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'Under the highway': How interstates divided Indianapolis neighborhoods and displaced 17,000 people

Posted at 10:31 AM, Oct 19, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-17 11:05:25-05

INDIANAPOLIS — The hum of the interstate was the only sound to be heard at Babe Denny Park on a sunny October afternoon. That's how it is most days of the year in the small city park that sits surrounded by empty lots in the shadows of Interstate 70 and Lucas Oil Stadium.

Before I-70 severed the neighborhood known as the Southside, homes and businesses lined streets named Meikel, Ray and Church. Now, like many neighborhoods divided by concrete in Indianapolis and across the country, their crumbling sidewalks now lead only to dead ends at highway embankments.

The Southside was a multi-racial, multi-ethnic pocket in a segregated city. Blacks, Jews, Irish, Germans, Italians and Greeks lived, worked and gathered side by side.

Within a space bounded by South Street to the north, Madison Avenue to the east, Raymond Street to the south and the White River to the west, residents had a high school, three elementary schools, community centers, churches, stores, restaurants, funeral homes and a theatre. A business district on South Meridian Street stretched from McCarty Street to Morris Street.

"A lot of people came to Union Station and they found a little community down on the Southside and they stayed there," Beatrice Miller, 84, said. "We didn't have to leave that area for nothing. We had Standard Grocery. We had three drug stores. We had everything that we needed right there in that little area. We didn't have to go uptown for nothing unless we wanted to.

"If someone needed something from the store, they could be at the store in six to seven minutes," she continued. "If they wanted to walk to the post office, it didn't take that long. It was never a thing where we couldn't get to where we needed to be or purchase what we needed."

Throughout the 1960s and 70s, interstate construction in Indianapolis displaced at least 17,000 residents and resulted in the demolition of around 8,000 buildings, according to an Oct. 15, 1976, Indianapolis Star article previewing that day's opening of the final 6.64-mile section of the 31-mile stretch of Interstates 65 and 70 that lie within the boundaries of Interstate 465.

The interstate and in particular, the 4.5 mile downtown inner loop, carved its way through Indianapolis with surgeon's precision, cutting and dividing neighborhoods as it went from the Southside to Fountain Square to Martindale-Brightwood to the Old Northside to Ransom Place and beyond.

On the Southside, I-70 ran through homes and businesses, such as the Oriental Theatre, Terry's Market and a recreational center owned by Negro Leagues baseball star Bill Owens. According to U.S. Census data cited in a 1973 report on the interstate's effects on neighborhood residents, the tract closest to I-70 experienced a decrease in population from 4,225 in 1960 to 1,661 in 1970.

"It was never a thing that we wanted to leave our area," Miller said. "The majority of people were forced out."

Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis anthropology Professor Susan B. Hyatt and her students interviewed Southside residents for the 2012 book, "The Neighborhood of Saturdays: Memories of a Multi-Ethnic Community on Indianapolis' South Side." The book focused on the relationships between the neighborhood's Black and Jewish residents.

"People will say, 'Oh my house was under the highway,'" Hyatt said. "We were imagining this whole other world still existing under the highway. I think a lot of people just don't know that history. They really don't know that anywhere they see an interstate and exits coming on and off city streets that there's a whole life that was there prior to the time of that construction."

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Babe Denny Park in Indianapolis on Friday, Oct. 9, 2020.

Every year on the first Saturday in August, life returns to Babe Denny Park when people connected to the Southside reunite for a picnic. The wading pool that entertained children is long gone and tailgaters litter the grass on football game days, but the park — named for an Indianapolis Police Department motorcycle officer who managed the grounds in the 1940s — remains a beacon for many who called the neighborhood home.

"We have a banner that we used to hang up on the fence. Started up in '75," Miller said of the picnic. "We still have access to that banner. It's kind of ragged now, but we brought it back down there this year and we hung it. We're still recognizing how it started and how things still affect families."

Building a 'Frankenstein'

Traffic in Downtown Indianapolis in the years following World War II was a daily crawl created by an increasing number of people who moved out of the city in favor of the suburbs, abandoning the city's streetcars and interurban trains for automobiles.

