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UNITED NORTHWEST AREA 

            The United Northwest Area, or UNWA, began as an umbrella organization for several neighborhood groups in 1967.  It encompasses the historically distinct neighborhoods of Riverside to the south, United Northwest in the center, and Crown Hill to the north. The neighborhood is marked by Meridian Street (east), 38th Street (north), and White River (west). The southern boundary is somewhat in question, though 16th Street is generally agreed upon. UNWA’s population in 1990 was 22,204.

            The history of the area now known as the UNWA began with the opening of the Central Canal in 1839.  About that time, Nathaniel West erected a cotton mill near the spot where the Michigan Road crossed the canal; this led to a small settlement known as Cottontown.  The ill-fated Canal, which proved to be inadequate both as a power source and as a transportation route, however, did attract industry and settlement to the near west side of Indianapolis.  In 1873 the Udell Ladder Works, the North Indianapolis Wagon Works, and the Henry Ocow Manufacturing Company all established a presence in the area.  This attracted additional people and businesses to the northern edge of the capital and led to the platting of North Indianapolis that same year.  The incorporation of Crown Hill Cemetery in 1863 also produced a northward push beyond the boundaries of the early city.  A local street railway company extended its lines with mule-drawn cars out to the cemetery located three miles from the Circle.  This enticed others to settle near the streetcar station which also produced a small settlement, known as Mapleton.

            Until the turn of the century, however, residential development remained relatively sparse.[1]  In a commemorative booklet published in 1916, a member of Riverside Park Methodist Episcopal Church wrote that “only a few years back . . .  Riverside Park with all the land eastward to the Canal was nothing but farm land.  A mere half dozen houses were about all that could be found in the whole section.”  The writer goes on to say that “the change that came over the whole section was gradual” as “one farm after another was broken up into small plats,” which became gardens and were platted into town lots.  Soon “one street after another took unto itself form and cement walks displaced the customary foot paths.”[2]   Those changes took place primarily after the turn of the century, but the area did have enough residents before 1900 to support at least two churches—Barnes United Methodist, founded in 1879 by a Methodist pastor meeting with parishioners in their homes; and First Baptist Church North Indianapolis founded in 1885.  The area also included the Indianapolis Country Club (organized 1891) which maintained a clubhouse, tennis courts, and a nine-hole golf course at its location on the southwest corner of Michigan Road and Maple Road (now 38th Street).  As the residential area developed, local residents sought annexation to the city, partly to obtain cheaper natural gas rates;  they succeeded in their annexation effort in 1895.

            The neighborhood began to blossom in the decade following the turn of the century.  One important factor was increasing mobility.  The extension of interurban (electric railway) lines into the area made the west side easily accessible to other parts of the city.  Streets like Roache Avenue that had once been “mere country roads,” as the Riverside Methodist booklet says, became frequently traveled urban roads.  As a result, several churches were established, many of which would play an important role in the area’s future.  The first Catholic church in the neighborhood, Holy Angels, was founded in 1903 at 28th Street and Northwestern Avenue.  Its first full-time priest was appointed the following year, and in 1907 Holy Angels added a school.  Riverside Methodist Episcopal began as a Sunday school group meeting in a double in 1904.  Its first building was completed in 1906 at the southwest corner of Schurmann Avenue and Chicago, the same year Mount Paran Baptist church was established at Senate Avenue and 11th Street. Two years later, the Rev. Garfield Haywood founded Christ Temple Church on West Michigan Road.  Haywood later moved the church’s location to Fall Creek Parkway near Northwestern Avenue in the mid-1920s, where it remains to this day as the largest Pentecostal church in the neighborhood.

            Soon after the turn of the century, local businessman David Parry, manufacturer of carriages and automobiles, purchased several acres on the northwest edge of UNWA and developed them into his personal estate.  He hired Scotch-born landscape architect George MacDougall to design the grounds, which they called Golden Hill.  After Parry’s death in 1915, his family subdivided Golden Hill and hired MacDougall to plan the neighborhood.  Its curving streets and beautiful greenspaces soon became home to some of the city’s most prominent families, who guarded their privilege closely.  After the owner’s death, the homes in Golden Hill usually stayed within a family or were sold off to friends of the family. By 1983, 72 percent of the homes in the neighborhood had been acquired in this manner. [3]   Golden Hill illustrates a pattern that began in David Parry’s day and would intensify with time: conspicuous concentrations of wealth and affluence on the perimeter of UNWA in contrast to the modest or substandard housing that marked its core.

