Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

How one determined family rallied their community to transform a once-deserted corner of Indianapolis

In 1991, a young married couple with a two-month-old baby girl moved into the distressed Herron-Morton neighborhood of Indianapolis, Indiana. While they had some policy knowledge about urban challenges (Bill Taft had recently obtained his masters in urban planning, and Joanna had worked in a federal agency), the couple possessed little hands-on experience. On top of that, they had no working plumbing or heat in their Indy home.

Bill went to work for the local community-development corporation, while Joanna went to work on their living conditions. The house had been vacant for seven years, and for the first three months of occupancy the family camped together in one room until other spaces were habitable. The Taft home wasn’t unique in the neighborhood: a third of the surrounding houses were vacant, a second third had been demolished, and only the remaining third were occupied.

Today, Herron-Morton is much in demand, with even a few million-dollar homes. Mark Nottingham, a local realtor and neighborhood resident, says this would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. He gestures out his office window to an up-and-coming retail corridor. Not so long ago, the street had not a single business.

Also across the way from Nottingham’s office is the historic outline of Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Next to Redeemer, and sharing some space with it, is the Harrison Center, a combination art gallery, studio space, and neighborhood living room. A couple blocks up is the campus of nationally ranked Herron High School, a charter that fuses arts education with a rigorous classical curriculum. On the other side of the neighborhood is The Oaks Academy, a prestigious private Christian elementary and middle school that has replicated across the city.

None of these institutions existed when the Tafts moved into their broken-down house, in a broken-down neighborhood, in the winter of 1991. And all these advances have had one thing in common: the involvement of civil-society power couple Joanna and Bill Taft.

If you build it, they will come

Each month for the past several decades, Jeanne Portious compiled 600 newsletters with updates from the city’s historic neighborhoods, and organized volunteers to make deliveries to every door, with a charge to be “intentionally mindful.” If a streetlight is out, it should be reported and fixed. She explains that “at least one person goes to every door once a month,” simultaneously delivering the news and checking on the neighbors.

Shortly after the Tafts moved in, Portious reached out to connect Joanna with a couple of other mothers. She also put Joanna to work delivering the Herron-Morton newsletter. In the cold winter, in a rough area, those first outings were challenging, but Joanna got to know her neighbors. She soon joined forces with them to try to draw in new residents to fill those homes and empty lots. “When the houses became available that had a negative impact on the community, whether it was a drug house or some other problem, we would either try to buy it or find somebody to buy it. We got into that for self-preservation,” she says. This collaborative began to have success in attracting new neighbors.

As the Tafts’ daughter grew older, Joanna’s focus moved to schooling. She heard of a group at a Presbyterian church that was interested in starting a school in the city. She could find no compelling models of classical education in an urban environment, so she joined the group and set about inventing one. From its beginning in 1998, The Oaks Academy was more than a private school: it was a vehicle for racial reconciliation. The student body is composed of equal numbers white children and children of color, and tuition-paying middle-class families (along with some donors) subsidize the education of low-income students who attend for free. (For more on The Oaks, see the newly released Philanthropy Roundtable guidebook The Fabric of Character.)

Meanwhile, the Tafts harbored a desire to share their faith with their community, and worship at a church closer to home, not in the suburbs. Around this time, Joanna got a call from her old boss at a historic preservation agency. He told her that a vacant, historic Presbyterian church was four blocks south of her house, and though he was not himself a man of faith, he insisted that she start a congregation in that sanctuary.

Originally Indianapolis’s First Presbyterian Church, the stone building had housed a congregation that counted former President Benjamin Harrison among its elders. As the surrounding neighborhood had slid into decline, however, so did the congregation. Seeing the grand stone structure standing empty, Bill and Joanna contacted Presbyterian friends for help.

They were told national church leadership “wasn’t really into inner-city churches,” Joanna remembers, as they’re hard to sustain. A pastor who specialized in church planting toured the facility with the couple, and described how he was “busy planting in the suburbs,” and trying to stick a new congregation in the core of a rough urban neighborhood was challenging. Nevertheless, the pastor invited the Tafts to pray every day for a month, and took them on tours of other church plants. He then invited them to submit a proposal to the church bureaucracy.

A complicated dance ensued. As the Tafts were eyeing the church building for a fledgling congregation, a local investor purchased the building to establish a for-profit arts center. Bill came to an arrangement to rent the sanctuary on Sundays for the small local church, which would be called Redeemer Presbyterian. The extended years of neglect had taken their toll on the building, and the surrounding neighborhood was more naturally conducive to crime and disorder than galleries and families. Joanna remembers finding squatters hiding inside walls. The building’s challenges were truly formidable, and the investor soon moved on to other projects.

