When Indianapolis Accidentally Did Public Housing Right

Blog Post
Henryk Sadura / Shutterstock.com
Dec. 1, 2020

Following on his deep dive into the systematic displacement of Black residents on Indiana Avenue in Indianapolis, local "activist historian" Wildstyle Paschall continues his thorough exploration of public housing and race in Indianapolis, as an observer and as a descendant of the neighborhoods. Below is part three of a four-part series (see part one and part two).

“This isn’t civilized!” This is what U.S. Housing Authority Director Nathan Straus said as he and Mayor Reginald Sullivan toured an Indianapolis neighborhood in 1939. They encountered conditions similar to what many modern Indianapolis mayors have seen when touring Black neighborhoods - unsafe, vermin-ridden slum properties, and misery.

The conditions they witnessed that spring day in 1939 were so inhumane that the board of health blamed it for several contagious outbreaks and high mortality rates especially among infants. Yet directly across the street from barbaric third-world conditions was Lockefield Gardens, a massive, brand new, state of the art housing project built for low-income Blacks. Straus challenged the Mayor of Indianapolis to work with him and the federal government to change that and make the conditions across the street from Lockefield Gardens just as humane. The city’s longest running Black newspaper, the Indianapolis Recorder, said the following about the tour: "Proper housing will go a long way toward making good citizens, cutting the crime rate, raising the health levels and molding the foundation of a strong progressive nation..." Sadly, Indianapolis did not answer the challenge to replace its slums with quality housing attainable to most of its Black citizens.

Lockefield Gardens

Lockefield Gardens overachieved compared to most other Federal housing projects -- it was, frankly, the time we accidentally did public housing right. It was a symbol of pride in the Black community and a refuge to so many families suffering from housing instability, including my own grandparents. In an ironic way, Lockefield Gardens’ exceptionalism made it the target of constant attacks from the real estate and apartment owners lobby fighting for their right to exploit the Black housing market even before it opened. Of course, they may not have been the only ones unhappy about slums being replaced by high quality housing in Black neighborhoods. In a letter published in a major Indianapolis newspaper, an Indianapolis Times reader complained “the housing project put up for the Negroes of the city” wasn’t just “three room doubles but magnificent brick apartments” in which anyone would be proud to live. And so Lockefield Gardens became a historical anomaly in the terms of racial equity, not only for Indiana but the nation itself.

Intentional Design

Lockefield Gardens was built as an intentional, safe, comfortable community within a community and opened in 1938. It was located on a 22-acre site surrounded by a Black cultural district that was over 60 years old at that point. The old westside was an integral part of the international jazz scene, home to ⅓ of the city's Black population and the center of Black Indianapolis society and culture since the Civil War. One side of the apartment complex faced Indiana Avenue that was lined with over a mile of Black or Black-friendly businesses and nightclubs, on the opposite side was an existing Black school on the site with the complex facing more Black neighborhoods. Rather than leave any aspect of the built environment to chance, architects were brought in not just to design buildings, but to design how those structures would interact with residents and the complex as a whole. Safety, accountability, social interaction and a sense of community were encouraged through a design layout that allowed residents to look after each other, the children’s playgrounds, gardens, and public commons every time they left their private apartments. In an era where homes across the street were drafty wood frame structures, some with dirt floors, wood stoves, many lacking indoor plumbing and electricity, Lockefield Gardens was state of the art.

The buildings were fireproof - made of reinforced concrete and brick, with each unit having electricity, a refrigerator, indoor plumbing, steam heat, and large windows designed to provide cross ventilation, a view, and sunlight. Lockefield was situated close to several trolley lines but garages and parking for the coming automobile age were included as well. Lockefield Gardens wasn’t built just to meet the standards of the times - it was built for the future. The design was for low-income families to have a higher quality of life, long-term stability, and to reduce the terrible burden on society that happens when we allow housing instability to exist in the first place.

