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Jim Walker

Jim WalkerWe met Jim Walker at the Hinge Bureau in Fletcher Place, next door to Fountain Square, the Indianapolis neighborhood where Big Car Collaborative, a creative placemaking/community development organization, began its experiment in artist-led neighborhood renewal. Big Car is going on its eleventh year working its way out of a couple of Indianapolis communities—first Fountain Square, then Lafayette Square, and now Garfield Park. In 2000, Jim and his wife lived in the Wheeler Arts Community when Fountain Square was considered out of the way, dangerous, or just plain boring. At certain points in time, many of the street level spaces of the Murphy building were vacant and Big Car facilitated; local businesses, Jim explained, would make their whole month’s rent on these First Fridays, since Fountain Square didn’t see much traffic any other day of the month. These art-centric events turned Fountain Square into a cultural destination—and Brian Payne’s Cultural Trail followed, that harbinger of neighborhood vitality.
As vitality increased, the needs of the neighborhood changed. Fletcher Place Community Center moved east where there was more need, and its building on Fletcher Avenue is now comprised of condos. “Fletcher Place and Fountain Square don’t really need community-oriented art drivers of change because it’s already there,” Jim told us, “and I mean, it still could get better, but what’s going to make it better is the market forces and more bars and restaurants and retail, that kind of stuff. It’s not going to be artists coming in and taking a chance and filling a vacant space.” He continued, “We [Big Car] could just be here [Fountain Square], and we could keep having a First Friday audience and people come by, but that’s not really what we’re trying to do. If the goal and the mission are to bring art to people and people to art, if they are already getting all the art they can handle around here, then we don’t need to do it. We need to go somewhere else where they’re not getting it, were there isn’t any opportunity or access and help provide that access. That’s why our involvement became not necessary anymore.”

IMOCA, the General Public Collective, Primary Colors Gallery, and the Heartland Film Festival office moved in, and Jim and the other artists in the group soon realized the Murphy was no longer the right fit for Big CarJim described Big Car’s legacy in Fountain Square this way:

“We helped one person at a time chip away at those negative thoughts of the neighborhood and the barriers they had—they had never been there, they didn’t know where it was, they were uncomfortable with it, it was far away, they thought the south side was a complete mess and dangerous, and people soon figured out that wasn’t the case. And within five to seven years that transition happened pretty quickly. So we weren’t the money behind it but we were part of various other things that had to do with attitude change and getting people excited and drawing down cultural businesses for sure because these other art organizations [Heartland, Primary Colors, iMOCA] all came in that building where we had been one of the main ones doing things with an assorted cast of artists. We helped draw them in, and they are staying there and anchoring what’s going on now.”

In February, Big Car will be located in the Tube Factory art space in Garfield Park, where Jim and other Big Car members also live. The Big Car office is on a residential street dotted with vacant homes, where neighbors across the street linger on porches. Being located there is providing Big Car with a whole new way of approaching community development: in Fountain Square and Lafayette Square, Big Car resided in commercial spaces that were blocks away from actual homes, making it difficult to take a pulse on community needs—and subsequently the “vibrancy” factor. But now, they have real neighbors, and are actively seeking to engage with the people they meet on their street. Big Car has decided to be more intentional about asking their neighbors about what they want to see happen before starting projects as well as formulating impact evaluations before the projects even take place. As Jim puts it, Big Car is really interested in “How can we do it together?”

This question seeks to address two big factors afflicting east of Shelby street with neighborhood dilapidation: isolation and vacancy. People are fearful of those who live right next door, mainly because they don’t know their neighbors. Big Car’s projects in Garfield Park will be aimed toward introducing the neighbors to each other, so that people feel safer and become safer. Not only that, but he hopes to see vacant homes filled with people. Big Car isn’t about solving crime, the education system, safety issues, but Jim does believe that working together can improve the connectedness of the neighborhood, and consequently, the condition of all of these other social factors–a key creative placemaking tenant.
Figuring out how big of an impact creative projects have on a place is one of the big sticking points for placemaking endeavors. One way Big Car plans on evaluating progress in Garfield Park is mapping vacant homes, and tracking home occupancy over their time in the neighborhood. “We can say, ‘What happened at this address?’ It was vacant, and now there’s a person living in it, or this is how long they stayed. And this house over here was a bank-owned foreclosure and someone bought it and now there’s a family there, so we can kind of see what the impact is.”
Since Big Car’s focus is on addressing the vacancy problem, it makes sense that Jim’s isn’t hugely concerned when it comes to gentrification. While he certainly believes it’s important to plan for ways to keep our neighborhoods mixed income in the long term, he thinks Indianapolis has too much of a vacancy issue to be overly concerned about or hindered by a fear of it. He has a point; twenty to twenty-five percent of Indianapolis’ residential spaces are empty and many other neighborhoods are suffering from this same lack of people. His answer is simple: “Let’s start filling in these houses…Fix up what’s here and fill it back up with people. It’s about time to stop [developing the suburbs]. Come back in and let’s start in the middle.” Housing might get more expensive, he concedes, but there will always be a place in the city, or even the same neighborhood, to call home: “You can gentrify a few blocks, but that’s not gentrifying a whole neighborhood.”
Most Indianapolis residents might not realize that they have already had personal experiences with Big Car’s work. As part of this initiative to fill-in the city house by house, Big Car has been “starting in the middle” in Monument Circle with an interactive space carved into the street with tables and chairs, play areas, chess boards, among other activities. Downtown is an oft-traversed region of the city, but it isn’t common for people to slow down, relax, or even find a non-threatening space to mingle with the variety of people they encounter in the center of the city. Spark Monument Circle, as it’s called, is an exercise in inviting people to linger.

