By Kathleen Berry Graham
Even early in the morning on a dark, rainy Wednesday in June, the corner of 54th and College was hopping. A rain-slickered, 30-something-year-old scurried south while her two dogs tangled their leashes. A food supply semi-truck, blocking the west-bound lane, rumbled while its driver wheeled a dolly, stacked high with boxes, to Twenty Tap. Two teens huddled under one large umbrella and a mom with a toddler in stroller rapid-fire jabbed the cross-walk buttons before hustling across College. A few less-harried locals drank coffee in the comfort of a humid coffeehouse just a few car slots away from the action. And while the baristas brewed house specialties, Ted Boehm, who over the last five decades has lived at three different addresses in the Meridian~Kessler neighborhood, surveyed the landscape with a casual eye. A sort-of memory lane with a really good feeling.
Boehm doesn’t live in Meridian~Kessler now, but he had a hand in making it what it is today. “In some respects it really hasn’t changed that much in 50 years,” he says, “which is a really good thing.” You see, quite by chance, Boehm and a few like-minded locals got together 50 years ago to form the Meridian~Kessler Neighborhood Association. “I’m not sure what the original catalyst was but we were worried about urban white flight since the demographics were changing.”
In 1965 the times were tumultuous when the first African-American family moved into the Meridian~Kessler area. “We wanted an orderly integration,” Boehm remembers. “We wanted to make people feel good about the area.” Boehm and his cadre liked what was happening to the west in Butler Tarkington, so they looked at its neighborhood association and wondered if they could replicate some of the good things it was doing.
Boehm credits Rev. Gerald Johnson, of the then Meridian Heights Presbyterian Church, with forming the original group. Boehm says early on Pat Ulen, Betty Haerle, Shirley Hook, Father David Lawler (former pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church), Lois Otten, George Smith, Marie Robb and Catherine Brown were instrumental in pulling him onboard.
“The original mission of our group was much the same as it is today for the Meridian~Kessler Neighborhood Association,” Boehm says.
In 1965 the founders talked about forming a neighborhood association that would: Bring neighbors closer together; Provide services for newcomers; Monitor zoning issues; Help to maintain quality schools; Provide municipal services for residents; Support local businesses.
Boehm remembers the group deliberating the boundaries of the proposed new neighborhood. The south and west boundaries were not debatable—38th Street to the south and Meridian Street to the west—because those borders already adjoined existing organized neighborhoods. But the boundary to the north was difficult to determine. “Honestly, we just made it up as we went,” Boehm says. “And the Monon was a natural border to the east.”
At first the northern border was set at 46th Street, then moved to 54th Street. By the time the MKNA’s constitution and by-laws were finalized, however, the boundary was extended north to Kessler Boulevard. “It sounded good—‘Meridian~Kessler’—but we had no idea that it would take off the way it did. We didn’t really have an agenda but we knew we wanted to give the residents a sense of being a part of a group, to have an identity and we wanted to include everyone,” Boehm recalls.
Nancy Showalter, who had just moved into her first home in the 4800 block of College Avenue in 1965, says, “The whole Meridian~Kessler area was in a little bit of a slump back then. It was an uncertain time and people were leaving, but some of us kept our feet here. We stuck it out.” Showalter and her husband still live in Meridian~Kessler and have lived at two different addresses. They appreciate the old and the new. “Years ago it was like a small town within a big city and it’s still pretty much that today,” Showalter says. “My kids walked to Friendly Foods. We had a monthly charge account at Hamaker Pharmacy. We could go down to the corner to get everything—ice cream, Band-Aids, a newspaper and we could charge it.”
Showalter says MKNA has played a huge part in keeping alive the community spirit of the area. “Yes, a lot has changed. There are not as many kids or parents here during the daytime hours like in the past. But the diversity of people, incomes, houses, independent businesses and even the different zones of the area remain. In 1965 people were escaping. Now people want to move here.”
