PreEnact Indy 2018: Wherein Art Fights Gentrification

 PreEnactIndy by Kyle Ragsdale

PreEnactIndy by Kyle Ragsdale

September 25, 2018

PreEnact Indy: it’s back by popular demand. This spectacular event returns next Saturday, October 6th to the Monon16 neighborhood. Last fall, the Harrison Center collaborated with theater groups, artists, schools and other organizations to transform three blocks of East 16th Street into a stage for a unique type of performance. Set designers made vacant buildings look vibrant, and actors portrayed business owners and neighbors collaborating to improve their community. For one day in the Monon16 neighborhood, a candy store re-opened, a vacant storefront became a barber shop, and a cafe appeared in the middle of the road, helping to slow down the busy 16th Street traffic. Thousands of people attended the free, all-day public event, playing basketball in the street, listening to live music, watching performances, getting lunch from a food truck, shopping at a handicraft market, visiting a historic library, and witnessing a wedding inside a neighborhood church.

 All photos: Chuck Horn

All photos: Chuck Horn

PreEnact Indy is a professional theater event which feels a bit like a street festival, with the goal of envisioning the neighborhood as a just, equitable and economically healthy place. The script for performances is based on the socioeconomic history of the community; it is "a way to understand both the pain of the neighborhood's past and what its dreams are, to build hope for the future," says Joanna Taft, executive director of the Harrison Center. "It's not meant to be just a band-aid or a temporary prettying-up of buildings." PreEnact Indy has been described as an "anti-gentrification project," the first creative placemaking effort of its kind in the country; it aims to serve as a model for other arts organizations and community nonprofits seeking to help struggling neighborhoods and combat gentrification.

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How does this event fight gentrification? Instead of economic development at the cost of displacement, PreEnact Indy envisions a dynamic, equitable and healthy neighborhood where everyone is included in economic prosperity. Over the past few years, new businesses have begun to fill long-vacant buildings on East 16th Street, and new developments are being constructed along the Monon Trail, both residential and commercial.  After suffering long years of decline, the Monon16 neighborhood is now on the brink of major changes. Residents of Monon16 feel it’s important to help newcomers to the community (or potential developers) understand that they’re not starting over from scratch, or building in a vacuum, or writing on a blank slate; the neighborhood’s history and vibrant past are important to its future and not to be discarded. PreEnact Indy seeks to answer the question, timely and relevant for many urban neighborhoods, of how to restore and revitalize a community sensitively and inclusively, without pushing out its citizens and trampling on its heritage and history. Over the past two years, interns and artists from the Harrison Center have been spending time with longtime residents of Monon16, connecting them to each other, hearing stories of the neighborhood's lively past, and recording their hopes and plans for the future of their community. Abi Ogle, an artist and Harrison Center intern who is responsible for helping coordinate this year’s PreEnact Indy event, had the opportunity earlier in the summer to meet ‘the Greatriarchs of Monon16,’ six longtime residents of the neighborhood who have cared well for their community. She painted portraits of each one as part of a project to honor them and the Monon16 neighborhood, and says it was an incredible experience for her. “I really believe that if you listen to the stories of others, those stories can change you if you let them.” Look for Abi’s paintings next week at PreEnact Indy; the portraits of the Greatriarchs hang on the front of the red brick building just east of the Monon Trail on the north side of 16th Street, across from the Tinker House.

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PreEnact Indy will take place next Saturday, October 6th from 10-5 pm, on 16th Street from the Monon Trail to Dr. Andrew J. Brown Ave. In addition to the many dramatic arts and music performances, activities for the day will include: interactive workshops, a pop-up cafe, artisan market, lawn games, food trucks, a pop-up roller rink, car repair lessons (a partnership of the Indianapolis Speedway and NextGen Youth), building tours, a sneak preview of a new pizza place, a musical Gospel Fest, a chance to meet members of the Association of Black Cowboys, and a library-sponsored Scan-A-Thon, where neighbors can bring their old photos of African American community in the Monon16 area to be scanned into the Indianapolis Public Library’s historical archives.

Last year, there was an overwhelmingly positive response to PreEnact Indy from Monon16 residents and neighbors. They were delighted to see visible reminders of the good in Monon16’s past, and a more tangible hope for good in the future seemed within their grasp. As one neighbor said, “Everybody’s coming back together. . .by you all coming here and doing this, you all are bringing people back together again.” We hope and expect that this year’s PreEnact Indy will do as much and even more, reaching neighbors both old and new with the message that a revitalized, inclusive, equitable community with respectful awareness of its past is truly possible.