Read on to hear more directly from Jim about his background, his take on community, and Big Car’s goals.

So, why Indy?:

Well, I was born here in Indiana in Kokomo. So I lived here for ten years and we went to some other places when I was growing up. I think that one of the reasons that I’ve wanted to stay here is because of family, for one thing, but also because the network of people that I’ve been able to get to meet and know. I think when you live in a city where you get to meet so many different people who you can work with and connect with in various ways, I think that’s very valuable. That kind of network is maybe a little more accessible here. It would definitely be hard to start that in a new city from scratch, and so I’ve sort of transitioned from various jobs but a lot of the same people I’ve worked with in journalism are the same people we work with in community development and our kind of stuff, so that network has been really valuable and helped me to get into a lifestyle I like—I’m super busy but I’m a little more focused than I was, because at one point when I was doing nonprofit work and journalism work and teaching so it was all these different jobs at the same time, and now I’m just focused on Big Car, I teach one class at IU. […] I used to teach five classes and have a full-time journalism job. Through connections with people, I was able to get that to be more reasonable.

Speaking to artists, you once said, “Get over yourself and care about others.” How does your work help you practice this?

My journalism background helped me to get into that mindset because you have to be interested in other people and their stories and the important truths that people have…Everybody who starts out as a creative person, really anybody, your natural progression in life as you mature is away from being totally centered on yourself…you hope as you grow up you turn your focus out and away from yourself away a little bit, start having empathy and concern for the rest of the world. Some people, their interest in art is about self-expression, which I sort of equate with self-attention, and I think that is fine, but you have to be really interesting to pull that off…But I think it’s good practice to start with other people and work your way back to yourself. I think that would be true for writers, visual artists, musicians, and everybody… If you are focusing on yourself, at least do it in a way that other people can connect with, so if it’s a personal story that you’re sharing, it should have that bridge of empathy so that you are allowing someone into it with you. So a lot of the stuff that I’ve worked on like Garfield Park, the neighborhood I live in, it’s still personally connected to me, and there are benefits because that’s where I live, but I’m not just only interested in working with or figuring out ways to making life a little better for people just like me. It needs to be for everybody. And I’m not going to be content with working on projects that only benefits the person like me. That means that all of us at Big Car need to figure out what is it that everybody’s interested in, what can we do that would make a difference for people beyond the one’s who we can understand where they are coming from.

How did you make this transition to social practice art?

In 2008, I was working on a job I had working on quality of life plans for a couple of neighborhoods for the Great Indy Neighborhood Initiative, and I was learning about what they were wanting to do, and their strategies for the neighborhoods, and these were coming from tons of conversations with neighbors, and then a grant opportunity came out to do a big project that was for those neighborhoods, $50,000, and it was all for projects–so I thought about what could we do in each of these neighborhoods that would match up with their goals, what could be an art project. We had been doing a little bit of that stuff in Fountain Square, but we got this grant, and that was a really big turning point. We were already transitioning in that direction with public things but we had been working with primarily art audiences, and this project was all about neighborhood audiences and reaching out to the neighbors. We still thought maybe people who liked our stuff in Fountain Square might come to the Mary Rigg Community Center—they didn’t really do that. It was mainly just the neighbors and the participants in the project.  We were fine with that and it was really fun and that led to Service Center and that led to where we are now and that led to the whole idea of our mission being bringing art to people and people to art.
And with that, the goal of it is to spark creativity in lives to transform communities, so it’s really about reaching people individually and connecting with a community both, and a lot of that sparking happens with an individual person participating and experiencing something in a more active way typically. So you get engaged with it and it sticks with you. If someone is going to love baseball, it helps that you played it as a kid or still play it when you’re an adult, you’re going to be a lot more connected to it than if you’ve never touched a soccer ball. And I think the same thing is true with art….I think that project showed us that, connecting with people, and showed us that that some projects could actually make a difference and we could also serve the community and we could ask them what they needed. And if they needed t-shirts for their event we could we could come up with a t-shirt design and give them that and then they get to keep using that for five more years. It was kind of like, ‘You’ve got some artists, what would you like us to do?’ ‘We’d like you guys to do this.’ ‘Ok.’ And we just did that. And it worked, and it helped them. That was really our transition.
And personally, another thing was, just being a little bit frustrated as a journalist about writing about things, and wanting to be more active in making it happen instead of complaining about ‘there should be more of this kind of stuff,’ and then what I would do most of the time is I would try to find things that weren’t normally in the Star to highlight so people would know about them, different kinds of causes and different kinds of approaches to things. But what could you do yourself as just a person who is able to use their connections or ideas to actually make it happen instead of only highlighting what was going on.

