“I have a confession to make. I was a gentrifier.”

The words were weighty and Joanna Taft knew it. So she let silence hang in the air after speaking them during a TEDx Talk in February at Wabash College in the small Indiana town of Crawfordsville, some 50 miles from where she works as the executive director of the Harrison Center for the Arts in Indianapolis.

For years, Taft has used the arts as a means of creative placemaking to build community and to help transform mostly poor, struggling urban neighborhoods into stable ones. Along the way, craft breweries, coffee shops, and chef-driven restaurants have opened. A charter school has put down roots, and pricey condos, apartments, and houses have been built. But at the same time, longtime residents, many of them Black and of limited means, have been made to feel unwelcome and even forced out of the neighborhoods they once called home.

Hence Taft’s confession—which probably isn’t all that revelatory for anyone working in community development in a time of skyrocketing housing costs and stagnant wages for the poorest Americans. But what is revelatory is what Taft is doing about it, even as economic forces threaten to gobble up yet another Indianapolis neighborhood—this one named Martindale-Brightwood.

“As this conversation about gentrification has been happening across the country, we began to wonder if there was a way we could’ve done it better,” she says of her staff at the Harrison Center. “How could you revitalize a neighborhood without gentrifying it?”

Their answer? PreEnactment Theater.

For the third year in a row, seven blocks of a normally busy stretch of 16th Street in Martindale-Brightwood were shut down for a day in October for PreEnact Indy. Vacant lots and existing businesses were transformed into elaborate sets, and actors mixed with residents to create a vision for a revitalized neighborhood that is equitable and inclusive.

White neighbors talked to Black neighbors, renters with homeowners, millennials with baby boomers, new residents with lifers. Rather than using art for a re-enactment, focusing on re-creating the good old days that will almost certainly never come again, PreEnactment incorporates history but is a vision of the future.

“We are using art to build community, to elevate long-term neighborhood stories to make sure that when new people move in,” Taft explains, “they don’t view the neighborhood as a blank slate, but that they are invited into an existing story.”

It’s a way to fight what she calls “cultural gentrification” in the face of the unstoppable crush of “economic gentrification.” And, so far, it mostly appears to be working,

A Community in Flux

The story of Martindale-Brightwood—also known as Kennedy-King or Hillside or Monon 16—is in many ways the story of Indianapolis. It’s a story of race and power, and of money and privilege. Of targeted investments and of public policies that have failed to treat all residents equally. But most of all, it’s a story of change.

Indianapolis is a sprawling Midwestern city of about 900,000 people that’s low on density and surrounded by cornfields and massive logistics and manufacturing plants. The commercial corridor of 16th Street cuts through Indianapolis like the plot line of a documentary about the history of race relations in America. It ends at Interstate 70 in Martindale-Brightwood.

Most residents associate 16th Street with the Indianapolis 500 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, for decades a destination for the most ambitious of race-car drivers and the most avid of racing fans. As the largest sporting facility on the planet, it’s a point of pride and the reason why the city is known as the “Racing Capital of the World.”

But head east along 16th Street, and the impressiveness of the gargantuan speedway quickly gives way to ramshackle strip malls, fast-food joints, empty lots, and single-family wood-frame homes that surely have seen better days. This scarred built environment is a testament to an economy that has almost never worked equally for everyone in the city, leading to entrenched poverty that has only been made worse in recent years by disproportionately high unemployment rates among Blacks and Latinos.

Head still farther east and evidence of investment surfaces again. With the downtown skyline visible to the south, 16th Street becomes a stretch of high-end apartment buildings and condos, well-maintained Victorian-style homes, restaurants, and quirky retail shops. Every morning, stay at-home mothers and nannies take to the sidewalks with strollers and rambunctious toddlers. And every afternoon, students spill out of Herron High School.

It is here that Taft has made her mark as the founder and executive director of the Harrison Center, located just off 16th Street. Through events highlighting music and the visual arts, and through partnerships with community groups and the city, the center has helped turn neighborhoods bordering Martindale-Brightwood into some of the most monied and stable in all of Indianapolis.