With Bill at the helm, Redeemer stepped in to purchase the whole building with help from the Presbyterian Investor’s Fund, a (now defunct) group that offered high-interest, high-risk loans to young, struggling churches. It was at this point, as Redeemer was closing on the purchase, that Bill looked to his wife and jokingly remarked, “You’re a stay-at-home mom, but you never stay home. You’re always running around starting things.” Perhaps these energies could be channeled into a formal job? The youngest Taft child had just entered kindergarten, so Joanna turned her newfound free time to the management of the enormous capital investment their fledgling urban church had just made.

One of the first things that she learned upon taking the position at Redeemer was that the church’s building purchase had not gone over well in the neighborhood. The community felt it had been promised an arts center, but was bait-and-switched with a church. Joanna heard stories of other urban churches with a bad reputation for inconsiderate behavior toward their neighbors.

“If a church can love its neighborhood with a food pantry or a food store, why can’t a church love its neighborhood by having an art center if that’s what the neighbors want?” she thought. Knowing nothing about art centers, she reached out to Kyle Ragsdale, a local artist she knew through The Oaks and volunteer events. She asked him, “Do you want to be my partner in crime?”

The mother-artist team went through the cavernous building and made an inventory of the space. “We opened up every extra room and we charged $100 each, regardless of size, shape, or smell,” Joanna explains, “because some of the rooms do smell.” They built an apartment for Ragsdale to move into while he managed the building and worked on his own art. “Every morning he would kill three mice in his electric zapper. After a year he moved out because it was so disgusting.” That’s not to mention the basement that flooded with every rain.

Joanna Taft’s first foray into local activism, a key step in revitalizing the deserted neighborhood, was convincing more people to make it their home.

Still, the flat offer of $100 monthly rent attracted 14 resident artists fairly quickly. The artists gained a space to work, while the church and community enjoyed their creations.

Ragsdale curates the gallery, which means changing all the art on the walls every month, far more frequently than the industry standard. The breakneck pace was set by Joanna, who thought that regular church attendees would get tired of the same art after a few weeks. So it must change. 

The gallery’s first show opened in 2002, Ragsdale’s “Love in the Time of Football.” In 2003, the nonprofit center began operating independently from the church. The Harrison Center today boasts six galleries, hosts dozens of artists in its studio spaces, and is a cherished institution in the neighborhood and city. 

One popular event is its monthly “First Friday” showing, which draws scores of attendees to admire the art and engage with artists in their studios, often with live music playing in the background. Instead of being restricted to the older, upscale wine-and-art crowd, the Harrison Center bustles with attendees from across the age spectrum, including high-school students and families with children, some of whom are in strollers, and others who race around the church gymnasium.

Back at the beginning for both Redeemer and Harrison, church secretary Pam Allee shared a desk with Joanna in a closet. As the Harrison Center developed, however, Joanna kept roping her into other projects. “Things kept building and building and growing and that’s how I got drawn in,” she says. (She is now the gallery’s coordinator and administrator.) One day, sitting in their closet together, Joanna blurted out, “I think I want to start a high school.” Allee remembers that “at the time I didn’t totally get it—when she says things like that she actually means it, and she’s going to do it.”

Crafty charter creation

While the Tafts’ eldest daughter was proceeding through middle school at The Oaks, a subcommittee was considering expanding the academy into high school. A decision was made against it, which upset Joanna on behalf of the low-income students who did not have attractive options after eighth grade. At the time, she recalls, “the graduation rate in Indianapolis public schools for African-American males was 19 percent.” She felt a responsibility to her daughter’s classmates to offer them a better opportunity.

For the next year and a half, as she tried to get her idea for a high school going, “I was scared every day to the core of my being. Every single day. At night, couldn’t sleep,” she says. “What I learned is you can get an awful lot of work done when you’re scared. When you learn something like that, it’s so freeing. I realized this school did not start because I was smarter than anybody else. It started because I didn’t give up.”

In scouting for a location, Joanna latched onto the vacated campus of an arts college that had just moved across town. She proposed replacing it with an arts-focused charter high school, which would have a classical curriculum and a diverse student body like The Oaks Academy had done for K-8. 

But the mayor was more interested in a for-profit venture to occupy the space, because Indianapolis desperately needed the tax base. A commission was formed to call for proposals. Joanna knew that the only way for her high school to have a chance was to be on every proposal that was submitted, and so she went around to all the developers, pitching them on a way that a school could fit into their plans. Her scheme worked: in some plans the school was in the basement, in others it was in a separate building, but the only thing in common across every proposal received by the commission was a school that no one had ever heard of, because it did not yet exist: Herron High School. And so the high-school idea moved forward. 

The classical elementary and charter high schools founded by local parents have made headlines and inspired offshoots near and far. 