"There were lots of complaints over traffic jams during rush hours on surface streets that people used to commute from new suburbs downtown," said James A. Glass, principal at Historic Preservation & Heritage Consulting LLC. "The advent of the post-World War II boom brought prosperity, an exodus from the city by middle class, predominantly white residents to new suburbs and an explosion in automobile traffic as the American Dream came to include a car and suburban house."

A national highway system had been on the minds of government leaders for decades before the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act provided a way for states to build interstates with the federal government providing 90% of the funding. What eventually became the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, consisting of 48,400 miles of highway connecting cities coast-to-coast, is the most extensive engineering project in American history.

Dwight D. Eisenhower
President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act on June 29, 1956. (AP Photo)

Interstates bring people into cities for work, travel and entertainment. They provide a system for goods to be shipped long distances, and they are a major component of local and national economies. However, the legacy of interstates in Indianapolis and around the country is complicated.

Once plans were drawn, Indianapolis neighborhoods — primarily those in places where Black and lower income residents lived — were in the path of Interstates 65 and 70 and bulldozed to the ground. The demolition was aided in part by systems that for decades had encouraged segregation and inequality, such as redlining, a discriminatory practice instituted in 1933 with the formation of the Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC) and banned in 1968 with the passage of the Fair Housing Act. It prevented people in neighborhoods shaded in red on a map indicating "hazardous" from being eligible for government-backed home mortgage loans.

Paul Mullins, an anthropology professor at IUPUI who has written about the ways interstates destabilized Indianapolis neighborhoods, said the HOLC deflated property values and made those areas more attractive to urban planners who believed they were a "blank slate" to build upon and revitalize areas they perceived as blighted.

"Interstates gutted historic neighborhoods throughout much of the near Northside, Fountain Square and West Indianapolis, all of which had been high-risk HOLC communities and some of which were Black," Mullins said. "Highways further drove down property values and gave people adjoining interstates very few practical options to sell and move to the suburbs being served by the interstate."

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An Indianapolis redlining map with the interstate system overlaid.

Throughout the 1960s and 70s, opposition grew to the routes planners and engineers chose, along with the lack of compensation homeowners and renters were set to receive for being displaced.

A crowd of 400 gathered on July 10, 1963, at School 37 at 2601 E. 25th St. to discuss plans for the proposed location of Interstate 70 on the eastside of Indianapolis. Those in attendance accused planners of deliberately routing the interstate through a low-income area, which would force hardships on families unable to relocate.

Several public meetings previously had been held, but this would be one of the most contentious during the early stages of planning, according to a 1975 report titled, "History of the Interstate System in Indiana."

"Some speakers felt that suburbanites did not have the right to demand highways into the inner city that would destroy 5,000 dwellings because they did not pay taxes," the report said. "They accused the designers of locating the routes in low-income areas occupied by Black citizens and utilizing the routes to oppress Blacks by forcing them to bear hardships; called the Inner Belt a barrier to segregate the (Central Business District) from the rest of the central city; and felt the Interstate Routes would disrupt social patterns and isolate areas of the city."

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Indianapolis Star, July 11, 1963, Page 12

Five ministers and people representing groups such as the Indianapolis Taxpayers Association and the Hubbard Center Civic Club spoke in opposition to plans that would become a link from the current-day North Split to Interstate 465 on the east side.

"We must eliminate the profit motive in this Frankenstein which could destroy us," Dr. Ferney N. King was quoted as saying at the meeting in the next day's edition of the Indianapolis Star.

The Rev. T.T. Newman, pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church, argued that nobody in attendance was against progress, but "where the rub is — they're coming in to take over at their price."

"No one in this building would refuse to sell his home at a reasonable price," Rev. Newman said.

Joseph DiMento, a University of California Irvine law professor, studied and wrote about the motivations and effects of highway systems in Los Angeles, Nashville and his hometown of Syracuse, New York in a book he co-authored titled, "Changing Lanes: Visions and Histories of Urban Freeways." He said he found in his research suspicion that highway planning was racially motivated, but the evidence is not usually documented.

"That's not true for all, though," DiMento said. "Miami, St. Paul, Little Rock, Baltimore, you will find literature that says these were racially motivated, and they document those. In some situations, it was explicit. In others, people suspect it."