Continue east toward the interstate, though, and you enter Martindale-Brightwood. Until a few years ago, that investment never made it here. Founded in the 1800s, Martindale evolved over time into a mostly Black neighborhood, while Brightwood was home to mostly working-class immigrants from Germany, Ireland, and Britain. The construction of Interstate 70 changed that balance. White flight began after World War II and the combined neighborhood slowly became home to mostly Black residents, according to the Martindale-Brightwood Community Development Corporation.

For a time, it was a tight-knit community of young families who owned their homes, where people went to church every Sunday, older women sat on their porches in the summer, and children would head to 16th Street to buy penny candy.

“I grew up in a neighborhood that was very secure and safe, and it was a mixed neighborhood,” says Shirley Webster, 81, who has lived in Martindale-Brightwood on and off for decades. “Then the decline.”

Indeed, the Great Recession hit the neighborhood with a particular vengeance. The population shifted from mostly homeowners to mostly renters. To this day, scores of lots remain vacant, and houses on some streets off 16th Street have been left to rot. Crime persists in certain pockets.

New Investment—and the Same Old Gentrification?

This picture is changing, though. The administration of Indianapolis mayor Joe Hogsett recently selected the neighborhood for $4.5 million worth of investment over three years under a program called Lift Indy. There is an equitable component to the program, with a commitment to build some low-income housing. A new complex, Monon Lofts Apartments, is part of that. The Greater Indy Habitat for Humanity is also building houses there.

Still, hundreds of vacant lots are slated to be developed over the next three years, irrevocably changing the demographics of Martindale-Brightwood. What’s more, many of the neighborhood’s longtime Black residents are elderly, increasing the likelihood that their homes will be sold to younger, White residents who might not know or care about the local history.

“I find my own children don’t really want my house,” Webster says with a laugh. Still, she largely shrugs off the prospect of change as both inevitable and welcome. Already, there’s a new pizza shop and a restaurant that sells specialty tacos. A new brewery has also opened, along with a whiskey distillery.

Terri Taylor, who along with Webster has been dubbed a neighborhood “Greatriarch”—the Harrison Center’s term for a longtime resident who helped shape the neighborhood—says many of the new businesses don’t seem to be targeting long-term residents like herself. Rather, they are capitalizing on the influx of young renters and homeowners, as well as curious passersby from a popular bike trail, the Monon, which bisects Martindale-Brightwood and runs the length of Marion County. “They got a coffee shop,” Taylor says of Provider Coffee. “We didn’t have coffee [shops]. My mom made coffee and she sat on our porch.” But she is quick to add that a place for hipsters to sip caffeinated beverages is much better than a sea of boarded-up houses.

Birth of a Neighborhood Performance

“I could see gentrification coming to my neighbors to the east,” Taft says. “It was an area with a lot of vacant lots and I knew it would be the next focus for developers. We wanted to create a new model of development that wouldn’t end in gentrification.”

That was the genesis of PreEnact Indy, the annual event that has become the most visible part of the Harrison Center’s larger PreEnactment movement. Taft and her staff started it by interviewing as many residents of Martindale-Brightwood as they could find. They went block by block, gathering and recording people’s hopes for the future and their reflections on the neighborhood’s past.

Those recordings were then given to several theater companies, which used them as inspiration for temporary sets and for characters portrayed each October by mostly Black actors who wander 16th Street interacting with residents. The event has turned into as much a block party as a tool for neighborhood empowerment.

The first year of PreEnact Indy, for example, a vacant building became a candy store, complete with a cashier selling donated sweets. In all, there were about a dozen buildings with temporary facades, all representing restaurants and stores. There was also a speaker’s corner, where residents and actors could say whatever they wanted, acting out residents’ hopes that their neighborhood could be a safe space for robust discourse.