Home to 6500 households and about 15,000 residents the Meridian~Kessler footprint is locked. “But it keeps changing and getting better,” says Caroline Farrar, executive director of the Meridian~Kessler Neighborhood Association since 1984. “People were worried in 1965. Education played a big role and some of the poorer areas of Meridian~Kessler were getting poorer.” Between 1990 and 2000 more than 50,000 residents left the area in the five mile radius surrounding Meridian~Kessler. And the exodus of city dwellers continued during 2000–2010, yet the population of MK remained stable throughout both decades. “We’ve always known that the area cannot grow geographically so we’ve always known that we must maintain the integrity and improve every parcel of what we have.”
Many of the goals today match the thoughts of the original group in 1965, but Farrar says the organization, like the neighborhood, keeps improving. She says that through neighborhood volunteering, expert fundraising, political navigating and a culture of collaborating, MKNA has improved the quality of life for businesses and residents for the last 50 years. “Sometimes it’s just the little things,” she says. Her first example goes back to the 1980s when Christy Seastrom worked with MKNA to establish the first curbside recycling program in Indianapolis.
The 1965 group outlined six priorities for MNKA. Today MNKA lists six goals as well—many mimic the original group’s intentions.
• Organize community meetings where critical neighborhood issues are addressed, host business and clergy breakfasts and publish community newsletters.
• Partner with community stakeholders.
• Support the work of organizations serving youth and seniors.
• Preserve historic qualities.
• Prioritize neighborhood beautification efforts and promote commitment to historic architecture.
“Much of the focus when we started was really land use and branding of the neighborhood,” says Boehm. He says they wanted to elevate the sense of where they lived as well as the local economy, to strengthen the vitality of the independent businesses and to enhance the well-being of the people who lived in all the different zones. “We knew there was a risk of it all going downhill if we couldn’t establish pride in where we live and what we do,” Boehm says. “And that really hasn’t changed even today.”
Farrar says Boehm’s mission continues. “MKNA makes a great effort to improve businesses and bring vitality to the neighborhood. We’ve added some social activities—the annual Meridian~Kessler Neighborhood Association Home Tour and the night-before Twilight Tour.” The proceeds from those events help support churches, schools, community efforts and businesses within the area. “We are also very careful to limit what can happen in the area,” Farrar cautions. “Careful to prevent encroachment of residential areas and careful to maintain a thriving community spirit.”
“Schools are better,” says Farrar. “In 1965 we were losing families. Now we have a waiting list at School 84 and St. Joan of Arc needs more space. I believe the MKNA grant program has supported every school within its boundaries at some time—IPS 55, 70, 84 and the Montessori School 91, Immaculate Heart of Mary, St. Joan of Arc and Broad Ripple High School—probably even more.”
“The housing stock is better, the infrastructure is better, our roads and sidewalks are better,” says Farrar. “The MKNA is always working with the city on zoning and planning issues.”
Farrar says zone delegates, Google groups and social media keep the association, residents and businesses better informed about zoning, developments and social issues. “We’re a better place now because of communication and efforts by many to push forward. Meridian~Kessler sells itself today.”
“We’ve had a burgeoning of new business lately,” Farrar says. “Just look at a few of the new places around 52nd and 54th Streets—Twenty Tap, Fat Dan’s, The Fresh Market, The Dancing Donut, Delicia, Locally Grown Gardens, Posh Petals, DeveloperTown, TCC Software Solutions and so many more.” (See a more complete list of new MK establishments in What’s Changed in Meridian~Kessler?)
Farrar, who originates from New York, says people are knocking themselves down to get into Meridian~Kessler for a fairly basic list of reasons. “Why? It’s because of the proximity to downtown, libraries, the independent businesses, entertainment options and Butler. And it’s so walkable. Plus so many people want to live in an urban neighborhood,” she says. “We share alleys, enjoy each other’s gardens and backyards. We keep an eye out for our neighbors’ houses, dogs and kids. We might have small lots but we pack it all in and the MKNA has helped to make all of that happen over the last 50 years.” She hopes it will do more of the same for the next 50 years.
“Often the first thing people think about when they hear about the association is the home tour,” says Nick Colby, current president of the Meridian~Kessler Neighborhood Association. “It’s a fun, early-summer, annual event that has grown to include a Friday evening Twilight Tour that draws between 400-500 people—mostly people who live in the neighborhood,” he says.