The fight against government “intervention”

Muncie, Indiana’s Post-Democrat reported that an estimated 600,000 rats were killed during demolition of the 363 structures that previously stood on the Lockefield Gardens site. The site was a mixture of mostly dilapidated homes and shacks with 200 of these structures not having any running water at all - not even a well. Many Indiana newspapers reported on the $3,000,000r Public Works Administration project putting people back to work during the Great Depression. But similar to how some large public transportation projects today are perceived as being a social service to minorities, using taxpayer money in a Black neighborhood was very controversial in the 1930’s mainstream press.

All of the newspapers were favorable to the slum clearance aspect of the project but most were less enthusiastic, if not outright hostile to actually replacing the housing. Over the course of the project newspaper columnists, the real estate lobby, and city officials railed against government housing intervention with the Lockefield project in the press accusing the Federal government of becoming involved in “landlordism” and depriving the private sector of a safe investment in rental housing. Yet only a few years before the Federal Government took unprecedented steps to intervene in the US housing market to protect its mostly White middle class from a foreclosure crisis. The Great Depression had ravaged the worldwide economy throughout the 1930's causing unemployment to rise to 23% even in the US. Housing values had dropped 35% by 1932, by 1933 residential construction had fallen by 95%, and 40-50% of all home mortgages in the US were in default with foreclosures happening at a rate of 1,000 a day. The Roosevelt administration came to the rescue creating the The Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to save homeowners, banks, and the economy to redefine the home mortgage industry as we know it today. The HOLC alone took over 1 million home mortgages in default valued at over $1,000,000,000 between 1933 and 1936, likely keeping thousands of banks from closing and millions of people in their homes. During that time, the HOLC hired real estate experts who worked to standardize the appraisal system for this new home mortgage industry by creating maps which warned banks and investors to steer clear of the “hazardous” Black and minority neighborhoods outlined in red. These were the infamous HOLC “Redlining” maps used to devalue homes in Black and minority neighborhoods by millions of dollars in the 1930s, but billions today. The FHA then wrote the rules the private banks were expected to follow using these maps and appraisal systems with its firm guidelines not to loan in areas with “inharmonious racial groups” while encouraging discriminatory racial deed restrictions to keep non-whites out of its preferred neighborhoods permanently. This new home mortgage product backed by the Federal government was very different from the home loans available before the Great Depression. Previously, only individuals that could save a 50% or higher down payment could receive the typical 3-10 year “home loan” that featured high interest rates and payments that only covered interest leaving them expected to pay the entire principal at the end of the loan. These bullet or balloon mortgages typically ended up being refinanced when the loan came due but with massive unemployment and falling home values during the Great Depression that banks wouldn’t touch them anymore - leading borrowers to default. The Federal Government stepped in and introduced a new home mortgage product people could afford by lengthening the repayment time to 15 years initially - amortizing the loan so that the borrower owed nothing at the end of the loan and guaranteeing these loans for private banks. These low interest home loans only required 10-20% down payment allowing many more Americans to buy homes and avoid renting from landlords all together, if they were White. The racism in the home mortgage industry was so prolific that only 2% of the $120,000,000,000in government backed home loans went to non-whites from its creation in 1934 to 1962. So when newspaper columnists, real estate lobbyists, and politicians attacked the Lockefield Gardens project in the press as government interference, they were actually demanding that the Black community be deprived of any assistance by a Federal Government that was already helping millions of White families with housing instability during the Great Depression. With the Black community locked out of receiving the same economic lift to homeownership as the White community, it would be relegated to economic servitude to White landlords for generations to come. Black Indianapolis was being targeted by the real estate industry to forever be its tenant and fund the racial wealth gap between Blacks and Whites with the Black dollar itself.

