Situated along the Indianapolis upper canal area, bounded by 9th , 10th , Martin Luther King Jr., and North Missouri streets, the Fayette Street neighborhood has a rich residential and commercial history with the city’s Black community. Upon construction of the canal in the 1830s, home development followed to take advantage of the associated employment opportunities. Many of these families were African Americans or Irish and Greek immigrants. These early residents built homes in Queen Anne, Victorian, and double shot-gun styles within the area that would be known as Fayette Street. Throughout the late 1800s, another wave of southern Black settlers (fleeing the climax and fallout of the Civil War) began to build or move into these homes.

A key to African American settlement in the area was its proximity to both industrial and service job openings. Many factories had located along the canal. For instance, in the 1910s Madame C. J. Walker, who became a millionaire and one of Indianapolis’ most prominent entrepreneurs, offered a wide range of well-paying jobs at her company, which developed Black cosmetic and hair care products.

Over time, more and more Black residents of the Fayette Street area built up enough financial stability in these positions to become entrepreneurs, themselves. The new Black middle-class entrepreneurial efforts focused on nearby Indiana Avenue. Its prominence to Fayette Street residents in the post-WWI era of segregation made the neighborhood a financial and cultural center for Indianapolis’ Black community.

Fayette Street’s prosperity did not continue indefinitely. Throughout the mid-1900s, residents (and their wealth) left the community for the Indianapolis suburbs. The exodus of residents led to significant neighborhood decline by the 1960s.

Urban revitalization efforts further harmed the area in the early 1970s. To expand its campus, Iupui used eminent domain to claim and demolish homes in its aggressive eastward expansion into the community. The encroachment of I-65 through the neighborhood also destroyed homes, the majority of which belonged to Black residents. These practices left few historic homes standing along Fayette Street and the surrounding area.

By the 1990s, Indianapolis mayor Stephen Goldsmith focused the city’s attention on revitalization of undeveloped downtown real estate along the upper canal area. Goldsmith suggested using eminent domain to claim the canal-adjacent Fayette Street area to oust existing residents and redevelop the area into a commercial-residential space. Residents and local preservationists voiced significant opposition to the plan. Arguments ranged from a desire to remain in the community to the historical significance of Fayette Street. Two different groups took up the cause for these dissenting individuals. The Canal Coalition, spearheaded by the African American Landmarks Committee of the Historic Landmarks Foundation Of Indiana and the Upper Canal Neighborhood Association, a grassroots group, played significant roles in negotiations with the city which led to preserving the area.

The Canal Coalition presented a counteroffer to Goldsmith known as the Fayette Street Revitalization Plan. The proposal centered on creating a stretch of roughly 20 historic homes on the 900-block of Fayette Street. With 10 already located on the block, the plan called for moving 11 historic homes from around the Fayette Street area to the 900-block.

Preservationists did not see the movement of homes as a solution, yet it proved to be a reasonable alternative to demolition. The plan allowed owners of those homes that were moved to remain in their newly refurbished homes or sell to the city, which offered the homes to new residents. The city ultimately agreed to the Fayette Street Revitalization Plan and footed the $1 million budget to restore the exteriors of the homes moved to Fayette Street.

Because approximately half of the historic homes on Fayette Street came from the relocation effort, local preservationists were unsuccessful in listing the street on the National Register of Historic Places. Although the plan the Canal Coalition and the city agreed upon hinged on the street’s historic significance, the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission (IHPC) found a solution by instead labeling Fayette Street in 1995 as a “conservation district,” defined as a neighborhood whose “distinctive character [is] significant to the culture, heritage, history, and development of the community” (See Historic Districts). This label allowed for the city to focus on a historic area’s overall character as opposed to more rigid architectural preservation guidelines.

By 2020, despite the continued build-up of apartment complexes, restaurants, parking garages, and event spaces around them, the historic Fayette Street homes have continued to exist on the 900-block, as deemed by the 1993 conservation efforts. IHPC’s conservation district designation protects the 20 or so homes on the street.

Revised June 2021

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