Mass Ave and the Failure of Success

There’s no disputing it: the Mass Ave corridor in Indianapolis presents a de facto narrative of comeback urbanism: a cornucopia of pawn shops, liquor stores, and parking lots fought back to become a walkable district that city leaders and natives alike tout as sheer evidence of the city’s 21st century awakening.

Infrastructure improvements such as the world-famous Cultural Trail and parking lots eaten by over $500 million dollars of nearby real estate investment help to back up the narrative. Glimpses of Mass Ave pre-2010 testify to this overhaul. IFD headquarters on New Jersey/Mass has relocated to make way for a $50 million mixed-use structure and just this year ground broke on the district’s most ambitious project yet: The Bottleworks, a new sub-neighborhood re-purposing the old Coca-Cola facility and adjacent property featuring a boutique hotel, marketplace, and over 150,000 sq. ft. of retail options, thus creating into a bottle-cap* of sorts for the district. (*see what I did there?) To say Mass Ave has been a success would be a massive understatement.

One of my favorite places in Indianapolis to sit, a bench, is adjacent to the dancing lady (known as Ann Dancing) on the corner of Mass and Alabama on a weekend night. The culmination of drunken bachelorette parties, pandering homeless, and the occasional elderly couple out strolling gives Indy a distinctly urban feel. The smooth whisper of Chatterbox jazz emanates a few storefronts down, joining the cacophony of restless weekenders and panhandlers caressing Ann to her soft sway. During summertime, the lines awaiting frozen yogurt meet the smokers outside Old Point, a phantasmagoria of both young and old. This is Indy’s finest ballet.

But when it’s not a weekend night, I can’t help but feel a sense of emptiness on Mass Ave. It’s been hard to pin down, especially with the booming construction. Something not necessarily tangible, rather visceral. But it is there, lurking behind every new restaurant that opens. It was there when Verizon opened their doors next to the Musk (Kimbal!) brother and it was there yet again when Mass Ave Toys relocated to greener, kinder(garten) pastures. This sense is weird, considering the district continues to swell in on itself, each week seemingly brings another parking lot to its constructive end. Yeah, there’s still the local haunts such as Silver in the City and Indy Reads, but I sense this vague, vacuous, almost insipid sense of meaningless. Of a dead-eyed-blue. Almost poetic but without the romance. Like a post-bargain Faust that invariably lost his soul.

I think what set this off was the closing of Old Point Tavern. Rather, the closing of the real one and not the Stepford Wife that took its place. You know, the clone with eight-dollar beers and that double-dollar sign next to a salad menu.

And then read Po Boy’s was closing! Okay, I told myself. Change happens. Change is good.

Two totally different neighborhoods, two totally different places. Two casualties of the success of a city district. Wait…who bought Po Boy’s? The same Cunningham that rebooted Old Point’s Clone? The same one that owns about a zillion restaurants on Mass Ave alone? Like Bru, Union 50? The same ones that litter the heart of downtown?

Let me first say, I am in no way shape or form going to dismiss the efforts of Mr. Cunningham and argue he is shaping the city himself. Who does that? (*ahem Robert Moses*) There is a tendency for outstanding success in cities to destroy itself, in the words of the immortal Jane Jacobs.

Let’s use a chapter of ...Great American Cities as a quasi-VR headset on the environment and conditions we currently see in Mass Ave that could explain my seemingly inexplicable malaise.

Also, as a caveat, let’s just pronounce that Jane Jacobs is surely not the end-all, be-all for urbanism/city-planning. However, to dismiss the following conflation as an mid-century anachronism out of touch with current realities is a myopic view. There are too many parallels.

As Mark Twain once said, “history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme”.

The self-destruction of diversity, chapter 13 – The Death and Life of Great American Cities

“The first of these powerful forces [that influence cities] is the tendency for outstanding success in cities to destroy itself.”

(all emphasis mine)

Firstly, let’s reassert that yes, Mass Ave has been a giant success. This success, brought on by a thriving theater and arts scene, has provided the impetus for a myriad of white-collared professionals to re-inhibit downtown. Give credit where credit is due. The city of Indianapolis along with colonizing artists helped to paint Mass Ave as an attractive district, a hotspot of culture, an area that people feel safe walking their dogs in. However, in the poignant words of the provocateur Axl Rose (an Indiana boy!), “nothing lasts forever”.