For cities already experiencing segregation, DiMento said the freeways "literally concretized the segregation."

"It further reduced the fluidity of movement across neighborhoods," he said. "The fluidity wasn't great in many neighborhoods because of the highly segregated nature of some of these communities, but in those cities that were already segregated, it made it very clear that movement could not take place easily. You can't walk across 10-to-16 lanes freeways with cars going 70 mph."

Similar to the Southside and Ransom Place on the northwest side of downtown, DiMento added the impacts of highway construction removed viable businesses that were critical to the survival of communities.

"In Syracuse, it was the 15th Ward that was Jewish and Black. These were communities that had written their histories and they were thriving communities with small businesses, and those businesses were removed," he said.

Paula Brooks was a child when construction of Interstate 65 and IUPUI decimated Ransom Place. She said what people know and remember about the history of Indiana Avenue and Lockefield Gardens, the first public housing community built in Indianapolis, is only a fraction of what existed in the neighborhood.

There were grocery stores and dry cleaners. Restaurants and beauty shops. For recreation, people could go to the park, a bowling alley or a skating rink. Brooks emphasized she remembers the era of interstate construction through a child's eyes and associates it with losing places where she previously played. She said she remembers riding her bicycle on the unfinished interstate.

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Areas of Ransom Place and Lockefield Gardens had not yet been demolished when this aerial photograph was taken around 1970 looking northwest from Monument Circle.

"They don't really realize it was a huge network of neighborhoods," said Brooks, an environmental health senior associate with the Hoosier Environmental Council and a Ransom Place neighborhood advocate. "It was a truly mixed-use urban neighborhood, the kind of neighborhood these young urbanists are fantasizing about now. You could get everything you needed.

"What kind of gets me about this narrative all the time to justify what happened, they'll say, 'Well, the neighborhood was in decline,' and I take it a little personally because, yes, people moved north because they were able to move north, but the people who stayed, stayed by choice."

An American phenomenon

When the final stretch of the inner loop opened for traffic 44 years ago, an Indianapolis Star reporter wrote, "With the opening of the new section, no other city in the nation has as many interstates, so completion of the inner loop gives Indianapolis a legitimate claim to its historic 'Crossroads of America' slogan.'"

Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut addressed a crowd of several hundred on Oct. 15, 1976, as drivers waited behind barricades to be the first to travel the new interstate.

"The inner loop is a great accomplishment and a cause for optimism. But we cannot sit back now and expect great things to happen automatically because the inner loop is created," Hudnut was quoted as saying in the Star. "We must still work to generate a sense of excitement and enthusiasm in our community that Indianapolis is a good, safe and clean place to live, work, shop and do business. The completed interstate system is one more reason why our city continues to be one of the truly great urban centers of our country."

Mayor Ed Koch
Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut (right) chats with New York's Mayor Ed Koch at City Hall on Wednesday, July 17, 1985 in New York. Hudnut paid Koch a courtesy call while on a trip to New York.

Mullins, however, argued the interstate's construction did more harm than good for the health of Downtown Indianapolis.

"Downtown’s growth was not really fueled by the interstate, and in fact in many ways downtown was dead in the 1970s-1980s because much of the residential population had moved or been displaced, workplaces followed their employees to the suburbs and attractive tax deals in the doughnut counties, and downtown retail collapsed and has for the most part never really recovered," he said.

Hyatt and DiMento both remarked that the construction of highways through urban neighborhoods is a uniquely American phenomenon. It's more common in Europe, they said, to have radial highways that go around cities with connector roads that approach populated areas.

"In European cities, they never have interstates running right through the middle of cities," Hyatt said. "They find it astonishing that we have that in the U.S."

"The urban freeway problem is heavily American, but not completely," DiMento said.

Reconstruction and rethinking

Interstates across the United States are nearing the end of their lifespans, which has led to debate about what cities and their highways should look like in the decades ahead.

Boston famously spent two decades rerouting the Central Artery of Interstate 93 underground in the "Big Dig" project, and DiMento said cities in New York, such as Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse, along with Los Angeles and Providence, Rhode Island have either discussed, planned or followed through with the removal of highways that cut through neighborhoods and city centers.

