Can Public Art Reduce Crime? Near Eastside Neighbors, Artists, and Officers Think So.

For many residents of Indianapolis, the Indianapolis Arts Garden, Gallery 924, and the Indy Arts Guide are the most obvious emblems of the Arts Council of Indianapolis citywide. Lesser known are the Arts Council’s efforts to secure major grants for community-led arts initiatives in pursuit of its mission to “advocate for the need and importance of broad community funding and support for a thriving arts scene.” Through the Arts Council, outdoor utility boxes have become “street corner canvases,” Jiffy Lube auto shops have been adorned with murals, and billboards have showcased fine art across Indianapolis, allowing local artists to garner attention outside of museums and galleries while contributing to neighborhood appeal. In the IndyEast Promise Zone, the underpass at the intersection of 10th Street and Massachusetts Avenue became one of 46 key sites brightened by Arts Council-sponsored public art during the Super Bowl XLVI. IndyEast Art Peace, one of the Arts Council’s latest community-oriented projects, is a Promise Zone-based initiative to coordinate art-based crime reduction. In light of recently-approved plans for the 10 East Art + Design District on East 10th Street, Indy East Art Peace is setting a precedent for the ways in which art can be used as a tool for community building and crime reduction among people of diverse perspectives and skillsets.

 

         

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taking the Bait” by Carl Leck (above) at 8175 Allisonville Road and Octopus (left) by Tasha Beckwith at Kentucky Avenue and White River Parkway are two Arts Council of Indianapolis-sponsored public art projects.

 

Pursuing the Our Town grant

At the beginning of 2017, Julia Muney Moore, the Director of Public Art at the Arts Council of Indianapolis, was preparing to apply for the National Endowment for the Arts’ (NEA) Our Town grant, which incentivizes creative place-making as a tool to improve social and economic outcomes. Recalling a report released by the Urban Institute that cited empirical studies demonstrating promise for the potential of public art to reduce crime and improve quality of life in neighborhoods with strained resources, Moore identified the IndyEast Promise Zone as an area where the Our Town grant could be efficiently used because of its abundance of potential partner organizations and vacant commercial spaces ripe for revival, along with the priority points that its status conferred. Having previously connected with Susan Vogt, a fellow art enthusiast who also happened to be the Economic Development Director of Near East Area Renewal (NEAR), Moore reached out to Vogt and was granted support from the IndyEast Promise Zone, NEAR, and the City of Indianapolis on the Arts Council’s grant application.

In their application for the Our Town grant, the Arts Council and NEAR proposed to train artists, community members, and Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD) officers in Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) tactics and use teams comprised of one resident, one police officer, and one artist to identify and strategically address specific public safety challenges in the IndyEast Promise Zone. Residents were expected to represent the interests of their neighborhoods and bring the perspectives of those who witness and experience daily activity on their streets, officers were expected to contribute knowledge of specific crimes that occur and pocket parks and other “hot spots” where incidents tend to concentrate, and artists were expected to offer insight and guidance on the ways in which creative efforts could help deter violence, substance abuse, theft, and property damage. After an initial planning stage, the Arts Council and NEAR invited Near Eastside community members to provide feedback and propose changes before proceeding to finalize their funding proposal and develop program evaluation strategies. Ultimately, IndyEast Art Peace was conceived to create a public toolkit of creative placemaking strategies that would address crime and public safety long-term.

The Arts Council of Indianapolis was awarded a $50,000 grant through the Our Town program, and proceeded to seek out participants. Although NEAR is best known for restoring and building affordable single-family housing in St. Clair Place, it also plays a large role in small business development and community engagement, so Vogt made a post on NextDoor announcing the opportunity to participate in Indy East Art Peace and set to work leveraging her relationships with residents and members of the business community on the Near Eastside in order to recruit interested neighbors face-to-face.

 

Forming Teams and Taking Action

Four residents and four artists were selected by the Arts Council and NEAR to participate in IndyEast Art Peace on the basis of their experience in social practice work and the duration of their residency on the Near Eastside. Andrea Jandernoa, a mixed-media artist and Herron MFA student, Tosca Carranza, a muralist and Indianapolis Public Schools art teacher, Mark Latta, an English and Public Literacy professor at Marian University, and Todd Bracik, a sculptor, were the nominated artists, and Stardust Adita, a Near Eastside community leader who facilitates local arts programming, Elizabeth Nash, a Public Programming and Outreach Staff Artist at Big Car Collaborative, Debbie Sluss, a congregant at Englewood Christian Church, and Josie Hunckler, the founder, manager, and part-owner of Rabble Coffee, were nominated as resident participants.

