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How Big Car Collective Is Walking The Tightrope In Garfield Park

As the neighborhood begins to thrive, the group hopes to avoid the gentrification that has followed artists everywhere else they have gone.

The Asad family lives in one of Big Car Collaborative’s Garfield Park homes. “There’s a lot of opportunity here,” says Bashiri Asad (second from left). “Why not give it a shot?”Photo by Tony Valainis

Were it not for Big Car Collaborative’s track record, their plans for the Garfield Park area might sound a tad grandiose. Maybe even nuts.

Until recently, the near-southside neighborhood was known almost as much for its abandoned buildings as the green space for which it is named. Crime rates were high and rents were low. But Jim Walker and his wife Shauta Marsh, cofounders of Big Car, saw potential in the place. And where the leaders of that community arts group see promise, good things usually happen. The two were instrumental in Fountain Square’s renaissance. They planted a hip art gallery in the commercial wasteland of Lafayette Square. A few years ago, they brought a popular outdoor exhibit called Spark: Monument Circle to downtown. And their efforts to transform Garfield Park into a neighborhood known for the arts are already staring to bear fruit.

The project’s ground zero is a maker space/gallery/office called the Tube Factory. Located just off traffic-snarled Shelby Street, the mural-covered Big Car headquarters is a bright spot on a road still blighted by empty commercial spaces. But Walker insists that will change. “If you walk through here in a few years, you’ll see storefronts and green spaces,” he says. “The whole idea is to create a commons area for the neighborhood.”

He’s not just dreaming. Across a large parking lot (soon to be an outdoor performance area) crouches an industrial building Big Car is renovating into artist studios. A weed-choked trickle of water called Bean Creek, which bisects the property, will soon be restored and furnished with chairs and tables along its banks. Farther down the road, Walker and Marsh plan to convert a stretch of empty curbside property into storefront shops with second-floor living quarters and studio space in back.

Perhaps the most ambitious aspect of their endeavor to bring creatives to the neighborhood, though, is a program called the Artist and Public Life Residency. For the last few years, Big Car has been purchasing homes along Cruft Street and remodeling them. In an innovative equity-building scheme, they sell a portion of those homes to artists, allowing those with low income to move in at a fraction of the cost of buying a house the traditional way.

“They’re basically getting a house that, if it went for $100,000 on the open market, they would buy it for half that amount,” Walker says. “Their monthly payment is probably $400 to $500 at the most.”

Big Car has already bought 12 homes, with around 20 artists and their families in residence. If all goes as planned, the fully built-out site will soon serve as an artistic enclave without precedent in the city and perhaps the nation. Its residents and their works will draw visitors from all over Indy, winning the area positive exposure, and likely boosting the number of folks who want to settle in Garfield Park.

Seeding a neighborhood with creatives has worked before. Broad Ripple and Fountain Square followed similar paths when artists moved in. But it has never been attempted (at least locally) with so much planning and forethought. In Garfield Park, Walker and Marsh have enlisted powerful friends to help with everything from financing to property restoration. About $7 million of the project’s approximately $12 million total price tag has already been secured with grants from foundations, including the Lilly Endowment, the Allen Whitehill Clowes Charitable Foundation, and the Efroymson Family Fund, and a nearly $500,000 grant from the city. Other organizations have pitched in to offer expertise, including the Riley Area Development Corporation, which helped Big Car negotiate the purchase of the Cruft Street campus. 

All of which pretty much assures that, sooner rather than later, the compound will help turn Garfield Park into, if not the next Fountain Square, then at the very least a thriving residential area with rising property values.

But there’s one thing Walker and Marsh want to happen differently. In Broad Ripple and Fountain Square, bringing in the arts increased not just public interest, but also real-estate prices. That drove out the very artists who triggered the revival, along with residents of modest means who couldn’t pay the new, higher rents. In Garfield Park, Big Car has been trying to answer a question that has vexed community developers for decades: How can a neighborhood make a comeback while keeping its artistic community and lower-income residents?

 

Walker and Marsh are experts at using art for economic development. The couple founded Big Car in 2004, renting space in Fountain Square’s mostly empty Murphy Art Center, for which they paid $135 a month. Taking advantage of the one thing the area offered in abundance—empty storefronts and cheap rents—Big Car set up exhibitions and organized quirky events, including the first iteration of the neighborhood’s popular Art Squared street festival.

