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NEAR EASTSIDE


     Residents of the Near Eastside of Indianapolis, now served by the Near Eastside Community Organization (NESCO), have a long history of gathering together for a common purpose.  Beginning early in the 20th century and continuing to this day, perceived threats to their way of life have compelled Near Eastside citizens to come together to save their neighborhood.  Provocations have ranged from the proposed opening of a nearby beer garden in 1909 to crime, housing deterioration, and the loss of services.  The response of this neighborhood has differed from many others in the inner city as residents repeatedly have sought association and action as a means of protecting and saving their community.

     The neighborhood’s history begins in 1849 when the heirs of Governor Noah Noble (1794-1844) platted a subdivision with 133 lots in the farmland of the late governor.  The boundaries of the new subdivision were St. Clair Street, Market Street, Noble (College) Avenue, and Pine Street on the east. [1]   The following year saw the opening of the Indiana State Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb at Washington Street and State Avenue. [2]

     In 1863 the federal government selected 76 acres on the east side as the site for a United States Arsenal. [3]   The workers who staffed the Arsenal sought housing nearby, creating a housing market in the area surrounding the facility.  With the introduction of the streetcar to Indianapolis by the Citizen’s Street Railway Company in 1864, development of residential neighborhoods outside the “walking city” of the Mile Square became a reality.

     Following on the heels of these developments came rapid growth in parts of the area now known as the Near Eastside.  In 1863 a portion of the southwest corner of the Highland-Brookside area was platted for residential development. [4]   By 1866 the Washington Street streetcar line extended to the culvert over Pogue’s Run to service new customers living in that area. [5]

     In 1870 the City of Indianapolis purchased several hundred acres of land from the heirs of Indianapolis attorney Calvin Fletcher.  This land would become Brookside Park.  Two years later, Indianapolis Water Company president James O. Woodruff platted Woodruff Place as a residential enclave for the well-to-do.  The following year, the city opened Michigan Street to Arsenal Avenue and graded and improved the street between Woodruff Place and Arsenal. [6]   By the end of the 1880s the Near Eastside had become an area of elite residences in and around Woodruff Place, incorporated as a town in 1876.  The completion of the Belt Line Railroad in 1877-1878 made the eastside attractive to industries and laborers.  Consequently, many workers’ homes sprung up in the area now known as Cottage Home, as well as in the present-day neighborhood of Highland-Brookside. [7]  

     In 1895 the Catholic Diocese of Indianapolis founded the Parish of Holy Cross to minister more effectively to the growing number of Irish, Italian, and German Catholic immigrants in the area.  Parish leaders laid a cornerstone for a building in April 1896, located at the corner of Hanna and Springdale Place, and dedicated it on August 8.  As the parish grew, the priest, anticipating the need to build a larger facility, began a building fund.  In 1912 the parish purchased a lot on the southeast corner of Oriental and Ohio streets (125 North Oriental Avenue) where it began a new building in 1921 and dedicated it on July 2 of the following year.  The growth of the congregation, which increased dramatically by the church’s first anniversary, serves as a metaphor for the general growth in the population of the Near Eastside in general during the last years of the 19th century.

     By 1900 two Near Eastside green spaces had been designated city parks: Brookside and Highland Square.  Schools followed residential development in the area as James Russell Lowell Public School #51, Lucretia Mott Public School #3, and Holy Cross Catholic School opened their doors between 1900 and 1905. [8]

     Testimony to infrastructure development in the area, the opening of Wonderland Amusement Park in 1906--at the corner of East Washington and Gray streets—was made possible by the Washington Street streetcar and an adequate supply of electricity for the park’s 50,000 incandescent lights.  Despite the lights and the noise, residents seemed to enjoy having Wonderland nearby.  Neighborhood children especially appreciated the free tickets that the park ownership distributed to them. [9] In time, however, Wonderland became the impetus for one of the first united actions taken by Near Eastsiders to protect their neighborhood from negative influences.