 

Artist, resident, and officer Art Peace participants at NEAR’s office on East 10th Street

 

Hunckler had reservations about IndyEast Art Peace when Vogt first approached her about the project, given that some public art projects have been known as harbingers of gentrification. Nonetheless, after hearing about the program a few times, her attitude toward the initiative shifted.

While IndyEast Arts Peace ended up having more potential for engaging Near Eastside neighbors than Hunckler originally assumed, debates still arose on a few teams from time to time, particularly regarding whether it is better for officers to implement their projects in uniform or plain clothes.

For some officers, interacting with members of the Near Eastside community through Indy East Art Peace in uniform is a tactic that they want to use to reduce negative misconceptions and increase trust between neighbors and law enforcement. These officers generally hope to avoid situations where they and their colleagues are mistrusted when representing IMPD in plain clothes, since failure to wear one’s uniform with pride can be perceived as a breach of integrity.

The conversation about the role of IMPD officers in Art Peace is ongoing, and is likely to evolve as more neighbors become engaged in efforts such as the Near East Quality of Life Plan.

“There has been a lot of learning on both sides,” agree Officer Roman Williams-Ervin and Officer Stacy Riojas, who serve as school liaisons and bicycle patrollers for IMPD’s East District and are in favor of donning their uniforms to Art Peace events for the reasons listed earlier.

 

Pitch Night

After a year of training and plan development, the four teams of three unveiled their plans to the general public. On the evening of Tuesday, February 5, 2019, the John Boner Neighborhood Centers hosted a neighborhood summit that offered a platform for the teams to pitch their ideas to and receive input from the Near Eastside community.

 

Community members pack the second floor of the John Boner Neighborhood Center for Pitch Night.

Andrea Jandernoa, Roman Williams-Ervin, and Debbie Sluss were the first participants to present. Their proposal, called Co-Create, envisioned photography as a tool to capture the many meanings of family to different individuals in order to fostering familiarity and empathy between Near Eastside residents of different backgrounds and perspectives. Jandernoa, Williams-Ervin, and Sluss hope to work closely with Thomas Gregg Neighborhood School in order to highlight youth perspectives, although other community partners will be involved as well.

 

Left to right: Andrea Jandernoa, Roman Williams-Ervin, and Debbie Sluss at Pitch Night

The next proposal, called The Place You Call Home, was delivered by Tosca Carranza, Samone Willis, and Elizabeth Nash. Through a vehicle that will called the IMPD Care Mobile, Carranza, Willis, and Nash intend to cultivate familiarity between local youth and the officers who serve their neighborhoods through a series of outdoor games and art projects across the Near Eastside. Through their conversations with youth and their families, Carranza, Willis, and Nash hope to elicit answers to the question “What is Peace?” and use that to inform future efforts.

 

Left to right: Elizabeth Nash, Samone Willis, and Tosca Carranza at Pitch Night

Next, Mark Latta, Chris Shaw, and Josie Hunckler delivered their proposal for an East 10th Street Community Writing Center, which will focus on the ways in which stories and storytelling empower people and their communities. Recognizing that writing provides an outlet for emotions that may be more difficult to find in one’s family or social circles, the team hopes to provide a space where people can process traumatic experiences that cause grief, panic, resentment, and rage in ways that make them less likely to inflict harm upon themselves and others in their communities. The If Project in Seattle was particularly inspirational to Latta, Shaw, and Hunckler when they designed and tested their first writing program at Outreach with adults and youth, which supported their expectation that narrative writing would be helpful for at-risk community members who felt like writing allowed them to be better seen and understood. Cat Head Press will likely be the Writing Center’s first home, but Latta, Shaw, and Hunckler are hoping to eventually move their operations into one of NEAR’s houses near the intersection of 10th Street and Rural Street, where they hope to formalize an Eastside Story Corps and community publishing house.