            While Parry was developing his estate, an important addition to the neighborhood arose on a triangle of land located north of 30th Street and along the White River.  In many ways, the neighborhood’s 20th-century history can be traced in the story of Riverside Amusement Park—modest beginnings, a period of intense development through the early decades, and prosperity and tranquillity through mid-century followed by racial tensions and economic decline.  Troubled times were in the distant future, though, when Riverside opened in 1903 with a toboggan railway and some concession stands.  The owners, which included Indianapolis businessmen J. Clyde Power, Albert Lieber, and Bert Feibleman along with Pittsburgh investors, soon added several rides and built a dance hall, which would later become a skating rink.  The hall attracted thousands of visitors who came to dance to live orchestras and bands. [4]   Boating excursions on the White River, launched from the nearby city-owned Riverside Park, were an option as well. The dance hall, the amusement part rides, and the activity on White River combined to make UNWA one of the city’s primary entertainment centers in the early 20th century.

            The period between 1910 and mid-century was one of stability and steady growth for both the park and the neighborhood.  Attorney Lewis Coleman began the Riverside Exhibition Company in 1919, gained control of the amusement park, and proceeded to issue stock, raising capital for improvements and additions to the park.  Coleman added two roller coasters and a 2,200 foot long miniature railroad, among other amusements and attractions.  At the same time, renowned urban planner and landscape architect George E. Kessler submitted a plan to develop a city-owned greenspace known as Riverside Park.

            The neighborhood continued to develop residentially as well.  According to a Department of Development report, 75 percent of the homes in the area were constructed before 1939, and “most of [UNWA] developed between 1910 and the 1920s.” [5]  In addition, several important institutions moved into the neighborhood or constructed new buildings.  St. Vincent Hospital relocated from South and Delaware streets to Fall Creek Parkway near Illinois Street in 1913.  The Children’s Museum moved from Garfield Park to the home of Mary Stewart Carey at 1150 North Meridian Street, not far south of the neighborhood, in 1927.  It relocated to 3010 North Meridian Street in 1946. Riverside Methodist Church built a new building in 1929, and Pilgrim Baptist Church was founded in 1939.

            Construction and development plateaued in the years prior to the Second World War and declined thereafter, due in part to the middle class push toward the suburbs. The change was not immediately apparent, and the neighborhood remained economically stable for several years. Riverside Amusement Park, for instance, enjoyed some of its most prosperous days during and after the war.  In 1952, an estimated one million people visited the park.  But all was not well at the seemingly healthy Riverside.

            Since Lewis Coleman had purchased the amusement park in 1919, Riverside had maintained a policy of admitting only whites except on special days set aside for African- Americans.  That policy was economically viable in the first half of the century, when UNWA was a predominantly white neighborhood.  The area had a significant black population; School 87, a school for “colored children,” opened on Indianapolis Avenue in 1936.  But African- Americans constituted a minority and were concentrated in the inner core, surrounded by middle-class whites.  The tension created by this arrangement varied.  Racism was rarely so public as that displayed by the pastor of Holy Angels Catholic Church, who, shortly after World War II, predicted that “no Negro will ever come to Holy Angels.”  For that, he was replaced at the direction of Pope Pius XII. [6]   The priest’s attitude was no doubt shared by others in the neighborhood, but there are also examples of successful integration.  In 1948, one Indianapolis newspaper described Christ Temple Church as “the only interracial Protestant congregation in Indianapolis.” [7]   One estimate put the membership at 60 percent black and 40 percent white. [8]   Church members nicknamed Christ Temple “the speckled bird” in reference to its high level of integration.

