The people of these dusty streets
Have unconsciously struggled,
take care of their children,
Preserving happy spirits as best they could,
Protecting the embers of their dreams.
These are the words of Oscar James Fox from the book “Gone but Not Forgotten,” a compilation of poems and photographs by Fox from his years on the West Side of Indianapolis from 1945 to 1960.
Redlining maps at the time labeled the area degraded and unsafe due to its concentration of black residents.
But Fox’s work offers another view.
His words and images captured the beauty of the mundane and the happiness of a neighborhood often defined by its deficits.
Photos like a mother’s endearing gaze toward her toddler, or children fishing on the muddy banks of the canal, preserve intimate depictions of black joy in a mid-twentieth-century black neighborhood eventually obliterated by the redevelopment.
Where others have fled, Fox has come closer
I was a strange, fleeting figure with a smile,
my Rollei slung over my shoulder—
Her vertical double eyes staring
With glassy objectivity.
Fox was born in 1914 in Michigan but grew up in Ohio. He arrived in Indianapolis in 1945, having volunteered overseas with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) during World War II.
Because of Fox’s background as a photojournalist before the war, the AFSC sent Fox to Flanner House, a nonprofit serving the predominantly black community of Indianapolis in the Near West, to photograph the region.
The Indianapolis Redevelopment Commission called the area a “slum,” making Fox, a college-educated white man, a bit of an outsider.
Fox’s weirdness, however, seems to have contributed to a sense of curiosity.
Behind these strange pointed facades
Who were these people?
Seeking to answer that question, where others have fled in fear, Fox has come closer – seeing unexpected beauty in the process.
We had to show the dilapidated structures,
outdoor pumps, tattered clothes.
But another theme caught our attention,
Striking beauty, calm serenity,
God has placed beauty in the most unlikely places.
Fox captured the vibrancy of daily Black Hoosier life as he traveled along the edges of the Central Canal, over the 12th Street Bridge and down Indiana Avenue for nearly two decades.
An array of images appeared in front of his lens: shiny cars driving past black-owned businesses; children playing baseball in abandoned fields; a smiling young girl seeking shelter under the shade of an umbrella; a 106-year-old woman with her chicken on her lap.
Historian and archivist Jordan Ryan described the area to IndyStar as a “connected, accessible, and dense neighborhood of beautiful historic structures, successful businesses, and active people.”
Ryan said Fox’s images depict hope and opportunity, and called his work “an important rebuttal to the violence” of neighborhood displacement in the wake of urban renewal.
End the old, make way for the new
Time the runner quickly passed us.
We wonder if the water still flows
Through the city.
We heard no
Than now on super highways
Automobiles come and go,
Return to the stream.
Fox’s busiest walking path was part of the goals of the city’s slum clearance project and was in the focus of redevelopment.
The 12th Street Bridge no longer exists; the central channel flowing below has been shortened; Black-owned businesses along Indiana Avenue were banned.
Interstate 65 and other developments took their place.
We thought the quiet stream
Could have use for canoes and umbrellas
Like a Degas painting.
Of course, such dreams were shattered.
Urban planners had to adapt
Other photos of Fox are available online in the Indiana Historical Society’s O. James Fox Collection. To view the images, visit https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/p0266.
Brandon is also a member of the Report for America corps of the GroundTruth Project, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to supporting the next generation of journalists in the United States and around the world.
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