“Because of the location’s success, which is invariably based on flourishing and magnetic diversity, ardent competition for space in this locality develops. It is taken up in what amounts to the economic equivalent of a fad.”

The gist is this: a city district becomes popular and successful as a whole (paraphrasing), and because of the locale’s success, competition for space ensues. Mass Ave = successful, ergo the space around and adjacent to the district becomes valuable, thus setting into motion the forces of the free market. The free market, as any Econ 101 student will tell you, absolutely adores proven money-makers. And boy, do high-end restaurants catering to young professionals make money.

Cunningham Restaurant Group now claims ownership of 5 restaurants on or near Mass Ave: Bru, Mesh, Union 50, Tavern at the Point, Livery. Many of these are adjacent to or near other high-end eateries, offering much the same in terms of economic options. How’s that for economic diversity?

“Whichever one or few uses have emerged as the most profitable in the locality will be repeated and repeated, crowding out and overwhelming less profitable forms of use.”

Mass Ave’s resurgence began with an emphasis on art. The district’s motto basically heralds the area as the “new-fangled angle”. This is nice, but the forces of the market have long since priced out the very artists that helped to make the district an interesting enough place for white-collars to move in. (I mean, white collar, if you get my drift.)

This boom of young professionals into this area of the city has been great for increasing downtown density. INDYimby released a graph a few years back denoting just how much construction has actually taken place. However, walking along Mass Ave leaves one with the impression that the only things Hoosiers like to do is either a.) drink craft beer or b.) eat at high-end restaurants.

Alotta sugar, but where’s the salt?

Mr. Cunningham may have increased his yearly profits, but the district of Mass Ave loses a bit of its soul each time another one of his restaurants opens.

The increased competition due to the district’s success means that less profitable agencies, stores, and start-ups will either relinquish or never attempt to inhibit the ever-growing space of street-facing retail along Mass.

This means the very kinds of stores that make a city a city will find elsewhere to be, if at all. This means bookstores that encourage adult literacy, laundromats that are essential for residents, locally-owned cafes and coffee-shops. These places are the salt of the city.

All will have to find somewhere else to go once prices become prohibitive. More Starbucks lattes, Verizon cellphones, and high-end restaurants mean places like Henry’s on East no longer have a chance when confronted with stringent competition for space and a populace only concerned with whatever Kimbal Musk is opening next.

What then happens to the district?

“Thus, from this process, one or few dominating uses finally emerge triumphant…From this point on, the locality will gradually be deserted by people using it for purposes other than those that emerged triumphant from the competition – because the other purposes are no longer there.”

At this point, I’m sure you’re thinking, “Okay, I’ve read about gentrification a MILLION times and this is all nothing new under the sun.” Okay, got it.

But so often, the discussion around gentrification discusses only residents in particular, not necessarily the diversity of businesses that becomes a victim to the sterilization of market forces.

Mass Ave is slowly becoming the CBGB that turned into a Lower East Side Target

Much is spoken of the affordable housing crisis. What about the retail-death epidemic we are currently facing? With an influx of new construction comes the call for destruction of older buildings that would have provided cheaper rent for start-ups and locally-owned businesses. All while new construction demands instant returns on its investment, hence, becoming suitable only for market-rate housing and chain retail, or retail that can assuredly foot the bill.

But innovation does not come from security! It comes from those with ambition to take risks. It has suddenly become impossible to take risks when the developer needs to make a quick buck. Yeah, those mixed-users look nice with their added density, but without a diversity of business options they become a mound of sugar on a very stale cake.

The retail apocalypse does not portend that we are losing our ambitions and ideas – it is simply more symptomatic of an environment hostile to fomenting new ideas and progress.

Who truly benefits from TIF districts if the credits are only being used by multi-million dollar agencies looking for a spare buck to help further widen the gap between rich and poor? Not to demean nor criticize the influx of investment into previously uninvestable neighborhoods, however, there is something to be said for the city that no longer provides for those who that give the city its salt. Those who give the city its soul.