            The changes that occurred in the neighborhood can be seen in photos of Christ Temple’s congregation, still on display in the church’s library. Dating from early in the century up to the 1990s, the group shots show a good mix of black and white faces at mid-century.  By the 1960s, however, white faces were a distinct minority.  A decade later they were virtually absent.  Christ Temple’s transformation was gradual compared to that of the neighborhood at large.  In the years between 1950 and 1960, UNWA changed rapidly from a racially balanced but segregated neighborhood to almost exclusively African-American; the white population decreased by 59 percent between 1950 and 1960, while the proportion of African-Americans increased by 119 percent.

            The decades of the 1950s and 1960s brought another change to the neighborhood that would affect it for years to come.  In the early 1950s the city of Indianapolis announced plans to use federal highway funds to construct a highway system that would connect with the proposed interstate road network.  Initial plans called for an outer belt to encircle the city, with branches extending to the downtown  area.  By 1960, the proposed plans clearly indicated that a new interstate would cut through the city’s established northwest side neighborhoods; soon, state officials began the work of purchasing homes, businesses, and other buildings and obtaining the highway right-of-way.  This quickly produced problems in the neighborhood as residents expressed their dissatisfaction with the prices offered for their properties.  The Community Service Council of Indianapolis spoke out in favor of additional assistance to those families displaced by the planned highway.  As construction proceeded, more and more families left the neighborhood.  The neighborhood counted some 3,000 fewer residents in 1970 than in 1960, due in part to the highway construction, and the outmigration continued in the ensuing years.

            Amidst the controversy over the location of the highway, one neighborhood spokesman emerged to voice the concerns of local residents.  The Reverend Boniface Hardin, assistant pastor at Holy Angels Catholic Church located on Northwestern Avenue, led a strong neighborhood protest against the proposed interstate.  He claimed that the highway would add to the problem-plagued neighborhood and that the project would disrupt the lives of long-time residents.  Traveling to city hall, the statehouse, and to Washington D.C., Hardin voiced his opposition to the project.  His efforts met with little success as the local business sector, represented by the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, pushed for the construction of the highway to help the city move forward.  Construction of the I-65 and I-70 inner loop was completed in 1975-1976, providing quick access to downtown Indianapolis, but also dividing those neighborhoods that comprised UNWA.

            The year 1960 can be described as the beginning of UNWA’s modern history. By that year, the racial transformation was nearly complete.  In that year, Mt. Zion Baptist Church, an African-American congregation, began meeting in its new building at 3500 North Graceland Avenue.  Described by the Indianapolis Recorder as “the most imposing edifice in Indiana,” the church cost more than half a million dollars and resulted from the vision of Rev. R. T. Andrews, Mt. Zion’s long-time pastor.  The new church building was only the beginning of Rev. Andrews’ plans.  Throughout the 1960s and into the mid-70s, his church was the single largest and most active presence in the area.  In several stages over the course of several years, and with substantial help from the Lilly Endowment, Mt. Zion built several apartment complexes for seniors and handicapped people, a day care center, and a nursing home. The church’s goal was to provide complete “cradle to grave” care for the people it served. [9]

            The new racial makeup was reflected in congregations around the neighborhood after 1960.  Riverside Methodist received its first African American pastor in the early ‘60s.  At Holy Angels, the Rev. Boniface Hardin was appointed associate pastor, becoming the first black pastor in the Catholic parish that “no Negro” would ever come to.  Holy Angels was by this time an almost exclusively black congregation, the third such Catholic parish in Indianapolis.

            Hardin’s time at Holy Angels was not without controversy.  An outspoken advocate for blacks, his style offended and frightened some people.  In response, the archbishop of Indianapolis attempted in 1969 to relocate Hardin to another parish.  “Alleged efforts by the white power structure to have a prominent black Indianapolis Catholic priest whose name is linked with civil rights activities transferred out of the Hoosier Capital `for the sake of the city’ were revealed this week,” read one account in the Indianapolis Recorder.[10] The archbishop backed down in the wake of strong opposition from both blacks and whites.

