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.
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.
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.
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.”
Jonathan Coppage is an associate fellow at the R Street Institute and a contributing editor at The American Conservative.