Hey, at least there’s still Mass Ave Pub.



  1. I agree with the observations. I continue to ask myself whether the Cultural Brand of Mass Avenue is becoming greater than the actual cultural experience and what can we do to protect and improve the Mass Avenue District.

    Over the past decade, residents, employers, and employees in and around the Mass Avenue Cultural District have experienced a significant impact from the presence of Arts and Culture in the Mass Avenue area, including neighborhood revitalization and residents’ civic engagement.

    A combination and partnership of local government support, support from foundations, endowments, corporations, community leaders, and private individuals is needed to maintain the continuing revitalization.

    A significant level of support is necessary to manage the possibility of driving the Arts and Cultural community out of Mass Avenue as a demand on real estate causes prices to rise and become out of reach for many current residents, including individuals working in the Arts and Cultural areas.

    The Mass Avenue area has been designated one of the six Cultural Districts in Indianapolis and is simply defined as a density of organizations, businesses, participants and artists—that sets it apart from other neighborhoods. Typically, the arts and culture community has been equated with nonprofit organizations. However, an in depth look at the Mass Avenue area results in the realization that Mass Avenue is also a combination of commercial cultural businesses (ranging from theaters, galleries, arts and crafts stores, specialty shops, pipe organ manufacturer, jazz club, comedy club, to theater staging firm, etc.). The commercial cultural businesses, together with the non-profit arts and cultural groups, have created a situation where all the players are part of a creative sector that crosses a variety of boundaries.

    Residents, commercial cultural businesses, non-profits and other commercial business owners all agree that the Arts and Culture community has demonstrated a significant impact on the Mass Avenue area and surrounding neighborhoods.

    I first interviewed Carol Ernsting in 2008. Carol Ernsting had been a resident of the Mass Avenue Cultural District since 1997. Carol’s house was built in 1863 and is one of the oldest homes in the Chatham Arch neighborhood. Reflecting back to 1997, Carol politely described the Mass Avenue area as “needing improvement”. As a residential realtor, Carol moved to the Mass Avenue area in 1997 with a belief that revitalization would occur faster because of the significant arts and culture renaissance in the Mass Avenue area. In fact, according to a study of cultural districts in Philadelphia conducted by The Reinvestment Fund (a national leader in the financing of neighborhood revitalization), block groups with a high number of cultural assets are nearly four times more likely to see their population increase and their poverty rates decline as sections with fewer cultural assets.

    How can the Public sector support the role of arts and culture in revitalizing Indianapolis? The Reinvestment Fund believes the first impact can occur from the public sector just doing its job better. Providing security, clean and safe streets, usable public spaces, and consistent and honest enforcement of zoning and development regulations would make revitalization much easier. Strategic grants for place-making activities, distinctive streetscapes, park facilities, local festivals—would also provide huge returns.
    IndyFringe is one example of a festival providing huge returns. IndyFringe is a ten day theater festival on Mass Avenue in August of each year that attracts over 13,000 attendees. IndyFringe is supported by public and private contributions and grants, including the Indianapolis Foundation, NUVO, The Arts Council of Indianapolis, Young and Laramore, The Christel DeHaan Family Foundation, The Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust, The Indy Eleven Soccer Team with the Ozdemir Family, A.W. Clowes Charitable Foundation, Frank and Katrina Basile, and others. BMO Harris Bank, NA is the Corporate Sponsor (I work for BMO).

    Pauline Moffat is the Executive Director of IndyFringe. When asked about the economic and social impact of IndyFringe on Mass Avenue and the Indianapolis area, Moffat stated that “During the past fourteen years, IndyFringe has created a huge economic benefit to the Mass Avenue Cultural District. IndyFringe attendance data collected over the years indicates the 13,000 plus average annual attendance to be an audience representing 44% with incomes over $50,000, 55% female, 72% college educated, 74% between the age of 25 and 64, living in Marion County and who (according to the surveys completed by the attendees) spend approximately $400,000 during the ten day festival on Mass Avenue during August of each year.” In addition, “IndyFringe returns 75% of the box office revenue to the performers with payments exceeding $1,000,000 to the actors over the past thirteen years”. Moffat believes that the true economic benefit of IndyFringe, supported by the demographics, comes from importing attendees who reside in other areas of Marion County to the Mass Ave area. Moffatt states, “If a local Mass Avenue resident spends a dollar on culture, then it is a dollar not spent on something else. However, if a Marion County resident comes into the Mass Ave area and spends a dollar on culture, then the spending has a direct economic impact on the area.” This is the key economic driver; i.e. attracting a visitor from outside of the area to spend money.