The daytime MKNA Home Tour, which draws more than 2,000 each year, attracts crowds from across the city and some out-of-towners. “It’s our chance to show off a bit,” says Colby, who has lived in the neighborhood for 10 years. Yet he likes to remind people that Meridian~Kessler is not all about that corridor down Meridian Street.
“It’s a very diverse neighborhood. Diversity that really took hold many years ago and developed on its own. The tour allows residents and outsiders to see examples of all of the architecture—everything from Colonials, Craftsmans, Italianates, Tudors and Four Squares to tiny carriage houses and modest bungalows—but Meridian~Kessler’s diversity is really in its demographics, the people, their personalities, religious choices and political affiliations. The association hopes to help to keep it that way,” says Colby. “Plus we are happy to have thriving businesses— established and emerging— in all areas.”
Attracting appropriate business developments keeps the landscape energetic says former Meridian~Kessler Neighborhood Association President Mary Owens. “The recent development along the Monon Corridor is one of the areas where MKNA has been very involved lately,” says Owens. “Hard to believe that a former carpet distributor spot is now home to more than 40 up-and-coming software entrepreneurs.”
Owens, who currently chairs the MKNA Land Use Committee, has spent more than 15 years working on neighborhood zoning and planning issues. “We work to protect and enhance buildings, but more important, we want the neighbors to know that we honor the past and want to maintain the historic nature while making good changes.” Owens says the wealth of well-designed, quality buildings makes it possible for spaces to be redeveloped again and again. “Good design will withstand trends and makes it easy for spaces to be revitalized.”
What’s next? Owens says to keep watching the intersection of 49th and College. “The southwest corner is about to be transformed by New York restauranteur Brian Baker who is planning a coffee and wine bar called Open Society Public House which will blend classic Latino cultures with local Indiana roots. “Meridian~Kessler is blessed with good buildings and good neighbors and has been for 50 years. It keeps reinventing itself.”
Boehm says his early group never shied away back in 1965 even though the endeavor lacked resources. “It was really the art of the impossible. We had no staff, no office, willy-nilly volunteers. We relied on churches to spread the word when we printed our first poster to announce the association. Then we started asking merchants to listen to our idea.” The first meeting was June 2, 1965. By year two, Boehm was president.
Boehm kept busy professionally while the association evolved. He served as an attorney in both private practice and corporate council for many years before he was appointed an Associate Justice on the Indiana Supreme Court from 1996-2010.
And he credits his early work with MKNA as a model for some of his civic and community contributions in later years. He remains a wise but soft-spoken gentleman who doesn’t shout of his many accomplishments including CEO of both the Indiana Sports Corporation and the Pan Am Games Organizing Committee. He was president of the Penrod Society and Chair of the Indianapolis Cultural Development Commission.
“The early work with Meridian~Kessler taught me how to get things up and running,” Boehm admits. “I learned that it is good to have events that make people feel good about where they live.” Looking back now, Boehm says he thinks his 1965 team was pretty successful.
It was still raining when Boehm left the robust corner at 54th and College to revisit his first Meridian~Kessler address on 45th Street just east of Meridian for a quick photo for this story. He stood in the street and glanced at his front door from the past with a certain calm and longing. Unplanned and unbeknownst to him the current owner happened to be approaching by foot from the east where Pennsylvania Street meets 45th. Introductions were made and the current owner graciously invited Boehm in to see the dwelling as it is today. Boehm accepted. “It was both nostalgic and delightful to see that the place was in such great shape and much improved,” Boehm says. Very much the way he left Meridian~Kessler.
Kathleen Berry Graham has lived in Meridian~Kessler for more than 30 years.
Thank you to the many former and current Meridian~Kessler residents and business owners who shared their knowledge about the history of Meridian~Kessler: Ted Boehm, Caroline Farrar, Vicki Miller, Nick Colby, Dan Fagan, Mary Ann Fagan, Molly Seidel, Nancy Showalter, Irvin Showalter, John Mallon, Amanda Duncan, Rick Rising-Moore, Melissa Uhte, George Kaczmarski, Christopher Vice, Trikam Parmar, Bill Hamaker, Paul Dibold and Mary Owens.