Conversation: A Neighborhood's Way of Life


In an age in which it is taken for granted that Americans don’t know how to have civil conversations together (this conviction is, for instance, central to Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Talking to Strangers), neighbors on the Near Eastside of Indianapolis have been cultivating habits of conversation for more than a decade. These conversations have been essential to the way the neighborhood has grown and changed in recent years. The Near Eastside is an area just east of downtown. It is comprised of twenty smaller neighborhoods and is home to an economically and ethnically diverse mix of just over 30,000 neighbors.

In 2007, a year after the Near Eastside had been declared a redevelopment zone by the city of Indianapolis, neighborhood groups convened almost 400 neighbors for a visioning event in which they would talk about their hopes and dreams for their place. This visioning event was essential to the development of a quality of life plan that would guide the direction of the neighborhood over the next decade, and would be discussed, evaluated and revised over the intervening years. Last month, neighbors gathered again for a second visioning event, aimed at the development of a completely new quality of life plan. Over 250 neighbors and dozens of organizations from across the Near Eastside came together for a conversation hosted at the neighborhood’s public high school.

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These two visioning events bookend more than a decade of crucial conversations. But in order to understand the local culture of dialogue, you have to go back even further — almost fifty years.  As the flight of white neighbors to the suburbs accelerated in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and as crucial industrial sites in the neighborhood gradually began to decline, a group of ministers rallied neighbors to form a neighborhood organization that would eventually become the Near Eastside Community Organization (NESCO). One of the organizing leaders, Dick Moore, recalls that, in those early years, “We had very little idea what we were doing, or how to get it done — but we met, and talked.” NESCO would keep these conversations going over the next five decades, and would be a hub for neighborhood life and for advocating for the Near Eastside’s neighbors on the margins. Although the exodus of neighbors and the decline of the neighborhood would accelerate over the 1980s and 1990s — leading the Near Eastside in the early 2000s to be among state and national leaders in foreclosures and abandoned properties — NESCO worked diligently to resist this decline and keep neighbors connected.

After the Near Eastside was declared a redevelopment zone in 2006, a designation that typically puts a neighborhood on the fast track toward hyper-gentrification, NESCO and other organizations across the Near Eastside worked together to rally neighbors to gather for the first visioning event in June 2007. These groups specifically focused on gathering as many neighbors as possible, and as diverse a group as possible. For those who needed it, transportation and childcare were provided. Translators were also provided so that Hispanic neighbors could participate in the conversations. After a welcome, neighbors sorted themselves into smaller table conversations on topics vital to the future of the neighborhood. The conversations at the initial visioning event yielded seven key areas within which the neighborhood wanted to focus its energy over the coming years:

  1. Affordable Housing

  2. Business and Economic Development

  3. Education

  4. Family Strengthening

  5. Leadership and Neighborhood Connections

  6. Livability

  7. Public Safety

In the months immediately after, Near Eastside neighbors worked together in conversation to flesh out these areas with specific objectives and they assigned neighborhood groups that would take the lead on each objective. Bill Taft, who at that time was the executive director of the Indianapolis office of the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC) — a major funder of the work envisioned in the Near Eastside plan — recalls that this structure was helpful for bringing the neighborhood’s vision to reality: “We put a big emphasis on results-based accountability. When goals were put into the plans, you could measure results, identify actions, say who the leader was, give the time frame within which each would be completed, and say how completion would be defined.”

Over the last decade the quality of life plan has been a living document that has guided the neighborhood through a season of transformation. The plan served to “regularly inform the strategic decisions of neighborhood leaders as a roadmap to guide investors and other potential partners interested in helping us accomplish our neighborhood goals.” As a result, hundreds of units of affordable housing have been developed for home ownership or rental, a neighborhood elementary school has been launched, and the neighborhood was selected as the site of the high-profile Super Bowl XLVI legacy project, which accelerated a number of development projects on the Near Eastside.