     Following the park’s first two successful seasons, attendance began to drop.  Two other mechanized amusement parks—Riverside on the city’s west side and White City at Broad Ripple Park, north of Indianapolis—offered similar amusements, with the added inducement that both bordered White River.  Land-locked Wonderland suffered in comparison.  In 1909 Wonderland’s management, searching for new ways to attract customers, decided to install a “German Beer Garden.”  When advertisements that Wonderland would seek a liquor license appeared in the local papers, neighborhood mothers hastily organized.  On March 23, 1909, under the auspices of the mothers’ clubs of the Irvington, Emerson, and Lucretia Mott public schools, women petitioned the park not to install the beer garden.  Mrs. C. O. Lowry, president of the Lucretia Mott School club, and R. C. Minton of the Indiana Anti-Saloon League cited the “pernicious influence” of such an establishment in a setting so near to the school.  In a concerted effort against the beer garden, the women of these three schools canvassed their neighborhoods, collecting signatures on a remonstrance.  Their petition warned the owners of Wonderland that the beer garden would change the character of the park and would “accordingly change our attitude toward it.”  The women pleaded with the management to include only those amusements that “call for no objection on moral grounds.”  They frankly declared “to resist it to the end, in every way that may be contrived by citizens” if the park chose to move ahead with the beer garden plans. [10]

     Although unlikely allies to an anti-saloon remonstrance, the Indianapolis Brewers Exchange held a special meeting on the evening of March 23, after hearing of the activity against the beer garden, and decided to join with the mothers to discourage the sale of intoxicants at Wonderland.  Fearing the backlash of “butt[ing] our heads against a stone wall by antagonizing public sentiment,” the group agreed that they were “not disposed to do anything to cause agitation against our business.”

     The following day, the park management announced they were abandoning their attempt to acquire a beer license.  A German village would still be installed at the park but planned refreshments would now include “pop, soda water, ice cream and light lunch.” [11]   The united eastside mothers achieved their goal.

     As it turned out, Wonderland’s management was intimidated enough by the threatened petition drive that they did not raise the issue of alcoholic beverages in the park for two years after the beer garden incident.  But in 1911, with park attendance once again flagging, new management set up a “Blind Tiger,” a place where illegal intoxicants were sold.  This time, neighborhood women did not have to react because police raided the Blind Tiger.  One week later, Wonderland Amusement Park caught fire and many of the attractions burned to the ground.  Park management decided not to reopen the site. [12]

     The Near Eastside saw rapid growth in the 1910s and 1920s.  Among the many churches and schools being established or erecting new edifices during this period were St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church, St. Paul A.M.E. Church, First German Reformed Church, Garfield Methodist Episcopal Church, John Hope School #26, Robert Browning School #73, and Tuxedo Park Baptist Church.  Other new buildings also sprung up in these years including the Brookside Community Park Building and the Rivoli Theatre.  In 1929, P. R. Mallory and Company opened a production facility and headquarters at 3029 E. Washington Street, the former site of Wonderland Amusement Park. [13]

     By 1940 the Highland-Brookside area had grown to 41,856 residents. [14]   At that time residents had little reason to assume that one of their greatest challenges in the coming years would be curtailing the loss of population that began after WW II.  But returning servicemen and their families would soon begin to finance the purchase of brand new homes in newly constructed suburbs with their G.I. loans rather than buying older homes like those in Near Eastside neighborhoods below .

     In 1950 residents of the Near Eastside were not yet concerned with the population shifts, because there were still signs of growth in the neighborhood.  A small business center with a variety of stores arose at the corner of Emerson Avenue and 16th Street.  Ominously, the Indianapolis Times predicted that their customers would soon come “from residents of small, new houses and naked, half-completed structures going up along Leland Street and Spencer Avenue just east of Emerson,“ and just outside the area now referred to as the Near Eastside. [15]

     By 1955 population loss was beginning to show in the Highland-Brookside area, but residents faced a more imminent threat that year.  As part of a budget-cutting plan, the City Council decided in 1954 to sell Highland Park and install a new recreation area on Market Street.  Again, as during the fight against the beer garden at Wonderland Park, the Near Eastsiders worked together to battle the new peril and preserve the neighborhood.  Concerned about the loss of the park and about the possibility the city would sell the land to the Air Force Reserve Training Center, residents spearheaded efforts to save the park.

