by Jim Naremore
For decades, parts of the Indianapolis urban core have been host to an array of projects designed to impact or create “community revitalization”. Projects large and small, relating to issues such as housing, healthcare, education, employment, economic development, and neighborhood beautification to name just a few of the focus points or topics, have been enacted with varying levels of success.
Here are the facts: according to the 2010 census and the 2008 Indianapolis Revitalization Summit report, most of the Mid-North neighborhoods lead the city in categories such as families living in poverty, lowest household income, unemployment, and residents returning from incarceration. Educational levels, both academic and vocational, and access to jobs in the community are low. Dropout rates are high. Many residents are seniors and living on low fixed incomes. These are people living in the neighborhoods. And these are their challenges.
The specific, tangible project garnering recent attention is cleaning up and revitalization Fall Creek, part of the “Destination + Fall Creek” project. A central goal of the project is creating an outdoor green space and park-like feature that would beautify the communities, serve as a destination and focal point, increase desire to move into the neighborhood and provide outdoor education and art opportunities, many associated with Ivy Tech’s campus. While these improvements do not directly address the most pressing problems associated with the residents of the area, it cannot be argued that this project is a bad idea. It is a wonderful idea, actually, that has the potential to help, in one way or another, anyone living in the community.
To begin the process towards these goals, and others forming part of the Reconnecting to our Waterways initiative, Eli Lilly is providing nearly 2500 volunteers into communities to clear, clean, mark drains, and generally do the basic work needed to make the site ready for improvements. This is all part of Lilly’s Day of Service program. The efforts will be led and aided by Keep Indianapolis Beautiful.
Lilly and its employees should be lauded for their commitment to service and volunteerism and efforts in the community, and KIB is certainly a great leader for this effort. But in reality… Most if not all of these Lilly workers do not live in the Mid North communities. Most if not all of them are highly paid and educated professionals. These are wonderful dedicated outsiders to this community.
However, this project is not “holistic.” It neither addresses the greatest challenges of the whole neighborhood, but also, in bringing in outsiders to perform the work, does not recognize the Mid-North as a self-sustaining system, one whose parts are interdependent in making up the whole.
But…. It COULD be better. Here’s how.
A conservative estimate of the one-day salary for 2500 Eli Lilly employees is between $50,000 and $75,000. Rather than send people, Lilly COULD send $75,000 to the MNQOL leadership coalition to help create the “Mid-North Employment and Training Collective” (a non-existent entity I’m using as an example here) and pay for direct work-related stipends. The Collective could then recruit potentially hundreds of local Mid-North residents without jobs who are in need of employment, job training and job readiness supports to do the basic work needed at Fall Creek. The Collective, with the help of KIB AND local business, such as landscapers, yard-workers, handymen, trash and debris haulers could help provide needed supports and stipends to these unemployed residents for their work.
It is of vital importance that ANY “community revitalization” effort MUST also be looked at as a potential economic development effort AND a long-term driver of training, education or jobs. This infuses money into the community by paying stipends and contract fees, and keeps it in the community by using local residents and local contract businesses.
Lilly employees will also be painting murals and creating art projects. The Mid-North area has local artists who could be used to create meaningful community-intrinsic public art either for a fee or for the cost of supplies and publicity.
Lilly employees have specific skills needed in the community: business skills, administrative skills, educational and mentoring skills, technology and training skills. These administrative skills could be used to help bolster the administrative and professional efforts of the Collective and other neighborhood initiatives. THESE are the areas most in need of Lilly volunteer efforts. Lilly professionals could strengthen the community business base in this way.
Long-term, the “Mid-North Employment and Training Collective” could provide work within the Mid-North area by contracting with large employers, such as Ivy Tech, the Children’s Museum and IU Health for services like landscaping, maintenance, laundry, or any other service that these anchor institutions regularly farm out. It could also provide services to local homeowners for yard work, hauling, maintenance, alley clean-up, vacant lot weed control and any other community- based needs and issues.
The Collective could further help foster the creation of new small businesses and enterprises in the community. Stipends, salaries, or job readiness and job training for unemployed residents to do good work within the community, with a built-in connection to Eli Lilly and local anchor institutions; this was the concept of the Collective. It was part of a larger concept and multifaceted neighborhood development strategy, “UrbanKind,” first explored by Whitepaper Bluesky, an idea shop located in the Mid-North, during the MNQOL planning process.
Beyond that, when local residents take part in the revitalization and clean up of their own neighborhood, it creates a sense of ownership and pride and connectedness to the energy in that community… rather than watching a group of wonderful well-meaning outsiders, who look nothing like the residents themselves, come in and do it for them.
The chance that this Fall Creek project would be viewed as a TRUE community effort—and not some form of gentrification of which to be suspicious and avoided—would be greatly increased.
This kind of effort; this kind of plan; this kind of project and project thinking is more inclusive, more helpful, to improving the quality of life for the current, challenged residents of the community. It helps to address the (still valid) fears associated with gentrification, and… most importantly… it is truly holistic in its thinking.
This is the direction urban revitalization plans need to take in the future.