It was John Gunther, an American journalist most known for his work Inside USA that wrote these words about Indianapolis in 1947: a “raw, dirty and unkempt city…” A city, Gunther wrote, travelers should avoid, really, as they made their way through the Midwest.
In the 1960’s and ’70’s, civically minded women calling themselves the Keep Indiana Beautiful Club began to clean streets and alleys. Many of these ladies were part of Lockerbie’s ultimate renaissance and historic designation, and were praised and featured often by The Indianapolis Star/News!
Many years after Inside USA, Bill Hudnut read Gunther’s words. It fortified his vision for a vibrant downtown, city, and county. In his first year in office, he created KIB (then staffed by a part-time person in city government, and called the Indianapolis Clean City Committee, or ICCC.) This was an era when civic and political leaders were actively shaping the Indianapolis we know today—UPUI, White River State Park, a basketball arena, the early ideas for a downtown shopping mall—and the ICCC. Indianapolis residents remember before the internet, and in a time of just four or five television channels Bill Hudnut’s public service announcement, warmly labeled “The Hudnut Hook.” In the television ad, the mayor encouraged Indy residents to put litter in its place—and we were off, launching education campaigns, visiting schools with the anti-littering message, and joining the pioneering Keep Indiana Beautiful Club that was cleaning up our city’s downtown neighborhoods.
Steve Goldsmith’s big challenge and an inspired Baptist minister
With Bill Hudnut’s encouragement, civic leaders incorporated the Indianapolis Clean City Committee as a non profit organization in 1981, and soon expanded beyond anti-litter campaigns into environmental education and drop-off recycling. ICCC had slowly grown to a staff about five people, getting free rent from the Simon family at 148 East Market Street (now home to the Bu Da Lounge). It was 1993, and Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, known for privatization and leveraging public investment with private philanthropy, was about a year into his first term when he approached then ICCC executive director Greg Fennig with a question: “Why should I be investing any money in your organization?”
It was this challenge, which the mayor often gave to partners, that got KIB to the civic table in a new and bolder way, and inspired a transformation in KIB that animates our work today.
“How can KIB inspire further private investment where city dollars can’t stretch,” Mayor Goldsmith asked. “Project 180”, a public-private partnership, was created and managed by KIB to turn around distressed neighborhoods, revitalizing them through tree planting, pocket parks and painting once glorious, proud homes. I remember with more than a bit of trepidation WRTV6 news anchors Diane Willis and Clyde Lee perched on 20’ extension ladders painting a home north of 30th and College Avenue to promote the program. Watch out below!
But, it was Pastor Kenneth Ward, and the brilliant, late Woodruff Place resident and landscape architect Eric Fulford (designer for the Medal of Honor Memorial on the downtown canal; and, Fountain Square’s fountain re-do some years back), that catalyzed a seminal moment for KIB and its work in neighborhoods.
Pastor Ward had begun a child care for church and neighborhood families near 30th and Harding Streets. Across the street was a vacant lot, host to gangs, drugs, dogfights and illegal dumping. Over some amazing breakfasts, and multiple meetings in Community Missionary Church’s small basement, we worked with church members and neighborhood residents to put dreams to paper: a pocket park to displace gangs, drugs and dogfights. It would be a hopeful, lively and beautiful place, with raised beds, a playground and flowering trees. And, so it was, completed mostly in a single day. Food was grown for seniors by church youth. The children could play, and be in a beautiful place that once was pretty awful and despairing. It was this project that informed KIB about the impact its work could have not just in waste management, through litter clean ups and recycling, but by using the transformation of the landscape to meet the needs, and realize the dreams of Indianapolis residents.
Bold Strokes Help KIB Move the Needle for the Community
Pastor Ward’s vision moved KIB forward. In 1998, it was Jay Height, who imagined a linear park of trees across the street from Shepherd Community’s first home at State and Washington, instead of an alley attracting drug dealing. Shepherd Community worked with KIB to vacate the alley, and replace it with flowering trees dedicated to a fallen police officer. It was one of many projects that week, as KIB managed hundreds of youth volunteers despite rain and severe weather. And police calls dropped precipitously in front of Shepherd.
It was KIB’s largest volunteer undertaking to date. Soon, we were stopping traffic (literally) on Binford Boulevard as we planted hundreds of trees and thousands of daffodils as part of Binford Revitalization And Growth’s neighborhood redevelopment strategy. And in an unheard of effort nationally, with Lilly’s help, we shut down an interstate and naturalized 11 acres of state property in 12 hours, while providing Herron students and professors art projects that shaped careers.