    Moffat believes the IndyFringe Festival also has a significant social impact which supports the revitalization of the Mass Avenue Cultural District. Many of the IndyFringe artists and technicians work with several other performing arts organizations in the Central Indiana area during the year and as a result, create and build social networks. IndyFringe partners with several other non-profits and organizations in the Central Indiana area and as a result builds social networks. When Mass Ave Cultural District residents are involved in arts programs, churches, civic organizations, they build networks. Moffat believes that the IndyFringe Theater Festival is a conduit for building social networks in the area that foster social inclination and skills critical to civic renewal, including tolerance, consensus building, collaboration, problem-solving and the capacity to imagine change and the willingness to work for change. “We are talking about fostering connections across neighborhoods and social groups.”

    One of the best significant moves by IndyFringe was to purchase and renovate the IndyFringe Theatre on St. Clair Street near College and build the additional IndyEleven Theatre as an addition with the help of Frank and Katrina Basile and Irsal and Isabelle Ozdemir. Otherwise, the pressure on building owners to raise rents would have resulted in IndyFringe being evicted from the Avenue with no hope of affordable Theater rental space. Additionally, Theatre on the Square was on the virtue of closing in 2018 and at risk for being sold to a market rate bar or restaurant owner. The Indianapolis Foundation, led by Brian Payne, stepped in and secured ownership of the Building while investing over $300,000 in repairs and renovations. The new Board of the District Theatre hired IndyFringe to manage the Theatres as affordable presentation theaters where Producers can rent the theater for productions at affordable rates. Therefore, we now have an additional two protected theater space in addition to the IndyFringe Basile Theatre and the IndyEleven Theatre.

    The first real affect of Gentrification is on housing renters and retail renters. Pauline and I attended a National Place-making Conference recently in Denver and the national trend in Cultural Districts seemed to be for the Cultural Assets to be priced out (“gentrified) of the successful Cultural Districts. Pauline had the foresight in 2006 to develop a strategic plan that included ownership of theaters so that Fringe would not be “gentrified” out of the area and to use the building as a brand and as a source of earned income to supplement the expenses of Fringe.

    Ron Spencer was the Executive Artistic Director of the Theater on the Square (now The District Theatre). Theatre on the Square was a professionally managed theatre which was started in September 1988 by Spencer and a group of friends. I also interviewed Ron in 2008. Ron believed that the IndyFringe Theater festival played an important role in the maintenance and development of the Mass Avenue Cultural District area. Ron saw a need for emerging performing artists to have a venue to perform and be creative. Ron believed that the IndyFringe Theater festival filled a huge gap in the arts and culture community by providing an opportunity for performing artists to hone their craft, be creative, earn a living, and stay in the Indianapolis area. In addition, Ron believed the IndyFringe Festival programming promotes social change through cultural understanding and tolerance. The IndyFringe Festival program is an open-air showcase of traditional and non-traditional theatre, dance, music, improvisation and a wide range of other performance and visual arts, all performed and created by local, national and international artists.

    In the article Cultivating “Natural” Cultural Districts, authors Stern and Seifert state, “Historically, success in the arts community in crossing boundaries and overcoming historical patterns of social exclusion provides vitality in a community.” The ten days of IndyFringe performances representing local, national, and international artists crisscross many different cultural, economic, and social backgrounds while strengthening the Indianapolis area by promoting diversity and social engagement.

