Remember last summer and fall when part of Monument Circle was awash in lime-green bistro tables and hopping with the sounds of outdoor ping-pong and oversized Jenga games? Spark is happening again, tentatively beginning in June, and this time, organizer Big Car Collaborative is partnering with City Market to extend the fun eastward for three blocks.
City Market director Stevi Stoesz applied for the $220,000 Heart of the Community placemaking grant, sponsored by Southwest Airlines and a New York group called the Project for Public Spaces. PPS liked her proposal—and another one from Indianapolis. They called and asked if she could guess whose it was. She did. “My heart just sank—Big Car gets everything they apply for,” Stoesz says. “I might have let out a little bit of a groan.” But PPS did something new with the grant and awarded it to both groups if they would work together, resulting in a super-sized Spark (“Spark on Market” or “Sparket,” perhaps—the name is still up in the air).
The location will remain the same on the Circle—the southwest quadrant. At City Market, the action will focus on the east plaza, at the corner of Alabama and Market streets. This area, with its concrete pit and broken fountain, has been a problem for decades, after it was originally built as a parking lot. “The pit has become a kind of trash receptacle and liability. It’s an eyesore and a danger,” Stoesz says. “The fountain was installed in 1977 and worked for a month.” The plaza is a dead zone in the middle of the burgeoning Market East district, yet it has great potential to meet the needs of thousands who will work, live, and visit here in the next couple of years. The purpose of Spark is to illustrate the plaza’s potential with the hope of attracting investment dollars to improve it permanently.
Stoesz is already envisioning a deck over the troublesome pit and cornhole and bocce courts for the Tomlinson Tap Room crowd. Those are just ideas at this point—Walker and Stoesz will solicit input next month before making any decisions, and suggestions from last year’s users include outdoor movies, putting dance steps on the bricks, basketball, and pony rides. Whatever happens, expect artists to surprise us as they did last year with the Wagon of Wonders art activities and custom-built Sit and Spins. “We’re able to find a lot of artists in town who really enjoy this—working with and interacting with people,” Walker says.
Spark will also enliven the two blocks of Market Street between the Circle and City Market. Slowing down foot traffic there might seem difficult, but Big Car tackled it in 2014, when it brought the national program Art in Odd Places to Indianapolis. Walker considered it a success (“that’s where we got a lot of our ideas for Spark”) and embraces the challenge of improving the connection between the Circle and the Cultural Trail at Alabama and Market. “You can get [from one to the other] in 10 minutes—it’s nothing. But there’s something about that walk that makes it unattractive to people,” Walker says. “This is an area that we can explore. Some of the most interesting things we will try [this year] will be related to connecting the Circle and City Market . We’ll figure out how to make a game of that, to encourage people to explore.”
As much as pedestrians enjoy the creative activities that Spark brings to city streets—ping pong and other free games ranked as the most popular activities among the 45,000 users over 11 weeks last year—Spark has a serious side. The whole point is to convince civic and corporate leaders to fund these “human-scale” activities permanently. Downtown Indy has lots of fantastic but underused public spaces—Georgia Street, the Circle, City Market, the World War Memorial Plaza, the Canal, Pan Am Plaza, the City-County Building’s south plaza—and Walker wants them to feel as fun and engaging as Chicago’s Millennium Park, through activities that don’t cost a fortune to maintain. Last year, area businesses saw a 20-percent increase in sales during Spark, and 85 percent of users had a conversation with a stranger at the event. But right now, the money for Spark is coming from out of state. Walker hopes local partners will come around. “We’re not going to get a big grant from a national funder every year,” he says.
Luckily, this year’s check is on the way.