Delayed opening, happy families

Beyond reduced economic prospects for landlords to target the Black community, the construction of Lockefield had problems of its own that played out in the press. After clearance of the 16 block site, construction started in 1936 and was expected to be finished by summer of 1937. 1,700 Black families applied for 748 housing units in Lockefield Gardens but as the opening date approached, miles of cracks were discovered in the masonry walls of the apartment buildings causing water leaks. A fight over who was at fault played out in the press - many newspapers across the country blasted Lockefield Gardens as everything wrong with government intervention and theorized that the families displaced from the area during construction would never come to live there at all. The cracks, however, were soon fixed with caulk and the subsequent investigation into the defects delayed the opening a few more months but deemed the cracks to be not serious. The first families moved into Lockefield in the middle of February 1938 with the Indianapolis Star reporting that families were pleased with their new living quarters and showing them off proudly. The newspaper interviewed many Lockefield families and one man said that the project was “one of the best things that’s happened for colored since the time of Abraham Lincoln.” Another said he worked from nearly sun up to sun down, spending most of his time at his previous home firing the furnace, plugging up cracks at the windows and doors and figuring out how to pay rent and utilities. He enthusiastically showed the reporter how warm and draft-free the apartment was, despite it being a windy day. All of the families interviewed had personal stories to show the positive impact affordable high quality housing was having on their lives including one who said the apartments would reduce deaths among the Black community.

Lockefield Gardens Mall.jpeg

Lockefield Gardens was managed for the first 32 years by Lionel Artis, a highly respected Black civil servant who was a World War I veteran and active board member on 23 civic and community organizations. Not only was he responsible for day to day operations at Lockefield Gardens, he was responsible for looking out for the community's best interests as he navigated the contentious relationship between City and Federal Government over public housing in Indianapolis. He and the staff personally visited the Lockefield applicants at their homes and prioritized families living in substandard housing. While Lockefield was assumed to be a racially segregated housing project, in reality interracial families and even some White families did live there if they were in need and met the income requirements. When resident incomes rose beyond Federal guidelines to continue living in Lockefield Gardens, he fought to make sure they had quality housing available elsewhere before applying the guidelines. When a tragic fire caused by substandard housing conditions a few blocks away killed 2 toddlers and displaced a young expecting couple living in a duplex with their elderly parents, they were given a new life in Lockefield Gardens. These were my grandparents and great-grandparents. Given the link between slum housing and infant and maternal mortality rates, I may owe my life and the survival of our family to the Lockefield Gardens staff prioritizing families suffering housing instability.

As Lockefield Gardens became an important lifeline to Black families it also became important to Black Indianapolis culture as well. There were adult education classes, associations, societies, recreation clubs, and amatuer sports organizations of all types that met at Lockefield. In 1941 over 1500 people showed up for a boxing match in Lockefield staged by the WPA and city of Indianapolis. During the 1950s Lockefield Gardens would help define Indiana basketball and eventually ABA and NBA basketball through the influence of its basketball culture and tournaments called the “Dust Bowl” These tournaments would bring famous college players, high school players and even pro athletes to test their skills against basketball players in the area. A 1955 Indianapolis Recorder article documented that Lockefield had become a training ground for future stars with several Indiana “Mr. Basketball”s, both White and Black having previously participated in “Dust Bowl” tournaments including 1954 “Mr. Basketball” Bob Plump and a teammate from Milan High School. Their 1954 state championship run was memorialized in the Academy Award-nominated movie “Hoosiers'' starring Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper. Crispus Attucks High School, a few blocks away, also became the first all Black high school in the nation to win a state basketball title and the first high school to go undefeated in Indiana basketball. Several Black athletes from the surrounding neighborhoods were named Indiana 'Mr. Basketball' and George McGinnis and Oscar Robertson went on to become ABA and NBA basketball hall of famers.