What’s your take on Hoosiers?

A lot of the people that I really connect with the most around here are people who grew up in a farm family, in a working class family where their parents did trade or manufacturing or that kind of thing, a lot of hardworking people. A lot of people at Big Car grew up on farms…a lot of those skills and abilities and a lot of the determination that went along with that stuff has carried on in the work we are doing. […]We all like to go and make our hands dirty too, and I think that’s a lot of what art is about now, and community building too, it’s very much the same thing where a lot of us are designing efficient methods for making things and building things, and learning from what you do–you know that’s what farmers do and anybody who ever built anything did. You see a lot of that in the people here.
On the negative side, I think there are some challenges we face in the Midwest—and this is a human characteristic everywhere—but I feel like maybe there is a little bit more of it here– is a passivity and a fear. On the positive side you’ve got really diligent people who want to work hard and make things happen and I think you’re still trying to overcome some of the fear and ’somebody else will take care of it’ mentality. I don’t know that that is necessarily a Hoosier trait, I think that break down is pretty much universal with people, maybe more so with Americans. And I think that understanding that the first step to get anywhere with somebody is to get past the fears and to understand that a lot of people’s motivations are really about what they’re afraid of and what they don’t know, and being afraid of what they don’t know. So how can you help someone understand what it is you’re doing without being condescending and without setting up a structure where you’re up here and they are down there. It’s meeting in the middle and it’s not talking down to people.
[…] I mean one of the goals we [Big Car] have is to get people to take chances and to try new things. Well, you can do that in a way that maybe doesn’t create so much fear or worry or doesn’t put people off, but they’re still going to try something new, and put themselves in a social situation that they’re not in very often. I mean, one of the things with this being a spread out place is that people are hardly ever in close proximity with each other if they don’t know each other. They might be close to their immediate family sometime. They might sit close together on the couch with their spouse or their sister, but how often are you ever in a setting like that with a person you don’t know, and so people sometimes have to do that and it can get kind of awkward…But how can you figure out ways of dealing with that that might break down those things and help make people be more comfortable without playing God, you could do it without ways of being condescending, so it’s good for everybody.

How would you characterize an excellent community member?

The golden rule, I think that’s very important, to think about other people who want to be treated like yourself and to understand that’s not just other people like you. And I think that’s where a lot of the empathy issues are, they think they have empathy but they have empathy for people that are like themselves–which is not empathy. It’s still aboutyou. And I think that also means being curious and being interested in other people and their perspectives. And also finding out information for yourself directly. I think there’s way too much relying on other people for beliefs, if that could be political, religious, but–think for yourself. So I think a good community leader, a good person in a community is going to be somebody who thinks for themselves and does their own digging into ‘why?’ and always asking why, trying to figure out why they believe the things they believe, not stopping at “well somebody told me this,” because that’s not a good way to do it. And then I also feel like somebody who wants to create a better system for everybody, trying to find what are the things that are making problems happen, and what are the kind of pinch points were things are getting clogged up and how can you open that up and make that go better–that could be with schools, food deserts, because what people don’t understand is that when they aren’t worried about everybody and they’re only worried about a certain kind of person, that’s going to end up affecting that certain kind of person too.
You can’t just choose this one narrow thread of society to be worried about, because it’s all going to come back on you in the end. Another big thing is to be able to think about long-term and not just about now: Quick money, quick return on everything, what’s the long-term return on what you’re doing, and how’s it going to come back later. Everybody’s got another generation to think about. Even if they don’t have kids themselves, they know there will be future generations that other people will be responsible for. So you should care about that, and you should be able to think beyond what’s right in front of you, because that’s the future.

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