The holidays are past but fresh memories remain of Indianapolis traditions celebrating the season — the Circle of Lights on Monument Circle, luminaries in Irvington, glowing house and lawn displays, and neighbors inviting neighbors over for cookies and a cup of egg nog. Yes, neighbors and neighborhoods; that’s what makes a great city.
Today, over 400 neighborhood organizations are registered with the city of Indianapolis. Many of these communities are old, well-known names in Indianapolis and Marion County history; others are recent associations formed by neighbors out of a pride of community. It was a simpler time in the decade following the founding of Indianapolis when Washington Street divided the Mile Square, and houses and establishments were either North Side or South Side. However, a growing city soon developed distinctive neighborhoods.
Irish immigrants to Indianapolis in the 1840s and ‘50s settled east of the downtown district between S. Noble St. (College Av), Shelby St. and two railroads. Because of the higher elevation, the area became known as Irish Hill. New arrivals and succeeding generations of Irish-Americans found work in the nearby rail yards, the gas works, and local factories. Irish Hill was a pugnacious community in its early days, but “became more refined” in later years. Among old Indianapolis neighborhoods, despite changing demographics and economic circumstances, the name has endured, and today Irish Hill encompasses an area from College Av. east to State Av between Southeastern Av and Bates St. Recently Irish Hill said good-bye to the Milano Inn while welcoming a new apartment complex, The Vue.
South of Irish Hill is the Fountain Square neighborhood, lying east of the Interstate to State Av and extending to Pleasant Run. The heart of the community is the intersection of Virginia Av, Shelby and Prospect streets holding the famous fountain. The area developed as a commercial district at the end of Virginia Av around the turntable for the trolley. While the community became the home of German, Irish, Italian, and Danish immigrants, it retained a singular German feel. The merchants placed the original fountain, topped with a statue of Hebe, the Greek goddess of youth, in the Square in 1889. Popularly called “Lady Spray,” she was the focus of events in Fountain Square for 25 years until being toppled when the wind caught an advertising banner that had been attached to her. A decade later, a new fountain topped by the bronze sculpture Pioneer Family presided over the Square for 30 years until it was removed to facilitate traffic flow. Restored in 1969, another four decades passed until, as part of the Fountain Square revitalization, it was replaced by a new version of the original “Lady Spray.” The Fountain Square Neighborhood Association, working with city officials and others, helps to sustain this vibrant commercial and residential neighborhood.
Unfortunately, some historic Indianapolis neighborhoods continue to struggle. Snuggled along the west bank levee of White River between Washington and Michigan streets and bordered on the west by Belmont Av is Stringtown. While the relocation of Washington St. and the development of the Indianapolis Zoo has changed the entrance to Stringtown, the community’s name is almost as old as that of Indianapolis. When the National Road (Washington St.) crossed White River in the early 1830s, a “long string of houses” were scattered along the road and the area became known as “Stringtown.” Situated outside of the city until the late 1890s, Stringtown became known as a rough district open to all vices; the Stringtown Tavern remained a landmark to travelers and locals well into the 20th century. Long an impoverished and underserved community, Anna’s House, 303 N. Elder, has been providing nutritional assistance and educational programs for the neighborhood since 2006, and along with the Stringtown Neighborhood Association works for the area’s betterment.
Two now forgotten Indianapolis neighborhoods took the name of the factories in the shadows of which they developed. One of the oldest of these was the suburban area known as Cotton Town. In the years prior to the Civil War, Nathaniel West built a cotton mill along the west side of the canal near what is now Martin Luther King and 16th streets. The area was racially mixed, and it became known for its scrappers. There were also some “lively times around the old ice ponds in the vicinity,” from which ice was harvested during the winter months and stored for commercial use. West of Cotton Town, Cerealine Towne developed in the late 1880s in an area bounded by Fall Creek and Sugar Grove, between 16th and 21st streets around the Cerealine Manufacturing Co,, makers of the breakfast food Cerealine Flakes. Workers built modest homes in the area, and most of the children went to School 44. A reunion of former Cerealine Towne residents began in 1980, and a collection of more than 100 stories of people of this near Westside neighborhood was published in Memories of Cerealine Towne. The huge grain mill and elevators has changed ownership over the years, and today Bunge Grain based in St.. Louis operates the facility.
Not all the old Indianapolis neighborhoods have survived. Long before the term “cultural district” became fashionable, Indiana Avenue embodied the dynamic life of the city’s African-Americans. Sadly, this spirited community mostly remains in memories of the African-American families who once called the Avenue and its adjacent areas “home.” Following the Civil War and continuing through the early decades of the 1900s, many blacks coming to Indianapolis made their homes in the district, and de facto segregation in the city concentrated the African-American social, religious, business, and entertainment lifestyle around the area of the Avenue. Homes and play yards that once echoed with children’s voices have been obliterated by university expansion and only ghostly notes remain of the multiple jazz clubs that disappeared under the wrecking ball.
The rich history of Indianapolis may be found in its neighborhoods. Unfortunately, too many are known only in the pages of old atlases and newspapers. Hopefully, the many community associations spread around the city today will keep the heritage of their neighborhoods alive for years to come.
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