July 11, 2017

Indy nonprofit gives artists opportunity at homeownership and neighborhood renewal

A new residency program will help revitalize a struggling community, while also ensuring houses remain affordable

Artists in Indianapolis will be a part of the renewal of the historic Garfield Park neighborhood through homeownership and community engagement. The nonprofit Big Car Collaborative is partnering with the artists to ensure home prices remain affordable. Photos courtesy of Big Car Collaborative

Artists and their art have the potential to transform and revitalize neighborhoods. A recent British study quantifies this by looking at how the presence of art in inner city London neighborhoods can drive up property prices: “Art is indeed associated with improving economic conditions of urban neighbourhoods,” the report concludes.

But the value of “improving economic conditions” depends on your perspective; if you’re being priced out of a neighborhood, the change in economic conditions may be hard to see as an improvement.

The role of artists in gentrification is complicated. LaShawnda Crowe Storm is an artist and activist based in Indianapolis. She is also the community engagement director for the Spirit & Place Festival, which partnered with The Kheprw Institute to host a conversation series titled “Gentrify: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly.” “The situation is way more complicated than just ‘artists are the cause of gentrification,'” Crowe Storm told NUVO, a local independent news organization. “They’re not. Artists are low-income earners themselves. … They are often pushed out right along with everyone else.”

A new residency program in Indianapolis’s Garfield Park neighborhood is giving artists the opportunity to help make their neighborhoods thrive, and making sure they can afford to stay as neighbors.

The Artist & Public Life Residency program, run by Big Car Collaborative, a nonprofit focused on “creative placemaking and socially engaged art,” is helping make artist housing affordable. Through the program, Big Car Collaborative purchased ten vacant houses in the Garfield Park neighborhood and is looking for artists to pitch in half the cost of the homes, essentially co-owning the properties. If the artists decide to move, Big Car will purchase back the artist’s investment, keeping the price stable for potential future residents. Even if the market price increases, Big Car will keep the property price low.

Garfield Park is one of Indianapolis’s oldest neighborhoods, said Danicia Monet, a local artist and the Artist & Public Life Residency Program Manager. But Interstate 65 has cut off parts of it and made other areas sort of inaccessible, she said. “What’s out of sight is oftentimes out of mind, and so it wasn’t receiving as much city-based attention as other areas were.”

The neighborhood has 80 vacant homes, according to Monet. And the median income is well below Indianapolis at large: $31,449, compared to $50,432.

Nonprofits and artists, Monet believes, can help make a difference, and this summer, the first class of program participants—woodworkers, jewelers, muralists, and others—will move in.

From the very beginning, Big Car has been committed to being a good neighbor. “It was kind of old school: a lot of canvassing, a lot of going of door-to-door and introducing ourselves to the neighborhood: ‘Hi, how are you. This is what we’re going to do. What do you think?’” said Monet of Big Car’s community-engagement efforts. “It engages people in the process and you sort of pull out an old sense of ‘neighborliness,’ when someone’s knocking on your door and they don’t want something from you, they’re just trying to have a conversation with you.”

Artists are required to commit a certain number of hours to art-based community service, and community members were deeply engaged in the process of helping pick the artists that would eventually come settle in as their neighbors.

“That’s a big thing in the degradation of neighborhoods: when you have bad neighbors,” said Monet. “It takes work to be a good neighbor.”

To that end, artists were evaluated not only on the merits of their work, but also on their humanity, and how they might use their craft to uplift and renew the neighborhood.

“A big goal is to raise positive awareness of the neighborhood,” wrote Jim Walker, CEO and co-founder of Big Car. “Along the way, we’re being careful to preserve the character of the place and—with nearly 20 percent of buildings currently vacant—we’re working with our partners to fill empty places without displacing the very people who should enjoy the benefits of revitalization.”

Mikhail Klimentov

Mikhail Klimentov is a contributor to The Renewal Project.