     Eastsiders gathered signatures on a remonstrance and chose a 10-person delegation to present their case in Indianapolis newspapers and meet with members of the Park Department and Mayor Alex M. Clark.  This delegation, led by Mrs. Crafton Griffin and Mr. and Mrs. Edward Gaynor, persuaded the department not only to keep Highland Park open for area children, but also to invest $20,000 in a new shelter house, toilet facilities, and benches in order to bring the neighborhood park up to par with other city parks. [16]   Once again, residents forged a successful alliance to resolve a problem threatening their neighborhood.

     By the 1960s eastsiders were experiencing changes in their neighborhoods that created problems too large for mothers’ organizations and ten-person delegations to handle effectively.  As suburbs spread outward from the center of Indianapolis, the Near Eastside became part of the inner city.  Middle class homeowners moved away and with them went many churches and service businesses that residents had come to rely upon.  Acknowledging this transformation, Holy Cross Catholic Church increased its community outreach programming in the mid-1960s in an attempt to better serve its changing neighborhood. [17]

     In 1962 Woodruff Place residents lost a long-running court battle to remain an incorporated town.  Contributing to the loss was the price of contracting with the City of Indianapolis for police and fire protection.  As long-time residents moved out of the small town for more exclusive, quieter suburban homes, the large, new owners subdivided the old houses into apartments whose renters were less able to pay the fees required to keep the town solvent. [18]   In 1967 the city selected the Highland-Brookside area for a community problem study.  The results of surveys and discussions with local residents showed that problems included housing deterioration, conflicting land-use patterns, a rising crime rate, an increased level of welfare dependency, and racial tension in the area.   By 1970 49.6 percent of Woodruff Place residents had moved into the area within the previous two years, and 53 percent of the people living in and around the former town were renters rather than homeowners. [19]

     Seeking to address their problems locally, a group of Near Eastside clergy led by Father James Byrne from Holy Cross Catholic Church founded the Near Eastside Community Organization (NESCO) in 1970 as an umbrella organization to coordinate activities of the smaller neighborhood associations from throughout the Near Eastside area. [20]   The formation of NESCO set in motion a flurry of activity in area social services.  NESCO volunteers, themselves Eastside residents, helped neighborhoods set up block clubs, which in turn directed their efforts toward working for the neighborhood.  Also in 1970 the Area Youth Ministry was established with the goal of bringing hope and faith into the lives of teens and children.

     A year after its founding, NESCO determined there was a need for a neighborhood social service center.  Working in cooperation with the City of Indianapolis, it established the Near Eastside Multi-Service Center.  The center began as a case management, social service organization, but soon added a Senior Citizens Center.  The initial staff of four was led by John H. Boner, whose name the center now bears. [21]

     This increased activity from within the neighborhood spurred movement from other sources.  In 1972 the staff of the Department of Metropolitan Development initiated a request for $507,828 to prepare an urban renewal project for the Highland-Brookside area that would focus on clearance of dilapidated structures and rehabilitation of existing homes. [22]

     That same year, the area received a public relations boost.  First, a successful nomination placed Woodruff Place on the National Register of Historic Places.  Besides the advantageous publicity the nomination brought, it also made federal funds available to Woodruff Place residents for home renovation.  Furthermore, a federally-funded Environmental Stress study, which rated near-downtown neighborhoods on factors ranging from noise pollution to crime, revealed that Near Eastside residents experienced a fair to good neighborhood environment, among the best in the near downtown area. [23]

     Despite the buzz of organizational activity, the area continued to lose residents.   Holy Cross Catholic Church, a long-time neighborhood anchor, also felt the crunch as it experienced its lowest membership level in 1975-1976.  The loss was caused by families moving to the suburbs and affiliating with churches closer to their new homes. [24]  

     In 1976 NESCO organized Eastside Community Investments (ECI) to address the financial aspects of decaying housing and encourage new businesses to establish themselves in the area.  The following year, Father James Byrne of Holy Cross became president of the new organization which, along with NESCO, was aided by a host of volunteers who were determined to help their neighborhood “fight back” from decay.  By 1978 the Holy Cross parish was beginning to see their efforts pay off in a resurgence of membership.  Most noteworthy was the increase in young adult parishioners; the average age of the parish council that year was only 34. [25]   By the 1980s, after steady losses each decade since the 1940s, the population of the Highland-Brookside area stabilized at around 27,000. [26]