Even though Lockefield was a smash hit to many Black families and the Black community at large it definitely was not so with Indianapolis City officials who had already publicly declared Lockefield a failure just days before it opened and hadn’t yet taken additional steps to obtain $5 million Federal funds($92 million in 2020 dollars) for similar projects. Indianapolis City Councilor William Oren was very blunt about why they hadn’t taken the additional steps of forming a public housing board to receive the Federal funds when he said “we don’t want another Lockefield Gardens”. Four months later, in June 1938, as Lockefield residents described it as heaven the Indianapolis Board of Realtors executives described it as a failure to the city council as $7 million in Federal funds hung in the balance. As Indianapolis civic leaders were informed that time was running out to form a housing board to receive the Federal funds, the Indianapolis Board of Realtors recommended not taking any action and asked to commission a new study. A previous study from the Indianapolis Apartment Owners’ Association who were affiliated with the Indianapolis Board of Realtors determined Indianapolis had 923 abandoned houses that were mostly uninhabitable. Another study had determined that 20% of Indianapolis housing was substandard and that the city ranked 6th worst in housing out of 24 other similar size cities.The Apartment Owners’ Association response was to approve a resolution to raise the rents on all affiliated properties. The president of the Indianapolis Board of Realtors was also a City Plan Commission member and publicly stated that affordable public housing might negatively impact the rents landlords were receiving. So when the Head of the US Housing Authority toured inhumane housing conditions in a Black neighborhood across the street from Lockefield Gardens with the mayor of Indianapolis it was a direct challenge to the city’s response to its housing crisis. Sadly, the powerful real estate lobby and apartment owners’ special interest groups won out and it would be another decade before Indianapolis finally formed a housing authority long after those Federal housing funds were gone.

A new fight against public housing

Affordable public housing for Blacks was considered a threat to the continuing prosperity of mostly White landlords’ ability to extract profit from Black neighborhoods. When it opened in 1938, Lockefield Gardens rented from $18.70 - $28 a month which in 2020 dollars is $345 - $517 a month. In contrast, Macy Village opened less than 2 years later as a lower density version of Lockefield Gardens in an all White section of town rivaling with rents going from $883 - $1255 in 2020 all built by a private developer using government backed FHA loans. In 1939 rents were lowered an average $3.62 ($67 in 2020 dollars) to allow even lower income families to live in Lockefield Gardens and the maximum yearly income for families was lowered. Even though existing residents were allowed to stay in Lockefield until they earned over 5 times the maximum income, detractors of the public housing attempted to stoke fears of mass evictions in the press. The real estate lobby also pressed the Federal Government for stricter enforcement of the income restrictions that even barred families with 3 children making over the modern equivalent of $27,000 to live in public housing. Since there was no local housing authority, Lockefield Gardens remained owned by the Federal Government and somewhat insulated from the constant attacks on it from the real estate lobby. Indianapolis would remain one of the few major cities not to have a public housing authority until 1949. The new Indianapolis Housing Authority moved quickly to plan new projects to finally address the housing crisis but when they acquired land and announced several public housing projects in 1951 on the mostly White southeast side of Indianapolis, they ended up in a fight they could not win. The Highland Park Citizens Committee rallied southeast side residents and retained a lawyer to fight the housing agency. The chairman of the Indianapolis Housing Authority accused the Indianapolis Board of Realtors of creating the opposition under the alias “Citizens Housing Committee”. There’s likely some truth to that accusation as the actual Highland Park neighborhood is over 2 miles away from the proposed housing projects. The 1952 Indianapolis Recorder charged that KKK-like propaganda was used in the campaign against public housing stoking fears that Blacks would move into the surrounding neighborhoods. The Indianapolis Housing Authority would not survive this battle. All of its housing initiatives were canceled and the new housing authority itself was stripped of all power and effectively disbanded, setting up a years long legal fight between the city and the US Public Housing Administration. The Federal Government immediately demanded $226,000 back for its investment into the Indianapolis Housing Authority which the city of Indianapolis refused to pay. The city government had inserted clauses that prevented the Federal Government from directly suing it for actions or agreements IHA made as a housing authority. Even though a settlement agreement with IHA turned over land and the plans for the housing projects to the Federal Government, the disagreement wasn’t truly settled. Several years later in 1956, the Federal government offered to turn over Lockefield Gardens to the city of Indianapolis as it was 1 of only 2 housing projects it still directly controlled but wanted the outstanding balance back from its investment in IHA. The city waffled on repaying the $226,000 debt to receive Lockefield Gardens that was now valued at $7.5 million and real estate investors lobbied Congressmen to introduce a bill to allow the sale to them. Lockefield residents and “25 prominent citizens” of various organizations created the “Committee to Save Lockefield” to keep it from falling into the hands of real estate investors or fall prey to local politics if it was taken over by the city. After a year and a half of large rallies, letters, and public pressure by The Indianapolis Recorder on Congress, and both the City and Federal government, a clause that would allow Lockefield to be sold to private developers was struck from the housing bill being considered by Congress in 1958. It was cause for celebration that the community had fought the real estate lobby and won a battle.