Gradually, Fountain Square’s popularity ticked up. As did rents. Soon those storefront spaces grew too pricey. The area’s residential market also spiked, driving out many of the folks who formerly called Fountain Square home. Visual artist Justin Cooper watched it all unfold. He spent 20 years in the neighborhood, first in the Murphy and then the Wheeler building, finally moving after the rent-controlled Wheeler switched to market rates in 2018, and his $500-a-month rent was set to triple. “Now all you see are the HGTV kind of people, flipping houses and building new, three-story ones,” Cooper says. “People started getting comfortable going down there, then realized, We should start investing. It’s the same thing that happens everywhere.”

Big Car itself was forced to abandon Fountain Square in 2010 when they weren’t able to renew their lease with the Murphy’s new management. “At that point, we didn’t see Fountain Square as the place for us to be, because of all the changes,” Walker says. “The neighborhood was professionally and commercially gentrifying, and then soon the same thing happened with residential. We felt our mission was much better placed somewhere else.”

In 2011, Big Car moved to an old Lafayette Square auto-repair shop they named the Service Center. There, in the unlikeliest of places, they hosted exhibits such as the annual Indy Film Fest–inspired Bigger Picture Show—often with packed openings. In 2014, Big Car was displaced from that location by an actual repair shop that could pay actual rent for the space, whose use had been donated until then. But they remained committed to finding a location where their presence could do some (economic and cultural) good.

The answer was right under their noses. Walker and Marsh already lived in Garfield Park, and were deeply involved in the neighborhood. All they needed was a place to set up shop. The area around Cruft Street, with its deteriorating homes and industrial spaces, was all owned by a single firm that wanted desperately to leave—so desperately that they were willing to part with the property for a song. The Tube Factory building, for instance, sold for just $40,000. Of course, none of the places were exactly “move-in ready.” It cost $1.5 million to knock the Tube Factory into shape, along with a small building nearby that’s now a music space called Listen Hear.

“We found this little campus of buildings, and we ended up getting a big parking lot and five houses in the deal,” Walker says.

That gave Walker and Marsh the idea for artist housing. The concept was simple: By buying up additional houses in the area and selling a 49 percent ownership interest of each to an artist, Big Car could ensure that an artist lives there (and could afford to) in perpetuity. When the individual was ready to sell, Big Car would buy them out and sell the interest to a new artist. That would allow the individuals to profit if the market improved, while keeping creative types in the neighborhood.

The area seemed ripe for Big Car’s brand of cultural intervention. Sure, the blue-collar district had seen hard times, but there was an ample stock of bungalows with two bedrooms, one bath, and a porch. Think Broad Ripple, but an order of magnitude less expensive. And then there was the crown jewel: Garfield Park itself.

 

Though its boundaries vary depending on who you ask, the Garfield Park neighborhood extends roughly from I-65 to Madison Avenue, South Beecher Street to Troy Avenue. Property values and the quality of the housing stock are strongest near the park, and tend to slide the farther west you go. The same goes for the stretch of land trapped between Shelby Street and I-65, which includes the Tube Factory.

Big Car founders Shauta Marsh and Jim Walker purchased their Tube Factory headquarters in Garfield Park for just $40,000.Photo by Tony Valainis

It’s not surprising that the neighborhood’s best housing sits closest to the park. That green space has been prime real estate since Garfield Park’s inception. Established in 1876, it’s Indy’s oldest municipal park. Originally called Southern Park, the name was changed after the assassination of President James Garfield in 1881.

For the next several decades, the park received continuous upgrades, including its iconic sunken gardens, a conservatory, bridges, and biking paths. By the mid-20th century, its perimeter was surrounded by spacious, two-story homes. The area, like so many neighborhoods of that time, was a self-contained entity, with its own butcher shop, drugstore, bank, and barbershop, all within walking distance.

But the 1950s ushered in a major downturn. The Madison Avenue Expressway bisected the area with a high-traffic artery in 1958, and in 1975, the addition of I-65 cut the neighborhood off from settlements to the east. Suburban flight, the disappearance of nearby blue-collar employers, and the loss of the area’s commercial outlets all contributed to decline.

Today, the neighborhood’s population of 5,440 faces a poverty rate of 16 percent, with a median household income of $42,100. Only 27 percent of residents have a post-high school degree, and the median home value is $50,853.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that while the Garfield Park neighborhood deteriorated during the last half of the 20th century, it never got as bad as, say, Fountain Square, where a good portion of the housing stock became truly dilapidated.

“Fountain Square dove way down and had some really sketchy areas,” says real estate agent Joe Lackner, a Garfield Park resident who has sold more than 100 homes there. “Garfield never had that. It has always been a stable community. We’ve had a few drug houses where we’ve had issues, where the renters and landlords weren’t easy to deal with, but it’s not pervasive.”