     In 1980 residents asked the City of Indianapolis to designate the area a Community Development Grant Target Area.  Two years later, the city honored that request. With it came funds for home improvements and a commitment by the city to improve streets, curbs and sidewalks in the NESCO neighborhood. [27]

     On July 25, 1982, ECI made a significant symbolic gesture to the neighborhood that it was helping to rebuild.  The organization hosted an open house at 1210 East Ohio Street.  The newly renovated home, formerly the headquarters of the Outlaws Motorcycle Club, was once again an attractive addition to the neighborhood rather than a detraction from it.  Neighbor Vonda O’Neill expressed the sentiment of many NESCO residents when she told a local newspaper, “a lot of people worked hard to get where we are at and a lot of work is ahead of us.”  Reverend Philip Tom of Westminster Presbyterian Church credited NESCO with originating block clubs that brought neighbors together to work for the neighborhood.  According to Tom, NESCO encouraged residents to “quit talking and do something.” [28]

     Perhaps inspired by the spirit of common purpose exhibited by the NESCO community, fourteen Near Eastside churches formed an ecumenical partnership in 1984.  The group of churches, calling themselves the Near Eastside Church and Community Ministry Project, aimed to upgrade the quality of life of all area residents, “not just members.”  Begun initially with a Lilly Endowment grant, the program became self-sufficient with each member church striving to implement programs to help members of the community.  Westminster Church housed a youth employment program initiated by the project; East 10th Street United Methodist Church provided space for workshops on “Ministry for Justice.”  Churches also contributed to food pantries, pooled their efforts to assist those caring for homebound elderly and disabled, and offered weekly family film nights and recreation sessions for neighborhood children, all based on Christian themes. [29]

     By the end of 1984 NESCO residents were justifiably proud of their accomplishments.  Pride was not their only measure of success, however.  That year, Aetna Life and Casualty Company agreed to work with Indiana Mortgage Corporation to make $650,000 available to low- and moderate-income home mortgagees to help “enliven” the Near Eastside housing market. [30]

     Once home buyers secured loans and moved into their houses, ECI and its volunteers helped to ensure those homes were welcoming and warm.  Some low-income families had their homes painted free of charge with NESCO’s “paint-up/fix-up” program. Others’ windows were caulked by ECI volunteers in its “Caulk of the Town” project. [31]   By uniting volunteer hours, in-kind gifts, and a matching $25,000 grant from the Indiana Department of Commerce’s Division of Energy Policy, ECI winterized158 Eastside houses. [32]

     The neighborhood continued its self-help commitment in many ways during the 1980s and early 1990s, including drug-abuse prevention programs at the Eastside Multi-Service Center, ECI’s renovation of the Brookside Building into 24 apartments for low-income residents, the Cottage Home Neighborhood Association’s successful push for new sidewalks and a small park, and the Holy Cross-Westminster neighborhood’s rezoning of a two-block industrial area to all residential.

     In the mid-1990s NESCO, ECI, the John H. Boner Center, the People’s Health Center, and the Near Eastside Community Federal Credit Union helped to create a true sense of neighborhood among those living in the entire NESCO area.  In 1995, when the Indianapolis Public Schools Board voted to close Thomas Carr Howe High School, hundreds of area residents protested.  While their united voices did not change the school board’s decision, a measure of the power of their gathered effort, supported by the neighborhood’s on-going positive relationship with Lilly Endowment, was evident in the school board’s approval to reuse the school building, funded in part by the Endowment, as an alternative placement center for middle school students. [33]

     Beginning in the first decade of the 20th century, Near Eastsiders learned they could successfully protect their chosen way of life by banding together in common cause.  First directed at Wonderland Amusement Park’s proposed beer garden, the cohesive efforts of Eastside mothers saved the neighborhood from what they feared would be the negative effects of alcohol consumption near their homes and their children’s schools.  In the 1950s neighbors again learned the power of union around a cause when they saved Highland Park from destruction.  They also learned that a united front could not only protect the park but also win them much-needed improvements.