Inspired by our ability to manage many volunteers, and national research pointing to the socioeconomic and environmental benefits of urban greening, Mayor Bart Peterson embraced KIB’s vision to reforest our city, based on IUPUI’s and KIB’s groundbreaking spatial analyses mapping social and economic stresses in Center Township. In his last state of the city address, Mayor Peterson shared a vision to work with KIB to plant 100,000 trees in Indianapolis. Much to his credit, Mayor Greg Ballard boosted public support, lending his bully pulpit and DPW infrastructure dollars to plant trees, and to support KIB’s signature green job program Youth Tree Team (now 80 youth strong) to ensure the newly planted trees’ survival. Since 2007, KIB has planted nearly 50,000 trees in our city.
This growth required a little more elbow room. In 2008, KIB moved into its headquarters. More than a place to store its shovels and conduct its business, KIB wanted to demonstrate its values, and provide a showplace for environmentally sensitive redevelopment to Indianapolis residents, students, environmentalists, businesses, architects, engineers, construction professionals and property managers. What had been a contaminated property and abandoned building is now a place teeming with100 full and part time employees; and it served as a meaningful contribution to North Square’s emergence. The US Green Building Council certified KIB’s space with “gold” standing, an achievement unlike any other in Indianapolis. Last year, KIB added a meadow to its roof to sustain pollinators and reduce its energy needs. In late summer, KIB staff enjoy the monarch butterflies as they stop for sustenance on their southward migration…
From Clean to Green to Thriving
Today, KIB’s mission is working with diverse communities to create vibrant places, helping people and nature thrive. It is a national leader in its field; the largest among 1,000 Keep America Beautiful affiliates, and among the most influential Arbor Day Foundation’s alliance of two hundred community forestry groups. Its Adopt-A-Block program supports nearly 1,000 volunteers. Youth employment has expanded beyond tree care to the employment of college students installing and maintaining native landscapes. Partnerships with artists and designers are creating hyper-local, authentic neighborhood parks and schoolgrounds for people and nature, often in places once forgotten, neglected, or the result of economic disinvestment. Recent projects have included Pedals, Prose and Places, a partnership to invite people to cycle to downtown greenspaces to hear a history lesson, listen to music, or hear Indiana’s poet laureate in St. Mary’s pocket park. Vibrant Corridors, a partnership with Arts Council of Indianapolis and Downtown Indy added community-inspired art under dark and unwelcoming connections between the downtown business district and adjacent neighborhoods; and Purpose Park was developed. It features a 1964 Pontiac Bonneville “low-rider” as its culturally significant highlight.
Today’s KIB is a research partner, with Indiana and Butler universities. In just the last two years, Keep Indianapolis Beautiful’s work has been the subject of international academic literature, and has led to discoveries important to the thriving of urban people and the living world.
Volunteer tree planting and tending is strongly correlated with an increase in collective action in neighborhoods.
Habitat restoration along Fall Creek between the state fairgrounds to public land southwest of Ivy Tech is a first in the academic literature, because of its unique position as not only an environmental enhancement, but also as a community redevelopment strategy by the Mapleton Fall Creek Development Corporation.
Most recently, Butler University Professor Alison O’Malley worked with KIB and Butler students to survey 400 neighborhood residents about the impact KIB’s pocket parks from Bates Hendricks to Fletcher Place and Windsor Park. The data are reliable, and clear: pocket parks increase residents’ pride in their neighborhoods; their interest in living and staying in their neighborhoods; and being more involved in their neighborhoods. For good measure, survey participants also report an increased interest in protecting the natural world, right here in the city!
The Next 40 Years
Gunther might be happy to know that KIB is still picking up litter; enough each year to stack Lucas Oil field several stories tall!
And, KIB is creating our community’s authentic places for people and the natural world. Our work is distinctive, in that in a very local way, the community informs, creates and cares for these places.
KIB is in the business not only of creating cleaner and greener environments, but also making them livelier, healthier, more diverse, more distinctive, and more loved.
Beyond the physical landscape, KIB transforms the human landscape as well. Our work helps people and communities be happier, healthier, safer, more involved, more proud, more connected and more capable.
The magic happens on vacant lots and single blocks; it happens in neighborhoods, parks, greenways, and even on the immense amount of gray infrastructure that for better or worse, binds us together.
Over 2016, we’ll share more with you about the impact of the work, and our new strategic plan. Consider these columns love letters, to you, to our city, and to all the neighborhood visionaries and civic and corporate volunteers that have never accepted Indianapolis as the “dirty, raw and unkempt city” Gunther disparaged more than 60 years ago.