    The streetscape in the Mass Avenue Cultural District has experienced a dramatic improvement. Brian Payne, President of the Central Indiana Community Foundation, led an effort to build a $50 million, 7.5-mile network of bicycle and pedestrian pathways right through the Indianapolis downtown area and directly through the heart of the Mass Avenue Cultural District. Payne secured a $15 million gift from a private donor, then convinced the city to kick in $15 million in federal transportation funds, and has raised an additional $10 million from other private sources. Pedestrians and bicyclists are able to use the Indianapolis Cultural Trail from anywhere on the 7.5 mile route and travel directly to the galleries, theaters, cafes and shops on Mass Avenue and then connect to the Monon Trail at the North End of the Mass Avenue Cultural District. The problem is that the Cultural Trail generated more than a billion dollars of economic increased value in the adjoining property owners (including myself as a residential owner on the Cultural Trail). Yet, the Cultural Trail does not benefit at all from the increase in real estate taxes for maintenance or other purposes.

    Tom Battista is a local commercial building owner on Mass Avenue, who is active in the Mass Avenue Merchants Association and a board member of several Mass Avenue area non-profit organizations. Tom believes that the Cultural Trail has had a significant social and economic impact on Mass Avenue and on Indianapolis. Besides being a real estate investor and entrepreneur in the Indianapolis area, Tom is the National Stage Manager for Jimmy Buffett. Tom has toured all over the World with Jimmy Buffett and has found nothing similar in any of the multiple cities around the World he has visited. Tom believes that “The Cultural Trail is not just about a pedestrian and bicycle path…it is a destination”. In fact, The Cultural Trail is a destination that includes a phenomenal streetscape which adds over 500 trees and 16,000 square feet of new vegetation to the City together with plenty of aluminum furniture, custom lighting, and public art… all leading to Mass Avenue and connecting four other Cultural Districts in Indianapolis. I like to use the term linear sculpture to describe the Cultural Trail.

    The resurgence and revitalization of the Mass Avenue Cultural District does not come without concern. Particular concern occurs as the housing and commercial space prices increase in the Mass Avenue area and the potential of driving the arts/cultural community out of Mass Avenue becomes clear and real.

    Economists have developed a concept for the dilemma faced in the Mass Avenue Cultural District arising out of revitalization and labeled the dilemma “externalities”. Essentially, the artists and workers in the artist community, nonprofits, and commercial cultural firms in the Mass Avenue Cultural District area have stimulated a poverty rate decline and a population increase, but the artists, nonprofits and commercial cultural firms that have stimulated the revitalization only experience an indirect benefit. On the other hand, a developer or current residential or commercial property owner who profits from the revitalized neighborhood may never even realize that the local resident’s effort to create a community culture and arts scene was the catalyst for revitalization.

    Developers continue to see the Mass Avenue area as ripe for opportunities. The Waldorf residential housing project, started in 2004, on Walnut Street near East Street and Walnut began with six new single family residences having minimum target prices beginning at $650,000. A recent sale of one these homes exceeded $1.2 million after being listed for just a few days. Vacant lots in the area have sold for over $600.000. The Beliouny 757 Mass Ave Condominium project is 23 condominiums ranging from $600,000 to $1.5 million or more. Carol Ernsting’s house these expensive homes. Ernsting paid $91,000 for her house in 1997 and sold her house for $200,000 in 2014. There are several million dollar homes on North Street and Park Avenue and there are several renovations and other re-builds in the area approaching and in the 7 figure price range.

    With residential and commercial property prices continuing to rise, Public Sector support of affordable housing opportunities in the Mass Avenue Cultural District is critical to maintaining the revitalization in the area. Clearly, the presence of artists, technicians, trainers, dealers, distributors and other workers in the cultural community have significantly contributed to the revitalization of the Mass Ave Cultural District. However, as an example, although the presence of street performers certainly help to animate Mass Avenue, it is unlikely that the tips or income at the end of the day are rewards commensurate to their contribution. This statement can be said to be also true for the technicians and other “unglamorous” creative and cultural workers. Providing affordable housing opportunities is critical for improving the balance between cultural employment opportunities and the interests of the revitalized community and as a strategy for improving the labor market and reducing the economic inequality currently associated with the arts.