Even before Big Car’s arrival, the stars were beginning to align for the area. The park received some recent upgrades, and now hosts a popular farmers market. The Red Line linked the neighborhood to downtown and Broad Ripple in 2019. UIndy and now-prospering Fountain Square sit within walking distance. The fuel for redevelopment was already there. Big Car just tossed in a match.

“I think they really helped to highlight changes that were already happening in our neighborhood,” says Jessica Marshall, president of the Garfield Park Neighbors Association. “They brought in a younger group of people who were seeking out new energy and creative space. That’s what Garfield Park has to offer.”

 

Singer Bashiri Asad and his wife, dancer Uzuri Asad, would certainly agree. The couple and their five kids live in one of Big Car’s homes, a century-old, four-bedroom house on Cruft Street. Their older kids sometimes play in the parking lot next to the Tube Factory, and over the summer, Bashiri held impromptu concerts on his front porch.

“We live in an interesting microcosm in this neighborhood,” he says. “There are quite a few artists who live on our block, with new ones just recently moving in. And we have people who were literally born in the houses where they live. We have a great mixture of people from all walks of life on our block, and everyone gets along.”

He joined Big Car’s Residency program partly for the adventure of it, though based on the area’s history, it doesn’t sound like the sort of adventure one would willingly court. Bashiri, who is Black, was born and raised in Indianapolis. When he was a kid, his dad had very little good to say about the section of the city his family now calls home.

“My father would tell me that we shouldn’t cross Washington Street and come south,” he says. “When I was able to come to the Murphy in Fountain Square, it wasn’t someplace where you saw me when the sun went down.”

Demographically, the neighborhood has been and remains predominately white. In 1919, the park was the scene of a vicious race riot that spread into the surrounding neighborhood. The city’s only Confederate monument stood until very recently inside the park itself. And on the neighborhood’s western reaches, residents still report sightings of Confederate flags on porches.

“It was not an integrated neighborhood,” says Susan Hall Dotson, coordinator of African-American history at the Indiana Historical Society. “There wasn’t a preponderance of African Americans on the south side, and there isn’t now.”

Yet the current changes, and the active courting of minorities to fill Big Car’s artist slots, made the area attractive for Bashiri. “There’s a lot of opportunity over here,” he says. “A lot of property here to open a business, and chances for artistic endeavors. Garfield Park is great. So why not give it a shot?”

His wife, Uzuri, is equally comfortable in the area—so comfortable that last summer she bore the couple’s fifth child, Noble, at their new home.

Artists in Big Car’s program are supposed to put in 16 hours of community work each month, which can entail anything from helping with the community gardens to Bashiri’s front-porch concerts. Uzuri, somewhat stymied in her efforts by the pandemic, connects with neighbors online. “I think that has kept most of us sane through this first period of the unknown,” she says.

Like her husband, Uzuri says that in her encounters with neighbors and area residents, she has never experienced overt racism. “I haven’t felt anything that would make me feel like an outsider, or not in a place where I felt welcome,” she says. “I’m sure that there are people who have their thoughts, but they’ve kept them to themselves.”

That’s a big step for a neighborhood that historically wasn’t famous for its inclusiveness. But it’s not as if the same situation didn’t exist in Fountain Square. During their early days there, Marsh recalls seeing skinheads holding rallies in the business district. One side benefit of Fountain Square’s demographic churn is that any unwelcoming element is gone.

But such sweeping population changes can cut both ways, Bashiri notes. He remembers the salad days of Broad Ripple, the first city district to be revived by the arts. Its heyday came in the late 1970s and 1980s, when the presence of nearby Glendale Shopping Center shuttered many of the stores on the village’s main drag and sent rents plummeting.

Artists filled the void, and the area got its quirky reputation. People who enjoyed the neighborhood’s increasingly bohemian character moved in. And inevitably, two-bedroom bungalows that are clones of the ones in Garfield Park rose in price from $40,000 to $100,000—and then $200,000. Suddenly, the only businesses that could afford the commercial rents on Broad Ripple Avenue were bars.

“As the years went on, it became more commercialized, more of a honeypot for money,” says Bashiri, who frequented the area during his younger days. “But I believe that with the Garfield Park community, you’ll see an artistic renaissance if everyone stays focused on bettering the area.”

Cooper, the Fountain Square resident who was priced out of that neighborhood, now lives just a few doors down from the Asads. He welcomes the idea of an arts neighborhood where the creatives actually get to stick around.

