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Fountain Square in Indianapolis
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Fountain Square in Indianapolis

Renewed interest

Cities | What was once a dying Indianapolis neighborhood is being brought back to life one family at a time

INDIANAPOLIS—The Fountain Square neighborhood of Indiana’s capital city is ripe for renewal, spiritually and physically.

Aging historic buildings have been renovated and are attracting new tenants. The old Fountain Square Theatre is attracting bigger crowds. Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA), a thriving church near downtown, is planting a church in Fountain Square this fall, as several families from the church have moved to the neighborhood. Real water is flowing out of the old but spruced up fountain on the square.

A few blocks east of the square, civic activists also want to keep boosting home ownership in a residential neighborhood turnaround.

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The street is named St. Paul, but for a sad period of time it did not live up to its namesake in the Bible. Now volunteers are helping an eight-child family build their home, to maintain momentum of a 2010 home-building blitz in the area.

Before the blitz, according to long-time resident Marti LaMar, “St. Paul Street was like Ground Zero.”

Broken glass littered the sidewalk. The grass was rarely cut on most lots. Weeds were overtaking front yards. Gunshots could be heard from time to time. Vacant houses burned down. Some residents felt trapped inside their homes, for fear of crime.

Now the block of St. Paul Street has a clean look, with owner-occupied homes. The grass gets cut. Flowers have been planted. Crime is way down. Sidewalks are new, thanks to city government taking note of the progress. Children play in yards. “The fear factor has definitely come way down,” summed up LaMar.

“It is not heaven on earth,” added another long-term resident, Kent Simmerman, noting that police still get called, sometimes for domestic disputes. “But we have less vagrants sleeping in the houses.”

For their eight children, Jeff and Angela Davis are seeing their home ownership dream come true as they put in their sweat equity as a down payment for a $60,000 home.

“When the Bible says you receive the desires of your heart, that’s what we are receiving,” Jeff said. “I desired a lot of children and a new home.”

After serving in the Marines and working 30 years at a lead refinery, Jeff now works for FedEx, does handyman jobs, and is taking classes at Ivy Tech.

“It’s a good example to my children, to see me going to school and learning new skills,” he said. “I want to make it better for my children than what I have had.”

The Davises have lived in public housing and in two crowded rooms with Angela’s mother in her home. Their children attend a relatively new charter school with a strong academic emphasis.

The Fountain Square homebuilding project has been organized by the Fuller Center for Housing of Central Indiana, which requires families to put in 300 hours of sweat equity. The center operates without paid staff to keep contributions directed to homebuilding. The 20-year mortgages cost an average of $240 a month, plus $190 in taxes and insurance. The group was started by executive director Chuck Vogt, builder Ron Fisher, and Jeff Cardwell, a businessman and civic leader who works in the Gov. Mike Pence administration running the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

What is striking is how this latest renewal of Fountain Square has echoes of a similar effort almost a generation ago. In 1993, then-Mayor Steve Goldsmith challenged national Bible teacher Bill Gothard to adopt a neighborhood in Indianapolis, similar to what Gothard’s ministry was doing in Russia after the fall of communism. Some of the young homeschooled students in Gothard’s ministry spent several months in the Fountain Square area, helping renovate some homes and providing a mercy ministry to families.

As I met those young people and wrote stories about them, I was impressed by their idealism and kindness. But it was hard to discern long-term impact in the neighborhood. They must have prayed for people in the neighborhood, though, and a generation later those prayers are being answered. The new PCA church is likely to have long-term influence in the area, along with the Fuller Center project to provide a concentration of home ownership in what had been a crime-ridden section. The Fuller Center has hit at least a triple on this time at bat: The neighborhood has another owner-occupied house, a family in need will own their home, a vacant lot will go back on the tax rolls.

Jeff Cardwell, a former City-County councilman, noted that the city still has 12,000 abandoned homes. He and the other Fuller volunteers don’t see any shortcuts to resolving that problem. But they see progress in helping one family at a time work toward home ownership.

Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.

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