MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s changed the landscape of many American cities. In Indianapolis, one African-American neighborhood was largely bulldozed to make way for new university buildings. Some say the school paid too little for that land. Now, archaeologists are finding evidence that the area was not as blighted as had been portrayed before it was destroyed. And they say the neighborhood's history may deserve a rewrite.
From member station WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana, Daniel Robison reports.
DANIEL ROBISON: When 86-year-old Tom Ridley(ph) pulls out a picture of a bustling Indiana Avenue during its heyday, he cradles it in his hand like an old family photo.
Mr. TOM RIDLEY: I carried papers down through here when I was a little boy. Here's some of the buildings that used to be on the avenues like barbershops, grocery stores, shoe shops — anything you'd just about want.
ROBISON: The area was the economic center of the city's vibrant African-American community. It was known as a rowdy, post-prohibition jazz mecca, Oscar Robertson's playground and home to cosmetics magnate Madam C.J. Walker, the nation's first female millionaire. Tom Ridley says, Walker's factories propped up the neighborhood until waves of real estate agents started knocking on doors when property values declined in the late 1960s.
Mr. RIDLEY: There's maybe three buildings left on the whole street.
ROBISON: Indiana University began buying up land here, 3,000 plots in total, and razed the buildings to build a new regional campus as part of the city's urban renewal efforts. Now, in place of jazz clubs and barbershops are acres of parking lots that line Indiana Avenue.
(Soundbite of digging)
ROBISON: Paul Mullins is an archaeology professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, who is leading the dig. He wants to unearth the truth about Indiana Avenue's 1960's reputation as a blighted neighborhood — one that, he says, made it easier for university officials to pay less for the land.
Dr. PAUL MULLINS (Professor of Archaeology, Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis): We want to complicate the dominant narrative that there was simply a declining, mostly African-American neighborhood here.
ROBISON: So far, the dig has turned up crystal light fixtures, medicine bottles and other items suggesting middle-class wealth. Student Zach Harner(ph) says each item helps fill out the neighborhood's character. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The student being quoted is actually Brandon Muncy.]
Mr. BRANDON MUNCY: When we dig through and we find things that people owned that obviously wouldn't belong in an area that was actually blighted - the notion that the area was blighted was probably what made it easier for the university to clear out the land.
ROBISON: Glenn Irwin was chancellor of the university at the time, and he defends its urban renewal plan. He says the school's efforts created thousands of jobs and brought millions of dollars to a stagnant neighborhood.
Mr. GLENN IRWIN (Former Chancellor, Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis): We paid a good price. We had real estate people bargaining on these all the time. These were the most dilapidated buildings you could imagine.
ROBISON: University of Illinois professor Chris Fennell says similar digs around the country are starting to draw attention to the cultural and historical importance of just what was lost in many American cities during their headlong rush toward urban renewal.
Dr. CHRIS FENNELL (Professor, University of Illinois): There's definitely a growing number of these nationwide. And it's a difficult process, but it's one that, at the end of the day, people move forward in their thinking by working through it, even though it's going to cast very awkward and negative lights on certain periods and certain players in American history.
ROBISON: Even though the vast majority of the neighborhood is missing, city leaders here began touting Indiana Avenue as a cultural destination for tourists a few years ago. But for Ridley, who has lived in the neighborhood for most of his 86 years, what's left in the dirt under parking lots can't make up for what was bulldozed.
Mr. RIDLEY: So they can talk about, you know, bring it back, you know. If we had more of the old buildings still around, you could talk about some of the things that were around here. But we don't have that, see, they're gone. So all we can show them is parking lots.
ROBISON: And it's those very parking lots that have kept the neighborhood's rubble so well intact. The items pulled from the dig will soon find a permanent home in one of Indiana Avenue's few remaining buildings: Madam Walker's Vaudeville Theatre.
For NPR News, I'm Daniel Robison in Indianapolis.