The Many Lives of Indy’s Historic Lockefield Gardens
By Mary Giorgio
In the 1930s, during the worst years of the Great Depression, Congress enacted numerous spending bills to cope with the country’s financial strain. The Public Works Administration, established as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal of 1933, was tasked with funding public building projects across the country.
Among its many projects, the agency endeavored to construct 50 low-cost public housing projects, one of which was built in Indianapolis. Lockefield Gardens, as the housing complex would eventually be named, became a center of community life in Indianapolis’s most prominent African-American neighborhood.
The area on which Lockefield Gardens would eventually be built had been hit hard by the Great Depression. The neighborhood, located just northwest of downtown, was home to a large African American population. The housing in the area, however, was crumbling and barely habitable—a study of the neighborhood conducted by local officials revealed that only one house among the 363 tenement properties met the government’s definition of “habitable.” Despite this fact, nearly all the houses were occupied.
Indianapolis requested funding from the Public Works Administration to raze the dilapidated tenement housing and replace it with higher-quality buildings. The completed apartment complex cost about $3 million and required an estimated 9,000 workers to construct. The innovative design was created by Indianapolis architects William E. Russ and Merritt Harrison, whose more noteworthy contributions to the city landscape included the Coliseum at the Indiana State Fairgrounds and the Indiana School for the Blind.
City officials christened the housing project Lockefield Gardens after Locke Street, which formed the western boundary of the property. Erie Locke, the street’s namesake, was an Indianapolis city councilman in the 1860s and 1870s. Lockefield Gardens consisted of 24 buildings, ranging from two to four stories, situated on 22 acres of land along Indiana Avenue. In all, a total of 748 units were constructed. The complex boasted four playgrounds, a central green space, and a shopping area. To provide for children’s educational needs, a new elementary school, the William D. McCoy Public School No. 24, opened nearby.
Lockefield Gardens became the eighth public housing project funded under New Deal legislation to open. Almost instantly, it earned a reputation for being one of the best public housing projects of the era. The complex’s recreational spaces and generous amenities contrasted the cramped spaces offered by most other public housing projects at that time.
The project had a dark side, however. The federal government soon announced rent rates for the new facility. At $20-$30 a month, most families who had been displaced from their homes to make way for the new public housing found that the rent was too high for them to afford. While the tenement housing that was razed had been barely habitable, it had still sheltered a community of residents. Those families were forced to leave the area and seek housing elsewhere. Often, they ended up in tenements of equally appalling conditions to the ones they left behind.
The new residents who would make Lockefield Gardens their home were largely lower middle-class African-Americans. A capped income of 5x the monthly rent was strictly enforced by property management. The complex’s location on Indiana Avenue placed it in the midst of a vibrant African American community. While the area on the west side of Indianapolis near the White River had always been home to immigrant populations and African American residents, beginning in the early 1900s, the area solidified as an African American stronghold. By this time, segregation had necessitated separate black businesses and professional services, and Indiana Avenue, from roughly New York Street to City Hospital, became a central shopping and entertainment district for Indianapolis’s African American population.
During the 1930s and 1940s, Indiana Avenue experienced its heyday as the center of African-American cultural pursuits. Sometimes referred to as “Funky Broadway” or “The Grand O’l Street,” the area boasted several lounges and night clubs that became locally famous for their blues and jazz performances. Jazz singers including the Hamptons, Earl Walker, and Jimmy Coe all performed on Indiana Avenue before they became nationally-recognized jazz musicians.
The Walker Building, erected in 1927 and named for famed businesswoman Madame C.J. Walker, included a theater, restaurant, and office space. Up and down Indiana Avenue, shops, restaurants, and professional offices provided important services for Indiana’s African-American community.
Lockefield Gardens soon became the heart of the area’s residential neighborhood. Residents socialized and formed strong community ties. Numerous clubs formed among neighborhood residents. The Lockefield Gardens tenant council planned frequent community entertainments, including an annual firework display on the 4th of July. Occasionally, larger entertainments were organized in the complex’s common space. In 1941, for example, an amateur boxing competition was held on the premises. Competitors Frank Tunstill and George Drawn battled in front of 1,500 fans.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that the African-American community along Indiana Avenue and within Lockefield Gardens began to decline. As racial segregation slowly eased across the Indianapolis area, wealthier residents of Lockefield Gardens began to move to neighborhoods that had formerly been closed to them. Eventually, demographics shifted back to a population of urban poor, and the apartments fell into a state of disrepair.
By the 1970s, the apartment complex had deteriorated significantly. Redevelopment plans were discussed, but never implemented. The site closed in 1976. In 1980, Lockefield Gardens acreage was incorporated into expansion plans for nearby Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). In 1983, IUPUI demolished all but seven of the original apartment buildings, which were refurbished for use by athletes during the Indianapolis Pan Am Games (1987). Additional buildings were eventually erected for IUPUI student housing.
The original seven Lockefield Gardens apartment buildings were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. Today, they, along with their newer counterparts, make up an important part of the revitalized neighborhood along Indiana Avenue. A total of 493 units currently exist in the space and are rented by a combination of students and young professionals.