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Discovering “Invisible Indianapolis”

Updated: Nov 13, 2019

By Susan B. Hyatt and Paul R. Mullins, Department of Anthropology, IUPUI

“Invisible Indianapolis” was a year-long project (2016-17) through which two members of the IUPUI Anthropology Department, Paul Mullins and Susan Hyatt, examined the history and material culture of seemingly “invisible” sites in Indianapolis. By “invisibility,” we suggest that some spaces and histories are “invisible” to the general public, not only because remnants of these spaces and histories have largely been removed from the material landscape, but also because these stories have been obscured or, in some cases, purposefully erased from the dominant narrative. Our intent was to underscore stories of American life in a series of seemingly commonplace places that had been transformed by such factors as urban renewal, postwar highway construction, racial and religious segregation, and gentrification.

Community residents at the Invisible Indianapolis presentation on highway construction and displacement

We launched “Invisible Indianapolis” under the auspices of a joint award we received called the “Charles R. Bantz Chancellor’s Community Fellowship.” This fellowship reflected our former chancellor Charles Bantz’s dedication to research that aimed to create university-community partnerships and that would result in community impact. Our approach centered on involving students and current and former community residents in a collaborative process of reconstructing these histories.

The last two houses standing on the site where the new campus was being built. They were soon displaced. Image courtesy of IUPUI University Library Special Collections and Archives

Both of us had previously carried out research aimed at expanding the public’s understanding of the development of Indianapolis’ metropolitan area as well as of our own campus. Paul and his students had investigated the history of the African-American community once located on the near-Westside of Indianapolis, a geographic zone that is now home to our university. Through oral histories with descendant communities, archaeological digs and rigorous documentation utilizing Indianapolis’ impressive corpus of digital records (Sanborn maps, city directories, newspapers and census data), Paul and his students traced the stories of many of Indianapolis’ earliest Black citizens, detailing their settlement patterns and subsequent displacement from the very land that was then used to build IUPUI’s campus (see Paul’s Invisible Indianapolis blog “The Last Holdouts”).

Former Southsider Judge Levy and the pop-up exhibit on Kahn Tailoring, where his father had worked
An African-American Business forced to relocate because of the construction of I-70

Susan had been involved in a community-based project on the city’s near Southside that became known as The Neighborhood of Saturdays. This collaboration brought together African-American and Jewish elders who shared their stories of growing up in the first half of the 20th century in a neighborhood that was integrated largely as a consequence of city neglect, rather than of purposeful social engineering. The neighborhood started to break up in the early 1950s as a result of upward mobility and new urban planning initiatives. The final displacement occurred in the 1970s, when Interstate 70 cut through the heart of the community, removing homes and businesses.

The Neighborhood of Saturdays project spawned many collaborative initiatives, including a largely student-authored book and a digital library of over 400 digital images scanned from former residents of the neighborhood. When we received the Bantz Fellowship, we were able to connect each of our community-based endeavors for a year of activities and to hire three students (two undergraduates and one graduate student) who wrote and presented their own papers based on independent research on topics linked to the overall project.

Kahn's Tailoring, now an upscale apartment building

Our community engagement included such activities as a free, day-long workshop at which public historians and members of our library’s digital scholarship center taught people how to carry out research on their own “invisible” communities, and a presentation at a city-wide festival where we shared the consequences of the construction of I-70 for the near Southside and invited the over 100 community residents in attendance to share their own experiences of highway displacement and neighborhood change. Through fortuitous timing, the National Council on Public History also held its annual meeting in Indianapolis that spring, and we organized a session at which we and our student assistants presented our work. This presentation included displaying a pop-up exhibit on the history of a former clothing factory, Kahn’s Tailoring, that had once employed primarily Jewish immigrants and is now an upscale apartment building, We later held a program in that very apartment building where we reconstructed the life of the immigrant factory workers who had once labored in that very space. Another popular activity was a bus tour of former sites of significance that had once been meaningful community institutions for the Black and Jewish residents of the near Southside.

Through an initiative that offered us relatively modest funding, our students, our community partners, and both of us were able to explore dimensions of our campus and city in ways that dislodged the often unexamined assumptions that the way things are today was the result of inevitable and unalterable evolutionary development processes. Instead, our work continues to make visible the ways in which urban spaces are shaped by conscious human interventions and agency, even when there may be unanticipated consequences.

We continue to be committed to bringing our research back to communities in ways that are accessible to residents and to explore how this work can serve to promote and bolster local-level movements aimed at bringing about social change and social justice.

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