The Decline

However by the 1960s Lockefield Gardens had a new problem, the massive Black cultural district around it was in decline. The Department of Metropolitan Development for Indianapolis released a redevelopment plan in 1958 that called for the removal of Blacks from the west and northwest neighborhoods. The racist campaign of ethnic cleansing enacted by city and state governments and a university planning a new campus soon began to take its toll on the neighborhoods and businesses along Indiana Avenue and West Street (now Martin Luther King Street). As the highway construction that was wiping out the northern neighborhoods was being described as “White men’s roads over Black men’s homes”, near west side residents described the urban renewal plans displacing Black neighborhoods for Indiana University as “urban negro removal”. It was during this time that the Federal government finally forgave the previous debts and agreed to turn over Lockefield Gardens to the City of Indianapolis and a newly revived IHA that was seeking to add 2200 new public housing units. A 1965 proposal to sell Lockefield to Indiana University for student housing even though 3000 Black families had already been displaced in the area was briefly protested by the Black community. Bruce Savage, Vice-Chairman of the IHA took to the press to assure the community Lockefield Gardens would not be sold to the university. However, the community remained suspicious, likely because Bruce Savage was also a prominent member of the Indianapolis Board of Realtors who was publicly in favor of public housing but also passionately defended why he wouldn’t sell homes to Blacks in White neighborhoods. The executive director of the Indianapolis Housing Authority also publicly stated Lockefield Gardens was in great shape and built like a fortress and also announced it would spend $600,0000 ($4.9 million in 2020 dollars) to renovate thanks to a $495,000 loan from the Federal Government. But just 2 years, in 1967, when a young mayoral candidate named Richard Lugar met with Lockefield residents, they described dilapidated playgrounds, leaking roofs, faulty electrical systems, cockroaches, rats and a fear of being evicted by Indianapolis Housing Authority if they reported them. Lugar supported their creation of a permanent resident council and condemned the current Mayor and IHA for the terrible conditions and promising to be responsive to their needs if elected mayor. Once Lugar was elected as Mayor of Indianapolis later that year, things still wouldn’t improve much for Lockefield residents or the surrounding Indiana Avenue neighborhoods. A riot in 1969 along Indiana Avenue and Lockefield Gardens exposed the deep seated anger in the community over the conditions, displacement and police department.

By 1970 the incinerators in Lockefield were broken, uncollected trash was piling up and residents were threatening a rent strike with the support of the Indianapolis Urban League, NAACP, and Legal Service Organization. By fall of 1970 IHA had been approved for a $2.2 million Federal grant and was applying for another $1.7 million grant after already having received a $1 million grant to work on Lockefield. In 1973, IHA was approved for another $4.5 million grant to demolish and redesign much of the complex according to the “defensible space” theory.