            The vacuum created by white, middle-class flight was filled by poor African-Americans, and economic disinvestment followed. The traditionally strong industrial base remained intact, but retail shops withered and entertainment centers closed.  Riverside Amusement Park was no doubt the most visible and well-chronicled example.  The “whites only” policy was finally lifted in the mid ‘60s—by which time Riverside was losing more than $30,000 every year.  The high cost of new rides, maintenance, and insurance were all factors, but equally important was the element of fear: many potential patrons would no longer travel into an inner city neighborhood. Riverside closed for good at the end of the 1970 season, though many of its rides and buildings remained in place for several years.  Reporters who visited the site in the ‘70s found in the dilapidated buildings and overgrown weeds a poignant reminder of how much things had changed. “What is . . . striking, even haunting, is the silence,” read one such account. “Only the sound of a late November wind rustles the weeds where once children screamed as they enjoyed the Thriller ride and the ferris wheel.” [11]   The city ordered that all the rides and buildings be razed in 1978, and after that the former amusement park sat vacant.  The neighborhood received a second major blow in the same decade with the loss of its largest employer: in 1974, St. Vincent Hospital moved to a new location on West 86th Street between Ditch and Township Line Roads.

            In the face of this near economic collapse, it fell to churches, charitable foundations, and government organizations to provide and preserve whatever opportunity and stability existed.  In 1979, Flanner House moved into a new $1.25 million facility at 2424 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Street, in the heart of the UNWA neighborhood.  Started in 1898 as a settlement house for African-Americans, Flanner House had historically been an important center for adult education classes, vocational training, health care, and a variety of other services. Its new home indicated a renewed commitment to the area.  As a multi-service center, it administered federal and state welfare programs, housed a branch library, and conducted senior citizen and child-care programs. [12]

            The same year that Flanner House’s new building was built, the United Northwest Area Association established a development corporation.  UNWA had been created in 1967 in response to the neighborhood’s deteriorating condition.  Its purpose was to fight crime and poverty and to lobby for improved city services.  UNWA’s participation in the Community Development Block Grant program achieved significant results: resurfaced streets, new curbs and sidewalks, and more than 150 rehabilitated houses.[13]   The development corporation was established in 1979 to build on this success by improving the local housing stock and providing low-cost housing to qualified area residents.

            As the oldest organizations in the neighborhood, and the most stable as well, churches continued to play a crucial role. Like Mt. Zion Baptist, its neighbor not far to the north, Mt. Paran Baptist maintained an apartment complex for seniors. The church was also involved in the neighborhood in many unique ways, such as the home nursing service it provided for members beginning in 1953.  Pilgrim Baptist Church established Pilgrim Multi-Service Development, Inc., a non-profit organization designed to provide social services such as counseling, job placement, a food pantry, and health care.  Holy Angels continued to operate its school, and Christ Temple opened Christ Temple Christian Academy, for children in pre-school through third grade, in 1983.  Several years earlier, Mt. Zion Baptist had begun offering adult education courses for college credit in partnership with Indiana Central University (now the University of Indianapolis).

            Despite these efforts, the 1990 U. S. census showed that UNWA was marked by unusually high levels of poverty and crime. The decay was hardly visible to a visitor who stayed near the area’s well-traveled perimeter.  UNWA had become, in a sense, a microcosm of the city: high concentrations of wealth at the outer edges, with increasing rates of poverty the closer one traveled toward the center.  Along the UNWA borders, or just beyond the borders, were some of the city’s most prestigious and well-known institutions:  North United Methodist Church, Trinity Episcopal Church, the Children’s Museum, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and the Golden Hill neighborhood.  UNWA could claim four golf courses and a country club as well.  Such luxuries proved of little use to an UNWA population plagued by an unemployment rate of 16 percent and a median household income of $14,700.  The median value of owner-occupied homes was $30,000, and nearly one-fifth of the all the housing was listed as substandard.  In 1992, in response to these conditions, the city’s Department of Metropolitan Development (DMD)designated a significant portion of UNWA as an area of special need.  A DMD report showed that from 1970 to 1990, the population of the redevelopment area declined by more than one-fourth, from 10,096 to 7,194.  The number of housing units declined slightly, and the crime rate was 9.4 per 100 residents, compared to 7.8 per 100 residents in the city at large. [14]

            Grim as these statistics were, there were nonetheless reasons for hope.  In 1990, a new health center opened at 2700 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Street, next to Holy Angels Catholic Church.  Providing a wide range of health care services “at affordable fees based on ability to pay,” Blackburn Health Center was operated by Wishard Memorial Hospital.  It was named in honor of Cleo Blackburn, an African American minister and social worker who served for nearly forty years as the director of Flanner House.  In 1995, the Indianapolis Public Schools dedicated a new building for School 42.  The facility, located at 1002 W. 25th Street, replaced a 66-year old structure on the same site and had space for about 560 students, more than twice that of the old one.

