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We Are City: D.I.Y. urban renewal


At an "engagement" session between speakers, John Beeler of The Kinetic Project — one of We Are City's organizers — enjoyed a  Nicey Treat gourmet popsicle. - PHOTO BY KRISTIN HESS
  • Photo by Kristin Hess
  • At an "engagement" session between speakers, John Beeler of The Kinetic Project — one of We Are City's organizers — enjoyed a Nicey Treat gourmet popsicle.

A lifelong resident of Indianapolis, Samantha Cross did not think of her hometown as cool while she was growing up.

"Now I feel the city is being overrun by cool people," she told an auditorium full of people at the We Are City Summit held Aug. 22 at the Indiana Historical Society.

Perhaps the summit exuded a hipster vibe because its whole purpose is to challenge people's perception of what is possible in a city. As one of the event organizers, Tim Carter of Butler University's Center for Urban Ecology, explained, by nurturing a convergence of experience and expertise, We Are City seeks to stimulate "exceptional" outcomes.

Adam Thies, director of the Indianapolis Department of Metropolitan Development, would not count himself as a member of the "cool" class. He is a father of three who labors beyond full-time at the helm of a city department charged with, among other duties, city planning. In an interviewMondayhe said he considered himself lucky to get through the day with enough time to mow his grass.

So instead of sweating his non-existent hipster cred when it came time to speak at the summit, Thies embraced his ingrained "grumpy German."

"I tried to tell the crowd it's not good enough to come up with an idea," he said. "In some ways ideas are a little cheap; you can come up them and discard them at will. You have to marry yourself to an idea and ride it through both good times and bad; it requires É taking a risk to put an idea out there and to show up and defend it.

"The status quo is popular — not that people rally around it, but that people default to it."

Actualizing an idea, he said, means embracing a "MacGyver" approach, a willingness to believe that a kit of dispersed parts can be knit together into something "with real bang and power."

Tight municipal finances underscore the need for people to take ownership of and responsibility for their city. Just this month, cuts to federal funding for city planning efforts resulted in layoffs of five DMD long-range planners and an administrative assistant.

Can-Do Attitudes

Audience member Brittany West, a co-organizer of the barter-supported Indy Trade School [see side-bar] found inspiration in Thies's MacGyver reference. "It blew up on Twitter," she said. The take-home message, West explained, boiled down to: "Government doesn't have all the answers. If we have an idea, we have to act on it and be bold and we defend the idea."

Sometimes the work to actualize a vision might mean confronting what may seem like insurmountable challenges.

To reconnect Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhoods to the East River, summit speaker Susannah Drake of dlandstudio had visions of replacing acres of abandoned industrial zones with permeable greenspace. All that stood in the way was an "incredibly complicated" bureaucratic network to navigate, including about 200 potential permits from local, state and federal agencies. And, mid-project, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated the site as Superfund reclamation project.

But the vision lived. And that message of resilience reverberated in the comments of speaker after speaker.

A slice of the We Are City Summit audience. - TESSA TILLETT
  • Tessa Tillett
  • A slice of the We Are City Summit audience.

"In our institutions and places of work – we have to ask the hard questions," Imhotep Adisa of Indy's KI EcoCenter said. "We have to resist people telling us we can't do it. We can. Have to resist people telling us we can't work together. We can."

From its base at 28th Street and North Capital Avenue, KI EcoCenter is embracing a range of empowerment projects — from personalized rain barrels to an aquaponic system from which they are trying to grow enough arugula to supply the needs of the Midtown restaurant DUO's.

When a 58-year old woman came into the center looking to be productive after a struggle with addiction, Adisa examined her attributes and discovered she could sew. He dubbed her the center's head of eco-fashion and put her to work sewing handbags from reclaimed fabrics.

"When I think about what anyone could accomplish in Indianapolis, the sky is the limit," West said. "If anyone has a good idea, Indy is a good place to launch it; you'll have lot of good support behind you."

"She comes in there with passion now," Adisa said.

Many of the societal problems Adisa sees he associates with a tendency to put property before people, with consumption culture.

"We need to look at other ways of creating economy," he said.

Urban Patch Work

Speaker Justin Moore of New York City's Department of City Planning grew up in Indy and continues to pursue urban revitalization efforts here through Urban Patch, which the include the Stone Soup Garden, a collaborative and educational community garden next to the Unleavened Bread CafŽ at 30th an Central; renovation of a historic, affordable home for rent on Delaware; the Park Garden; a new urban green space in Mapleton Fall Creek; and a demonstration rain garden in partnership with the Fall Creek Watershed Project.

In exploring questions of urban design, Moore asks, " Where are things in alignment and in conflict?

In addition, he is working on Indy Redbud Project.

Taken by the notion that small actions can add up and his childhood love of redbuds, Moore is in the process of replanting vacant lots with redbuds.

"The Indy Redbud Project creates new urban tree canopy that improves the environment and bolsters community identity, (helping) to re-imagine and remake the community to something legible that people can be proud of and are happy about."

Karla Romero, editor of Humanize Magazine, works the room during a Sun King-sponsored "engagement." - PHOTO BY TESSA TILLETT
  • Photo by Tessa Tillett
  • Karla Romero, editor of Humanize Magazine, works the room during a Sun King-sponsored "engagement."

Embracing the creative community is another way of cultivating economic growth, several speakers said.

Michael Seman, whose doctoral work focuses on the artistic dividends of the Denton, Texas, music scene, explored how artists can fuel economic development by re-envisioning blighted neighborhoods and abandoned space.

"It's MOD: music-oriented development," Cross quipped.

Artists and farmers, who share the characteristics of perseverance and longevity, are currently working together to counteract Detroit's urban decay, explained Kt Andresky of The Yes Farm.

"We cannot rely on our government or city to provide any basic services," she said. "It takes two hours to get the bus in a food desert. What will you survive on? What the liquor store supplies."

In response to these conditions — and surfeit of vacant land, Andresky said, "the urban farming movement in Detroit is a really powerful movement."

Through her work in urban agriculture, Andresky said she has come to believe that sustainability is not a broad enough goal.

"You can sustain a human as a vegetable in a hospital on a machine," she said. "What we really want in our cities is viable living."

What's next

Coming up in November, We Are City's import program will host a pair of artists from Brooklyn who will explore civic memory and empowerment by using capes and riffing on the notion of invisibility. The group's previous exchange artist from the Bureau of Manufactured History produced a book titled, The Manufactured History of Indianapolis. Excerpts of their adventures are posted online.

To subscribe to the free "We Are City" briefing, released everyTuesday and Thursday at 7 a.m.,


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