The new Lockefield plan called for building new units, including a seven-story building for seniors for a whopping $10.6 million ($62 million in 2020 dollars) renovation that would lower density. From 1970 -1974, IHA moved Lockefield residents to new apartments under its control leaving the complex mostly empty so it could start the major renovation they kept teasing. Many residents were skeptical renovations would ever happen and saw it as a ploy to remove them so the complex could be sold to IU. For years as the complex was being emptied, none of the various renovation plans ever seemed to ever get started for long. During this era, the Indianapolis Public School (IPS) system was sued by the Justice Department for segregation in Federal Court and found to be guilty of intentionally segregating the school district. The City of Indianapolis merged with the county government just 2 years into the lawsuit. Judge S. Hugh Dillin noticed the newly consolidated city-county government that gave the predominantly White suburbs and towns a vote for Indianapolis mayor, had failed to consolidate or integrate any of the school systems. The judge also started taking a closer look at why the city and IHA had failed to build any public housing outside of IPS boundaries and rightly determined they were also willing participants in de facto segregation. By 1975, Lockefield Gardens renovations still had not started and there was no plan by the city to build any public housing outside of the IPS boundaries to relieve school segregation, Judge Dillin ruled it could not reopen as public housing for families. The ruling was finalized in 1976 and thus ended the story of Lockefield Gardens as public housing and set the stage for its partial demolition in the 1980s and future use as student housing as many predicted.

Lockefield Gardens and a public housing legacy

Lockefield Gardens’ legacy as a symbol of pride and hope to the Black community is firmly cemented in the storytelling about it from generation to generation in many Indianapolis families. Historic preservationists, historians and architects recognize its exceptional design characteristics that added significantly to residents quality of life versus most other housing projects after. There are even groups of former Lockefield and Indiana Avenue residents that still regularly meet and talk about their experiences growing up in the area and what they loved about their community.

The story that isn’t told about Lockefield Gardens and public housing is the constant attacks it faced from the real estate lobby, city government and politicians that were eager to deny Blacks help from New Deal government programs in order to exploit their housing needs while simultaneously advocating for White America to receive unprecedented housing assistance. The results of denying Blacks access to a government backed financial system meant that many would be forever beholden to the predominantly White real estate investors who did have access, effectively making Blacks fund the racial wealth gap with their own dollars. Another story that isn’t understood is the Indianapolis Housing Authority’s decision to implement a “defensible space” redesign instead of a lower cost renovation utilizing more existing structures was directly driven by its own mismanagement that turned the complex into a rundown haven for city wide narcotics trafficking and crime in only a few short years.


Our legacy of civic leadership allowing racism, greed and incompetence to dictate housing policy has caused untold human suffering, intergenerational poverty, and death in Indianapolis, especially in the Black community. Many of these institutions involved in perpetuating racism and discrimination for profit still exist today and may not even realize the role it played historically or the negative effects its had on the Black community to this very day. It’s a lesson that needs to be told if nothing more than to avoid repeating mistakes over and over again so that we can get to the business of solving a housing crisis driven by racial inequity that has existed well over 90 years now. These challenges can be met by civic leaders and nonprofits by casting off the racism, bigotry, and greed that have informed our public and affordable housing strategies by building new housing that matches the level of safety, innovation, and sustainability that Lockefield Gardens had over 80 years ago and then leave it the hands of community controlled land trusts or housing cooperatives. We have the technology to build single family homes, duplexes, apartment buildings and mixed use buildings that will last hundreds of years with little maintenance and cost 90% less to operate while utilizing the existing Indiana labor force, readily available materials for only 5 - 10% more than the current building costs. In the next article we’ll discuss Building an Equitable Future that implements these strategies that emphasize people, sustainability, and reducing the real cost of poverty and housing instability on society.

New America Indianapolis is committed to exploring economic and racial equity through community members' voices. If you have something to share, please contact Molly Martin. Have a reaction or response? Head to Twitter, find @mollygmartin and tag #NAIndyVoices.