            There was also reason for hope based on the energy level of local churches. The most ambitious program was undertaken by Pilgrim Baptist Church.  In partnership with the United Northwest Development Corporation, Pilgrim proposed a three-phase neighborhood revitalization project. The first phase involved complete renovation of School 41, which had closed in 1981, into an apartment complex with 34 units as well as business offices and community rooms; that phase was finished in 1996.  When completed, the second and third phases will add 60 apartment units and a youth center.  UNWA lost one of its oldest churches in 1996, when Riverside United Methodist moved to a new location west of the neighborhood.  But other churches showed a strong commitment to remaining in the area.  Barnes United Methodist built a new sanctuary in 1987, and in the mid-1990s Holy Angels formulated plans for expanding its school.

            Perhaps most interesting, though, are the plans underway to redevelop the site of the former Riverside Amusement Park. After the park’s closing in 1970, the land along White River sat unused, overgrown with weeds and littered with trash.  In the 1990s, the UNWA Development Corporation, in partnership with Methodist Hospital and Citizens Gas and Coke, developed a plan to build single-family homes and condominiums there.  This plan has created some controversy for a couple reasons.  First, the site is alleged to have been the source of a massive outbreak of histoplasmosis throughout the city when the amusement buildings were demolished in 1978; local health officials have expressed a concern about new construction on this site.  Second, the development plan involved a transfer of public lands along the White River, designated as part of the White River Greenway, to a private developer involved in the project.  This led to an unsuccessful lawsuit by the Hoosier Environmental Council and produced subsequent allegations that the private developer, an acquaintance of Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, had received a political favor in return for his contribution’s to the mayor’s campaign for governor.

            For nearly a century, Riverside Amusement Park both shaped and reflected the plight of the UNWA neighborhood. Arising amidst the building boom of the early 20th century, the park prospered through the war years, withered through the 1960s, and then sat vacant for more than two decades.  If history is an accurate indicator, its redevelopment would seem to bode well for the future of the neighborhood at large.


[1]       William D. Dalton, "United Northwest Area," in David J. Bodenhamer & Robert G. Barrows, eds., Encyclopedia of Indianapolis (Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 1994), 1368.
[2]        "A Story of Growth: Riverside Park Methodist Episcopal Church," 1916, n.p. Archived in the Indiana State Museum.
[3]        Sheryl D. Vanderstel, "Golden Hill," Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, 628-629.
[4]        David G. Vanderstel and Connie Zeigler, "Riverside Amusement Park," Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, 1197-1198.
[5]       Department of Metropolitan Development of Indianapolis-Marion County, "United Northwest Subarea Plan" (Indianapolis:  Department of Metropolitan Development Division of Planning, 1975), 21.
[6]        James V. Smith, Jr., "Creating their own style from the white tradition," Indianapolis News, 18 September 1986, B1.
[7]       Emma Rivers Milner, "People worship in own way at interracial church," Indianapolis Times, 14 February 1948, 4.
[8]        Lynn Ford, "Integrated city church had stormy history," Indianapolis Star, 11 February 1990, B3.
[9]        Connie Wynn, "Mt. Zion geriatric center a dream come true and more," Indianapolis Recorder, 30 July 1977, 3.
[10]     "Father Hardin condemned for being militant," Indianapolis Recorder, 29 March 1969, 1.
[11]      Eric B. Schoch, “Another old pastime bites the dust: amusement park set for demolition,” Indianapolis Star, 26 November 1978, 3:1.
[12]     Michelle D. Hale, "Flanner House," Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, 577.
[13]     Dalton, Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, 1368.
[14]     Department of Metropolitan Development of Indianapolis-Marion County, "United Northwest Area" (Indianapolis:  Department of Metropolitan Development Division of Planning, 1995).

 
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