     In the 1960s and 1970s Near Eastsiders faced the most serious threat to their neighborhood as population decreased, housing deteriorated, and crime escalated.  Once again neighbors came together to fight for their way of life.  In founding NESCO, they became a powerful common voice, one which continues to speak with them and for them.



[1] Plat Book 1, located at the Marion County Recorder’s Office, Indianapolis, Indiana.

[2] Connie Zeigler, “Indiana School for the Deaf,” in David J. Bodenhamer and Robert G. Barrows, editors, Encyclopedia of Indianapolis (Bloomington, IN:  1994), 746.

[3] Joan Hostettler.  "A Demographic Study of Cottage Home Neighborhood, 1880-1900, Indianapolis, Indiana," unpublished manuscript, 1992.

[4] William Dalton, “Highland Brookside,” Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, 680.

[5]  John O. Kain, "History of the Indianapolis Street Railway Company.”  (Indianapolis, 1922), manuscript located at Indianapolis/Marion County Public Library.

[6] Hester Hale, Indianapolis the First Century, (Indianapolis; Indianapolis/Marion County Historical Society, 1987), 96.

[7] Frederick Doyle Kershner, Jr., "The Social and Cultural History of Indianapolis, 1860-1914.”  (Ph.D.  Dissertation, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1950), 99; Joan Hostettler.  "A Demographic Study of Cottage Home Neighborhood, 1880-1900, Indianapolis, Indiana," unpublished manuscript, (1992).

[8] Michelle D.  Hale, "Parks," Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, 1077-1080.

[9] Ibid.  See also:  David G. Vanderstel and Connie J. Zeigler, “In Pursuit of Leisure Time: The Development and Role of Amusement Parks in Indianapolis, 1880s-1970.”  Research report, The Polis Center, 1992.

[10] Indianapolis News, March 23, 1909.

[11] "Wonderland German Village to be Beerless," Indianapolis News, March 24, 1909.

[12] "Debris Left in Wake of Wonderland Park Fire," Indianapolis Star, August 28, 1911.

[13] "Center Township Interim Report," 1992, Connie Zeigler, "Mechanized Amusement in Indianapolis."

[14] William D. Halton, “Highland-Brookside,” Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, 680.

[15] "New Business Center Slated at Emerson Ave., 16th St.," Indianapolis Times, April 17, 1950.

[16] "Near East Siders Win Battle to save Highland Park Play Area," Indianapolis Star, June 18, 1955.

[17] "Churches Renew Emphasis on serving the Inner City," Indianapolis Times, November 7, 1964.

[18] Connie J.  Zeigler, "Woodruff Place," Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, 1452-1453.

[19] "Woodruff Place Preservation Plan" (Department of Metropolitan Development and Indianapolis Preservation Commission), 1977.  The plan was not adopted.

[20] Indianapolis Star/News Index, located at Indiana State Library, Indiana Division.

[21] "John H.  Boner Center Annual Report," 1996.

[22] "Urban Renewal Asked for Near Eastside," Indianapolis News, June 16, 1971.

[23] Indianapolis News, March 17, 1972.

[24] Indianapolis Star, June 20, 1982.

[25] "Vibrant Young Parishioners Help Reverse Decline at Holy Cross," Indianapolis Star, September 9, 1978.

[26] William D.  Dalton, "Highland-Brookside," Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, 1994.

[27] Indianapolis Star, June 20, 1982.

[28] Indianapolis Star, June 20, 1982.

[29] "Near-Eastside Churches are Ecumenical Team," Indianapolis Star, March 17, 1984.

[30] "Aetna, Indiana Mortgage seek to assist Two Neighborhoods," Indianapolis Star, December 9, 1984.

[31] Phone Interview, June 14, 1996.

[32] "A Brief Focus on the Past of the Near Eastside," newspaper clippings compiled by David Kingen at the Department of Metropolitan Development."

[33] The Near Eastside Neighbor, January 1, 1995.


 
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