Janet McNeal is Herron High School’s principal, and has been its chief educator since the very beginning. She came to Herron with a wealth of experience in classical education from a private Catholic school. She hoped to bring those skills to the needier population Herron was poised to serve. Friends and colleagues were bewildered that she wanted to leave the security of a prestigious, private high school to start an art-themed charter school with the lady from the gallery down the street, but something about Joanna’s vision gave McNeal faith that it would work. She was not alone. “Every one of our teachers that first year left a very secure position to take a risk,” she says. But with confidence and inspiration, “we just got to work.”

The problem was, the building wasn’t ready. Herron High School had enrolled its first class of students to begin in 2006, but the construction was delayed. Problems with the for-profit developers ultimately resulted in Herron taking over the full project. Herron now owned its building, but was still in a race against the clock to have a space ready for 100 high-school students to begin classes in the fall.

Joanna began crafting a safety net. She heard from a neighbor that the local Rolls-Royce airplane engine division was looking for a Habitat-type service project for its rocket scientists and other professionals, a team-building project that would also benefit the community. She pitched the company to fix up the flood-prone basement of the Harrison Center to create more studios that could double as classrooms for the new charter school.

The Rolls-Royce team convinced a prominent hardware store to donate money and materials sufficient to build out the drywall, brick the rooms, and completely transform the soggy space into a series of studio-classrooms off a main hall. So the high-school began in the now renovated, formerly flooded basement. The artists-in-residence at Harrison left their doors open so that the high schoolers could stop by and hang out, creating an interwoven community between Herron and Harrison that persists to this day. 

By the end of the first year, the students did not want to move out of the basement; they were attached to their quirky space and community with the artists. But the new campus now accommodates an enrollment that has grown eightfold. With lengthy waitlists, plans are underway to complete another branch across town. Student achievement has defied expectations since the very first year. The first class of Herron students scored the highest on language arts of any school in the county, with math scores not far behind. And today, Herron High School consistently ranks as a top two or three high school in the state of Indiana.

Building on the vision

The Tafts’ own children, now college graduates, are all proud alumni of Herron, and each are involved in urban development. The Tafts live in the same house in Herron-Morton that they moved into in 1991. In addition to their more formal activities, they started a series of dinner groups and “porch parties” that have spread across the neighborhood and the city. Every Sunday afternoon, Bill and Joanna are on their porch with neighbors, friends, strangers. All are welcome, and all are fed. In conjunction with the Indianapolis 500, the Tafts held a single day of porch parties citywide.

When the Super Bowl came to Indianapolis in 2012, the culmination of a decades-long “sports strategy” by the civic and corporate leaders of the city, Joanna channeled the NFL’s perfunctory service efforts into an entire East Side revival project.

As energetic economic development returns to Indianapolis, neighborhood groups are active in directing the growth toward the common good.

The Harrison Center for the Arts, Redeemer Presbyterian, and Herron High School, all neighborhood anchor institutions, remain deeply intertwined. Herron uses the church’s gym all day and its sanctuary for assemblies. High-school students intern at Harrison, and art patrons and church congregants use the school’s parking lot on the weekends.

Joanna is “the most neighborhood-oriented person I’ve ever met,” says realtor Mark Nottingham. “She has a capacity to accomplish a vision unlike almost anybody that I know. Sometimes we even kind of joke about it. You know, if Joanna Taft sets her mind to something, it will happen.”

As the neighborhood changes, Joanna wants to make sure its longstanding members don’t feel left out. With the boom in development, like other formerly distressed communities that have become fashionable, Indianapolis is struggling with questions of displacement and equity, as long-time residents express relief that their neighborhood is becoming safer, but fear they will not be able to afford to stick around and experience the benefits.

As a creative approach to these concerns, the Harrison Center put on a community event called “pre-enactment theater.” Painted facades were set up in front of every store, professional actors were hired to depict how local affairs would work if all were pursuing the common good. Riffing on the popularity of historical re-enactments, this one was meant to engage the neighborhood to pre-enact its own positive destiny, in hopes that it would then be lived out. Joanna pitched local businesses on how they could be more civic-minded. An online used auto-dealer was encouraged to look for customers close by, for instance. The idea was to create a self-determining vision to build on, and inspire nearby communities to do the same. The project drove the gallery to expand its purpose beyond the arts to serve the city more broadly.  The Harrison Center is now using its campus as a dynamic, adaptable platform for the entire community, supported by a multimillion-dollar Lilly Endowment grant.

There’s a “critical mass” of civic spirit today in Indianapolis says Jay Hein, president of the Sagamore Institute, an Indy-based conservative think tank. “It’s one of the reasons I love living in this place.” And while it’s much bigger than them, the Tafts were a definite catalyst. “They moved on purpose to do this.” While urban living and ministry holds some cachet today, “there wasn’t one part of cool in that” then. Instead, they moved in order to serve, and seized every opportunity that came within their field of vision. Their success has buoyed everyone around them. Hein says, “I’ve never seen citizenship practiced the way that it’s practiced here.”

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