Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.
An Indianapolis arts group takes a community development approach to reusing vacant space.
An empty tire shop in the vast parking lot of a fading suburban shopping mall wouldn't seem like the sort of place to find a community. But community is just what a place like this needs, according to Jim Walker. He's the executive director of Big Car, an artist-run collaborative in Indianapolis that's focused on coupling arts projects with economic development efforts in parts of the city that are lacking both. His group – and a couple hundred local volunteers – have been steadily transforming an abandoned tire store in the Lafayette Square neighborhood into a living arts and community space.
Walker calls Big Car a "creative community development organization," and argues that artistic efforts can also achieve economic development goals. That combination has been working.
Since its founding in 2004, Big Car has focused on creating spaces in the city where artists and community members can go to engage with the city and each other. They ran a similar community center in another part of town for years, but as the neighborhood gradually established itself as a commercially viable arts district, Walker took that as a sign to move to another area more in need of economic development.
Dubbed the Service Center for Contemporary Culture and Community, the old tire shop has been converted over the last year into a space for exhibitions and events, a library and computer lab, and co-working space. The most recent addition to the space is a huge vegetable garden in planter boxes built right on top of the asphalt outside. Bedecked with two of the 46 murals commissioned when the city hosted the Super Bowl earlier this year, the building has been transformed from an eyesore into an icon.
"We're doing everything we can do to tweak the building into a more creative oasis in what's sort of a desert of commercial blight," Walker says.
In addition to hosting arts projects and encouraging community use of the tire shop's ample space for dances and potlucks and other events, the building is also being used as a workshop for projects aimed at helping the rest of the neighborhood grow. With falling rents in recent years the area was in economic decline. But at the same time, the lower rents opened doors for many immigrant-run businesses, especially restaurants. One project enrolled artists to create a restaurant and dining guide to all the establishments in the area.
"Really, that is an economic development tool and a marketing tool," says Walker. "But for us, it still is an art project."
Big Car is a nonprofit and receives most of its support from local foundations, including the Efroymson Family Fund and Indianapolis Foundation. Walker says Service Center has so far seen more than 10,000 visitors – a pretty striking number for an old tire shop at a suburban shopping mall. The improbability of it, though, is kind of the point. For Walker, it's places like these that need to be re-considered as community assets for neighborhoods without many others. He hopes that the transformation they’ve made of this formerly empty tire shop into a new center of neighborhood life will serve as an example for other people throughout the city.
"Doing something like this that seems so difficult that nobody would try to tackle in these neighborhoods, we hope that gets more people to think, 'OK, I'll try something new, either individually or as an organization or as a government,'" Walker says. "To just say 'let's take chances and let's try something new and let's not just wait for somebody else to do it.'"
Photos courtesy Big Car