Alysa Meyer’s sobering research project began with a 1978 article about an Indianapolis man found drowned in Fall Creek.
The tragedy and the life of Dr. George Watkins was part of the new Digital History and Community Change in Indianapolis class, which focuses on the histories of racial displacement and urban transformation along Indianapolis’ downtown canal in commemoration of the IUPUI 50th Anniversary and Indiana University Bicentennial. The class explores the rich history of the Indiana Avenue Cultural District and the nearby Ransom Place neighborhood as well as the contentious displacement and gentrification that occurred when IUPUI was established in 1969.
Meyer and research partner Kyle Turner dug up what they could with the random address they were assigned: 402 W. Vermont St. Watkins’ home also held his practice, once standing where parking lots are now paved near Inlow Hall.
As their research will soon be published online, Turner and Meyer were guest presenters at the April 12 Butler Undergraduate Research Conference. Their findings shocked their peers from other Indiana institutions. Though Meyer grew up in Indianapolis, she, too, was unfamiliar with the history of the area before the university, which included Watkins’ sad story.
“He was very involved in the community and worked a lot with the YMCA,” said Meyer, a biology senior with an anthropology minor, of Watkins. “We found articles that said he would often give his chiropractic services for free in a way to give back to the community. In his later years, he would wander around the old neighborhood, searching for his house, according to another article. It was thought he had developed Alzheimer’s.”
The Digital History and Community Change in Indianapolis course is led by the team of Andrea Copeland, associate professor of library and information science; library and information science lecturer Kisha Tandy; and anthropology professor Paul Mullins, whose 2009 book, “The Price for Progress,” pays tribute to the neighborhoods that once bustled before IUPUI’s establishment. The final projects are being managed with the help of Herron Art Library digital services specialist Danita Davis and librarian Sonja Staum, who is also the director of the Herron Art Library.
The class of 17 undergraduate and graduate students majoring in science, museum studies, library science and public history utilized digitized newspapers, databases, old city directories, and Sanborn insurance maps from the late 1800s and early 1900s to monitor what kind of homes, businesses and landmarks once stood where IUPUI is today.
Museum studies graduate student Hannah Lundell had no idea of the history that was once literally beneath her feet as she prepared for her class, which takes place in University Library.
“It’s been a consensus with the class that a lot of people weren’t fully aware of the extent of the neighborhood that used to exist here,” said Lundell, a Florida native. “But we’ve been able to talk to former residents, which is rare when working in archives and piecing together stories.”
‘Study our city’
As the student projects are nearing completion, the research is being uploaded into a digital map from 1908. Users will be able to scroll along the map and click on the houses to learn more about the structures and the families who once inhabited them. Some of the content was acquired in collaboration with Indiana Landmarks.
Copeland said her students have learned about an early, hyper-local example of gentrification and displacement, which occurs in cities all over the country. These final projects give needed history, images and data to one of the most historically underrepresented parts of Indianapolis.
Copeland hopes the class will help pave the way for an Indianapolis history minor, specialization or certificate at IUPUI.
“There is a need to study our city,” she explained. “We don’t have a permanent course with the word ‘Indianapolis’ in it. Geography, history, social issues, current events, economics in our city – it’s all intertwined.”
Dr. Watkins’ story to live on
Meyer and Turner’s work filled in not only Watkins’ story, but that of his neighborhood.
Digital access coming soon
“I think this is really eye-opening for a lot of people because I don’t think they realized this was happening,” Meyer said. “I think it’s a good way to teach people about displacement. You get to read about people’s lives and who it affected.”
Since publishing his book, co-authored with Glenn White, Mullins gets calls and messages from relatives of former area residents who are curious about their former homes. He hopes his class’s digital research project will answer questions for those relatives as well as for Hoosier historians.
“In general, we are interested in putting as much of this history as possible in an accessible, digital place,” Mullins said. “We’re building like genealogists would. We have so much digitized. Now, it’s about helping people understand how to use it and what they can do with it.”