At quarterly summits, neighbors have gathered for conversation, working together to evaluate, adapt, and amend the plan. The following graphic shows how a Near Eastside neighbor or group can add an objective to the plan, or adapt the plan to address an issue that faces the neighborhood

 
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Sometimes this process has been contentious. In 2017, one of the proposed sites for a new Criminal Justice Campus (CJC) was an abandoned industrial campus on the Near Eastside with longstanding environmental concerns. The project came with a price tag of $500 million and would have created several hundred new jobs. A majority of neighbors saw this opportunity as a credible reuse for a problem property, which would provide a new community anchor. Others questioned the benefits of this particular project against the possible merits of pursuing a different reuse strategy. After multiple meetings culminating in a four-hour neighborhood summit where both sides presented their best arguments, official neighborhood support for the CJC proposal fell just one vote short of the 75% threshold the community requires for new projects. Not only did Near Eastsiders demonstrate fidelity to their conversational process in this divisive situation, their choice to pass on this opportunity led to the CJC project being awarded to an adjacent neighborhood that overwhelmingly favored the project. After this decision, the Near Eastside initiated a community-driven planning process for the former industrial site, resulting in a dynamic mixed-use vision for the site which is now moving toward construction.  

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The neighborhood’s quality of life plan has played a crucial role in the ways that resources are allocated on the Near Eastside, and has helped to slow down the processes of development and gentrification. Without this plan, development would likely have been driven — as it has been in many other places — by private developers who are looking to maximize profit. Private developers have played a significant role in the Near Eastside neighborhood over the last decade, but the primary driving agenda has been the neighborhood’s plan, not sheer profit. Because Near Eastside neighbors had a vision for the future of their place, funders, government organizations and other for-profit and not-for-profit groups were eager to work alongside them. As Jeff Bennett, from the Indianapolis mayor’s office, observed at the recent visioning event: “Government works best when neighbors tells the government what they want.”

At the most recent visioning event, neighbors gathered to begin the work of writing a new quality of life plan that will guide the Near Eastside over the coming years. At the beginning of this event, four ground rules were introduced that would serve to guide the day’s conversations:

  1. Be present and listen

  2. Be solution-oriented

  3. Seek to understand. Assume the best

  4. Don’t hog the conversation

After some introductory remarks that reminded participants of the neighborhood’s successes over the last decade, neighbors sorted themselves into 31 table conversations on focused topics that together spanned all seven key areas of the previous quality of life plan. At each table, neighbors shared their hopes and vision for the neighborhood within the scope of their table’s topic. Each table had a facilitator who kept the conversations on track and a scribe who recorded the ideas that the table group proposed. The table conversations ended with each group picking one of its best ideas and sharing it with the whole gathering.

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Neighbors then sorted themselves into different table groups and repeated the process. The event concluded with a simple lunch of soup and dessert, during which the ideas recorded by each table were posted on the walls; neighbors browsed the ideas and voted for the ones they wanted to see brought to fruition. (Each neighbor was given five sticky dots, which they used to vote by placing a dot or dots next to ideas that they supported.)

The records of this initial neighborhood event, both the lists of ideas generated at tables and the voting counts for each of these ideas, will serve as the foundation for further conversations over the next six months — and eventually for the writing of a new quality of life plan that reflects the neighborhood’s vision for the near future.

The Near Eastside’s quality of life plan, as it has unfolded over the last decade, reflects the extent to which conversation has become a way of life in the neighborhood. The plan’s structured conversational process has created a space in which a shared vision for the place can emerge from the diverse voices of its neighbors, and can be evaluated and seen to fruition. Although the present American culture of polarization is not typically conducive to habits of conversation, the experience of Near Eastside neighbors shows that not only are conversations possible, they are vital to the growth and flourishing of a place.



About the Author

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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books, and an employee of the Englewood Community Development Corp. He lives and works on the Near Eastside of Indianapolis, and writes about books, literacy, urban places, and the transformative practice of conversation. Find him online at: .

Twitter: @ChrisSmithIndy Website: C-Christopher-Smith.com