    How can local foundations and endowments, corporations and private citizens support the role of Arts and Culture in revitalizing Indianapolis? The first impact can come from recognition of a change of philosophy around philanthropy and cultural investment. Historically, philanthropy has supported organizations that have focused on “presenting” or the “consumption” of artistic work (by supporting mainstream institutions such as theaters, symphony, museums, galleries, etc.) versus supporting individual artists and the creation of Art and Culture. A focused and strategic shift of support of individual artists (and the creation of Art) leads to support of space for artists to live, to work, to commune with others and to create.

    As an example, in the late 1990’s, the Heinz Foundation in Pittsburgh, created a strategic plan for its’ grant-making that shifted away from the previous single-minded support for cultural institutions that present artistic work. The Heinz Foundation committed to an expanded creative approach designed to make Pittsburg more hospitable to individual artists. The new approach to support individual artists wound up meaning support of affordable housing for the Arts and Cultural community in the Pittsburgh area Cultural Districts.

    Few programs exist targeted to artists intended to address the specific needs of space. Public and Private support for space initiatives is key to strengthen the development and creation of Arts and Culture in the Indianapolis community.

    The Riley Area Development Corporation is the non-profit organization in the Mass Ave Cultural District area that is the catalyst for community-led neighborhood rebirth through housing revitalization, economic development, and partnerships with crucial self-sufficiency programs. The mission of RADC is to create partnerships to develop, support, and enhance a diverse urban community fabric through developing quality affordable housing for low to moderate income residents in target geographic areas; ensuring increased density and mixed-use development for an economically and socially diverse urban environment; encouraging well-planned, connected open space to provide an aesthetically pleasing urban experience; securing businesses that provide essential services and contribute to the economic development of target areas.

    RADC developed the Davlan project on Mass Avenue in 1999. RADC, in partnership with Roberts Park Methodist Church and Monument Management, restored and renovated the former Davlan Family Hotel. Originally built by owners Hugh McKlandon, Charles H. Byfield, and George S. Oliver in 1912, the hotel rented rooms for $11 a month which included a single or two-room suite with running hot and cold water and detached baths.

    The renovated Davlan Building includes 50 one and two bedroom apartments. Apartments are available for individuals at forty, fifty, and sixty percent of median income, as well as market rate units. There is also 15,000 square feet of commercial space on the first floor, which includes: Starbucks, @Home in the City/Silver in the City, Elements and Subway.

    RADC has also developed the Trailside project with small business retail and affordable housing and the Federal Government also maintains the Barton and Lugar Towers in the area.

    Hendricks as the developer of Bottleworks has worked diligently to support an effort to bring Artist Affordable housing to the Bottleworks project, add a museum and additional cultural assets to Bottleworks because Hendricks recognizes the importance of having Culture in a Cultural District and believes that the amenities enhance their ability to develop a successful and sustainable development.

    The Cunningham Restaurant Group has publicly and privately donated thousands of dollars to IndyFringe and other charitable causes in the area in recognition of the importance of investing in the Cultural Assets.

    Why focus public and private resources on Mass Avenue (or any of the other five Cultural Districts in Indianapolis)? First, Mass Avenue is already a sustaining and cultural scene in Indianapolis that presents itself for time-limited strategic intervention to protect the area and expand the social and economic impact. Second, Mass Avenue already contains a significant number of commercial cultural firms presenting the possibility of attracting more firms in the area looking for profitable returns. Thirdly, Mass Avenue is an already established Cultural District which has proven to have significant spillover effects on other areas of Indianapolis. These three factors provide greater returns on Public and Private Investment in the area.

    Attention to Cultural Districts, such as Mass Avenue can be one approach to the Indianapolis area economic development policy. Providing live/work affordable space for the Arts and Culture community contributes to the vitality of Indianapolis, both economically and socially. Additional affordable housing is a Mass Avenue Cultural District strategy that deserves the attention of local government, philanthropy, and the private sector.

    Gary Reiter
    Chatham Arch Resident
    President of the Board of IndyFringe
    President of the Board of Riley Area Development Corporation (non profit affordable housing and community developer)
    BMO Harris Bank employee


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