In the second year of PreEnact Indy, churches got a bigger role; Martindale-Brightwood is known for its high-concentration of them. A “church lady” made a big hit mingling with residents, inviting them to church and talking about the importance of attendance to build community. Another popular performer was the woman who played the niece of Charlie Wiggins, a Black race-car driver and mechanic who was barred from participating in the then-segregated Indianapolis 500, but had an outsized impact on the sport nonetheless.

“It never occurred to us the first year that the story of what happens west on 16th Street might have something to do with what happens east on 16th Street,” Taft says.

This year, “Wiggins’s niece” returned, this time accompanied by a car from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum that was made in Martindale-Brightwood at the now-defunct National Motor Vehicle Company. The performer talked about Wiggins’s accomplishments and his role in desegregating auto racing. PreEnact Indy also brought in NXG Youth Motorsports, a nonprofit that works to bring kids of color into racing.

“You cannot have hope for the future unless you understand the pain of the past. So all of the scripts have to be rooted in a neighborhood that was torn apart by social issues and literally carved in half by the interstate,” Taft says. “So you have to understand that as you are acting out your hopes and dreams.”

“We Ask Businesses to PreEnact Every Day”

But for all of the labor that goes into PreEnact Indy, Taft is quick to note that the real work of combating cultural gentrification happens the other 364 days a year.

“You cannot make a neighborhood more just or more equitable if you do a play for one day,” Taft said. “PreEnact Indy is not about making the neighborhood look pretty. It’s about changing people’s hearts. It’s about inspiring people to do something different.”

So the Harrison Center sponsors several events each month to bring residents together and continue to gather their stories. There are porch parties, game nights, monthly dinner meetings, and luncheons with new residents and the Greatriachs. Most are well attended. But perhaps even more important, Taft and her team have made a point of meeting with the owners of every new business in the neighborhood, asking each how he or she is going to be a just and equitable neighbor. It’s all part of a year-round, ongoing PreEnactment movement.

“We PreEnact every day,” she says. “And we ask the businesses to PreEnact every day.”

Taft’s go-to example is Greek’s Pizzeria, a shop that was on the verge of opening before last year’s PreEnact Indy event. The decor of the restaurant is retro pop art and the owner had commissioned a mural.

“Three days before the PreEnactment, I’m driving across 16th Street and I see a huge mural—the whole side of their wall—of a big White woman. White face, blue eyes, pale skin, and my heart drops,” Taft recalls. “So I called them and said, ‘I’m super happy that you are bringing art to the neighborhood, but um, just wondering, are you going to have a person of color on that mural?’ And they’re like, ‘No. It’s just art. It doesn’t mean anything.’”

But the co-owner, Ryan Kitto, had a change of heart. He had the mural changed so that the woman had darker skin. He says that until Taft told him, he hadn’t known about the tension in Martindale-Brightwood over race and gentrification.

“I was grateful that she came down and talked to me about what PreEnactment was,” Kitto says. “It could’ve been bad.”

Today, Kitto calls Greek’s Pizzeria “the melting pot” of the neighborhood. Some 60 percent of his customers are Black residents, and he says he has tried to hire as many locals as possible.

In another case, Taft says she spoke to the owner of a new hair salon who erected a poster-sized advertisement outside the shop featuring a White woman. She explained that some longtime residents might be upset that he was only marketing to one type of customer. After that, the owner took down the poster, hired a Black stylist, and decided to look for a Black barber to work in the salon too.

In using her White privilege to talk to mostly White business owners about race and gentrification, Taft says she has been amazed at the results.

“Every single one of them should have been incredibly offended by what I said. I’m just blown away that they haven’t been. And I think what I’ve learned is that people really want to do the right thing. They just don’t know how and they have not been invited.”

This is where “changing people’s hearts” comes into play. When neighbors are not known or loved, cultural and economic gentrification happens, Taft says, and art—in this case, theater—can circumvent that by bringing people together.

“I learned that art is powerful. And art is going to change things,” she says.

Erika D. Smith is a journalist based in Los Angeles. Prior to joining the L.A. Times, she was a metro columnist covering race relations and community development for The Indianapolis Star.

Public Art Review issue 59Featured in the On Location section of Public Art Review #59.