“Artists are usually the scrubbing bubbles of gentrification,” he says. “They’re not afraid to go into a rough neighborhood and make it their own. And they invite in other people who start seeing the value of the area, and the bubbles get wiped away.”

 

Given Indianapolis’s track record for turning artistic enclaves into successful neighborhoods, it’s tempting to see the technique as some sort of panacea. But there’s more to revitalizing a neighborhood than sprinkling a few galleries and performance spaces around like pixie dust. According to Brian Payne, president of the Central Indiana Community Foundation, Indy has been extraordinarily lucky (and maybe a touch spoiled) to have this process work not just once, but several times locally. He’s glad that the Garfield Park effort is being led by people who, in his consideration, possess a deep knowledge of what makes a plan like this viable. “Jim and Shauta have traveled the world, walking neighborhoods, going to conferences, talking to experts, trying to figure out what works,” Payne says.

One of the prime reasons places like Fountain Square or Garfield Park succeeded is that, in many ways, they were primed to, he asserts. The areas possessed ready-made (though dilapidated) commercial areas, ample housing stock, a central location, a compact, walkable plan, and major amenities. Which means that when people make an art-inspired visit, they find other interesting things to keep them there.

“You can’t build something out of nothing,” Payne says. “Garfield Park is a major ‘something’ all by itself. And then you have areas for business, housing, walkability, and things to do.”

If you’d like to see down-at-their-heels neighborhoods with real problems—places where an arts-based revitalization campaign would likely flop—then Matt Nowlin, research analyst at The Polis Center at IUPUI, advises visiting some of Marion County’s postwar housing developments outside the urban core. They’re just as gritty as any neglected downtown neighborhood, but more isolated. “Since 2010, the neighborhoods where poverty has increased the fastest are older suburban areas built in the ’60s and ’70s,” Nowlin says.

While Garfield Park is rough around the edges, it still has the structure to be attractive. And because Big Car owns the majority share of the houses where the artists live, one thing is certain: As Garfield Park becomes a wealthier, more popular place, the painters and musicians won’t be pushed out. For that accomplishment alone, the project can be marked down as a success.

What’s more, Big Car has been careful to not seem like an outside interloper, and has gone out of its way to get longtime residents involved in its work. A neighborhood representative is on one of the panels that vets the artists who occupy the houses. It was important to Walker and Marsh that the existing population have a role in what was happening so they wouldn’t perceive it as something being done to them.

“The reason we wanted to have neighbors help select artists is that this side of Shelby Street has sometimes felt excluded from some of the Garfield neighborhood decision-making,” Marsh says. “We didn’t want them to feel like we weren’t being considerate.”

But there’s one question about which Big Car has far less say. What happens to the folks of modest means who don’t live on Cruft Street when the area takes off and property values (and rents) start rising? Will it trigger a socioeconomic earthquake, with working-class people forced out while the gentry pour in?

There’s not a lot of time to debate the issue, because the same forces that transformed Fountain Square are already gathering steam here. “The last few homes I’ve sold here have had multiple offers,” says Lackner, the real-estate agent. “There are 300 people who circle around every new listing.”

Not that the issue isn’t being addressed, at least on some level. Several local agencies are moving to create low-income housing in Garfield Park. A few months ago, a $12 million, 46-unit townhouse project near the park was announced. The units will be made available to those making 30, 50, and 60 percent of the area’s median income, with a chance for long-term renters to purchase their residences. “There’s a really strong effort here to make sure that affordable housing is also going on,” Walker says. “There are developments in addition to what we’re working on that are making that happen, especially multifamily rentals.”

Though numerous organizations are trying to keep gentrification from taking over Garfield Park, urban planners say it’s hard to combat when a neighborhood improves. Property in a desirable area will gain value, and many renters and owners paying higher property taxes will be squeezed out. Nowlin at The Polis Center argues that reinvigorating neighborhoods like Garfield Park without forcing out residents would require large-scale changes in policy. For example, raising the minimum wage to $15. “These neighborhoods with high poverty rates would have less of it because people would make more money,” he says. “You could revitalize the area by giving financial support to the families already living there.” No art colony needed.

Of course, that’s far beyond the purview of a group like Big Car. Walker and Marsh are keeping their focus tight on what they can do in the area around the Tube Factory. By controlling what they can control, they hope to inspire a movement that grows far beyond Cruft Street. “We really believe in home ownership and affordable housing for everyone,” Walker says. “The reason we’re focusing on artists is because we’re an arts group.” 

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