrew J. Brown Avenue, get reimagined as their future selves, a visualization exercise that aids in community planning and sense of unity. The third edition of PreEnactIndy just took place last Saturday, drawing over 3,000 attendees.

Temporary stores, movie theaters, barber shops, and other businesses built by set designers both showcase how the street could look and recall famous sites from the past. Actors and performers from the Sapphire Theatre Company, who have studied characters recreated from the area’s past via interviews with residents, roam around and interact with visitors (past examples include Red, a resident famous for mowing lawns while riding a bicycle). By focusing on history, and the stories of how a neighborhood with thriving business up until the ‘70s saw community members and investment leave, Taft hopes the event helps prevent feelings of cultural displacement as the neighborhood continues to see a spike in new investment.

This year’s three-block stage show featured some returning favorites, including a pop-up roller skating rink and an artisan market, as well as new additions, including a display of tiny homes, a temporary movie theater showing independent black films, and a series of snappy yard signs (popular examples were “Be porch party popular” with “Promote inclusiveness” on the back, as well as “We’re pushing for neighborhood-centric-fication/Don’t privatize, publicize”).

Informed by interviews with residents about their hopes and dreams, PreEnactIndy temporarily brings those visions to life, Taft says, using art as a tool of empowerment. In a period of radical change, when the arrival of new housing units will radically alter the neighborhood’s fabric, an event like this can show that the neighborhood isn’t a blank slate.

“What if we could elevate the neighborhood’s story?” said Taft. “We all tend to forget stories, even our own. So what if we could use the power of art to tell those stories again?”

A gathering of neighbors at a house party in the front of a home with yellow aluminum siding.
A porch party held by the Harrison Center during last year’s PreEnactIndy event.
Andrea Smith

Taft says the original event in 2016—funded by a combination of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority, community fundraising, and money from Harrison—picked this particular stretch of 16th Avenue because of the changes already witnessed in the area. While the exact name for the neighborhood is in dispute—some call it Martindale on the Monon, some say just Martindale, and still others use Hillside—it’s clear that as millions of dollars in new projects began taking shape, the area’s long-time residents needed to be heard.

The event has evolved over the last three iterations, coming to add the concept of cultural gentrification to the common understanding of economic gentrification. This year, organizers asked visitors to help reimagine the future of the Polk Sanitary Milk Company, a former neighborhood staple a few blocks back from the main event; once a factory featuring gigantic milk bottles, the only evidence of the thriving business is an old brick stable that was painted for the event.

The Harrison Center and other partners have also become more engaged with PreEnactIndy throughout the entire year.

Representatives from PreEnactIndy organizers visit new businesses to explain the area and its history, and to hand out welcome packets. They’ve also started a program to recognize what they call Greatriarchs, or elders of the neighborhood who want to participate in this type of programming. The Harrison Center and its partners hold a monthly meeting for the 12 official Greatriarchs to get their feedback on what’s happening in the neighborhood. There’s now a portrait painting of each of the 12 elders on 16th Street.

A colorful series of abstract portraits against a plain brick wall.
The Greatriarches gallery on 16th Avenue, featuring portraits of the 12 elders of the neighborhood painted by Abi Ogle.
Courtesy PreEnactIndy

It was difficult getting the event off the ground the first year, due to the challenges of finding money to pay actors and also tracing ownership of the vacant buildings and lots where pop-up structures were eventually installed. But now, after three years running, Taft says the investment has paid off.

Not only has the Harrison Center formed a tighter bond with the surrounding community, and the neighborhood been given another reason to come together and show itself off to the rest of Indy, but the buzz around the event has also inspired local government and businesses to look more closely at the area and make concrete investments in changing the neighborhood’s trajectory.

The blocks surrounding the PreEnactIndy site have become part of a Lift Indy Neighborhood, a designation that has set aside $4.5 million for local economic development and affordable housing programs, and the developers of the new Monon Lofts have committed to 80 percent affordable housing. Two state legislators have also proposed a bill that would protect long-term residents from spikes in property taxes. Cleo’s Bodega, a small black-owned grocery store, opened up a summer pop-up location nearby.

A white stage set for a theater event in Indianapolis.
A photo from PreEnactIndy 2018, featuring a recreation of the Dream Theater, a black arts venue that once stood in the neighborhood.
Chuck Horn

Taft says that the real power of storytelling here is using the past to chart a new path. Neighborhoods either improve or decline, they don’t stay still, so it’s important to discover’s the community vision of what should come next.

“We tend to glorify the past,” she says. “We forget some of the inequities. Well, we deserve even better than that. It’s important to know where you came from, the pain, the good and the bad things.”