 

Left to right: Chris Shaw, Mark Latta, and Josie Hunckler at Pitch Night

In the last presentation of the evening, Stacy Riojas, Todd Bracik, and Stardust Adita advocated Creating Art Together (CAT), a plan to amplify Near Eastside identity through a neighborhood talent show and a series of outdoor visual artworks created for and by Near Eastside neighbors. Tryouts for the talent show are expected to be announced and held between six and eight weeks in advance of the performance date, and will be open to neighbors of all ages and officers, who are also welcome to contribute as set designers, audiovisual technicians, and in other capacities if they are less inclined to perform. The public art project will be more complex, but with long-lasting impacts, as neighbors are expected to spend months planning where and what to create with the guidance of a professional artist. There are many spaces on the Near Eastside whose bland appearances have led them to become neglected and susceptible to vandalism, but the CAT plan was made to change that.

“We really hope that Creating Art Together will give people on the Near Eastside a greater sense of ownership of their neighborhood,” said Riojas, who believes that neighborhood beautification will increase foot traffic to promote the “eyes on the street” approach to public safety.

 

Left to right: Stacy Riojas, Todd Bracik, and Stardust Adita present the proposal for Creating Art Together

After the four teams shared their ideas for building community and reducing crime, they took feedback from attendees at tables around the room, some of which had interactive components. The CAT table had Lego blocks and free prints of artwork by community members, Co-Create had a “Family is…” wall for neighbors to write on, and The Place You Call Home had a painting of a lotus flower to which neighbors attached ways that they committed to promoting peace.

“It was beautiful to see how many people in our community are positive, caring, and have the desire to participate in peace making,” said Tosca Carranza. “Some of the peace intentions that people listed included ‘Practice kindness to everyone I meet,’ ‘Respect one another,’ ‘Meet great neighbors,’ ‘Smile,’ ‘Talking and playing with neighbors,’ and ‘Build a bridge.’”

 

Future of Indy East Art Peace

After the four teams shared their ideas for building community and reducing crime, they took feedback from attendees at tables around the room, some of which had interactive components. The CAT table had Lego blocks and free prints of artwork by community members, Co-Create had a “Family is…” wall for neighbors to write on, and The Place You Call Home had a painting of a lotus flower to which neighbors attached ways that they committed to promoting peace.

“It was beautiful to see how many people in our community are positive, caring, and have the desire to participate in peace making,” said Tosca Carranza. “Some of the peace intentions that people listed included ‘Practice kindness to everyone I meet,’ ‘Respect one another,’ ‘Meet great neighbors,’ ‘Smile,’ ‘Talking and playing with neighbors,’ and ‘Build a bridge.’”

 

Future of Indy East Art Peace

The organizers of Indy East Art Peace aimed to attract community members from different age groups, neighborhoods, and socioeconomic statuses, but there is still work to be done to ensure that the people who are getting involved in Art Peace, along with neighborhood summit attendees, are representative of the neighborhoods that Art Peace projects are meant to benefit.

“We understand that there are still a lot of systemic barriers to participation,” said Julia Muney Moore, citing evening work schedules, lack of access to reliable transportation or childcare, difficulty speaking and understanding English, and feelings that involvement will not yield any tangible benefits as factors that reduce the likelihood of some neighbors being interested in or able to dedicate time to Indy East Arts Peace. As staff at the John Boner Neighborhood Centers work to eliminate cultural and financial barriers for members of underrepresented groups to participate in community meetings, it is hoped that Indy East Arts Peace will be more representative and inclusive of the full spectrum of Near Eastside neighbors.

Another pressing challenge with Indy East Art Peace is posed by the need to develop a framework that can be used evaluate the impacts of each project. The four resident-officer-artist teams have each identified challenges in their respective communities, along with strategies to tackle them, but have yet to determine what quantitative and qualitative indicators will be used to measure the extent to which their strategies are successful. It is likely that evaluation strategies will be determined once the teams process community feedback and finalize their plans.

The Indy East Art Peace is providing a unique engagement opportunity for residents of Indianapolis’ Near Eastside and the officers who serve their communities to exchange perspectives on improving public safety while exploring and employing artistic techniques to do so. While there was only enough funding to compensate eight resident and artist team members, Near Eastside neighbors and people experienced in successful CPTED initiatives are encouraged to continue providing feedback to the Arts Council, NEAR, IMPD, and their collaborators. The Arts Council of Indianapolis can be reached at publicart@indyarts.org, and Near East Area Renewal can be reached at http://nearindy.org/contact.