"It's happening everywhere. It doesn't mean that the number of freeways being taken down is much greater than the number of urban freeways being put up. They're still being built," DiMento said. "What the comparative is quantitatively, that would be an interesting thing to quantify — the number of miles urban freeways planned to be constructed in the next 10 years, the number of urban freeways planned to be replaced in the next 10 years."

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Interstate 65 runs above Alabama Street on the north side of Downtown Indianapolis.

It is not likely Indianapolis will join the list of cities that have removed downtown highways, but some hope state leaders will rethink the city's interstate system.

Since 2017, the focus has been on the future of the spaghetti-like North Split where traffic from Interstates 65 and 70 merge to form the second-busiest interchange in Indiana with 214,000 vehicles a day passing over its aging bridges and pavement.

A complete reconstruction of the North Split will begin in late 2020 at a cost of $350 million and last around two years. It will replace or repair 32 bridges over 3.1 miles of highway and condense the size of the interchange that was originally planned to include a north leg for an abandoned Interstate 165 project, the Northeast Freeway, which would have linked the North Split with Interstate 69 near Castleton, according to an environmental assessment conducted by INDOT.

The North Split is considered one of the most dangerous stretches of interstate in Indiana. INDOT documents say 1,600 crashes occurred at the interchange from 2012-16 due to last-second merges, weaves and lane changes as drivers approached exits or entered the interstate.

"Reconstructing the interchange will provide the opportunity to replace deteriorated infrastructure, improve safety and reduce congestion by realigning ramps and merges in the interchange area, and correcting existing weaving problems," the environmental assessment's authors wrote.

Opposition arose in 2017 to planned designs that included elevated highways, large embankment walls and noise barrier walls. A group consisting of business leaders, private citizens and organizations joined to form the Rethink 65/70 Coalition, which lobbied INDOT to consider ideas such as a recessed highway that would eliminate walls, berms and bridges that separate neighborhoods.

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The North Split will undergo a $350 million reconstruction and close until late 2022.

Kevin Osburn, president and managing partner at the urban planning firm Rundell Ernstberger Associates and a leader with Rethink 65/70, said rebuilding the city's interstate system is about more than just transportation.

"It is a complex urban design challenge that must include robust consideration of equitable access to housing, transportation, and greenspaces; community connectivity, walkability, and quality of place; inclusive development, vibrancy, and economic viability; and the social, environmental, and economic health of our region," Osburn said.

"We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create an infrastructure system that launches decades of economic development and an urban core that is the envy of our competitor cities. We can stitch back together our historic neighborhoods and make better, healthier and more equitable decisions about how we live, work and welcome new talent and visitors to our capital city."

While INDOT adopted some of Rethink 65/70's ideas for the North Split, Osburn and Brooks, who is also involved with the coalition, both said a lesson the group learned is that planning needs to begin earlier on ideas for the rest of the downtown interstate system.

Marsh Davis, president of Indiana Landmarks, whose headquarters sit across from the Interstate 65 embankment along East 12th Street, said the next stages of reconstruction, which currently have no timeline, will be critical to healing some of the scars left behind from the original highway construction of the 1960s and 70s.

"What's most important is, we lost an ability with the North Split to do something really, really cool, but that doesn't preclude us from doing something wonderful for the next phases of the interstate because those will come as we approach the east side and the south side, and maybe some of the effects of the north side can be ameliorated, too," Davis said. "But, in large measure, it's much, much better than what was originally planned."

Earlier this year, Rethink 65/70, along with the Indy Chamber Foundation, recruited Arup Advisors, an international transportation engineering firm, to compare the coalition's idea for a recessed highway concept with INDOT's reconstruction plan for building a new elevated highway.

Osburn said the study will be completed by the end of 2020 and provide a framework for conversations about how to maximize the benefit of the massive infrastructure project.

"Instead of simply moving traffic," he said, "we can reset the stage for a new 21st century capital city."

And while the effects of 20th century interstate construction remain visible in neighborhoods across Indianapolis, there is faith that people and the places they live will not be overlooked this time.

"I'm hopeful," Brooks said. "I don't want you to think that I'm not optimistic that this go-around there will be more sensitivity given to the neighborhoods and the effect of the interstate on the neighborhoods and on people. I'm hopeful for that."