As Near Eastside poised to be deadliest neighborhood again, residents offer muted hope for renewal

INDIANAPOLIS -- In the Brookside Neighborhood's Old Centenary Church, a small group gathered Thursday night for a community meeting about safety.

The topic at hand was active shooter training, courtesy of IMPD. The 18 participants weren't there that night to talk about the everyday violence plaguing the larger Near Eastside Neighborhood they live in.

If they were, they might have discussed a man found fatally shot in a vehicle near 19th Street and Colorado Avenue that morning. They may not have known it, but they would have been talking about the Near Eastside's 21st homicide of the year – already one more than last year's total, and with two months left to go 2016.

This year will likely end with the Near Eastside again the deadliest neighborhood in Indianapolis (Martindale-Brightwood, just north over I-70, ranks second at 16 homicides as of this writing). But in Brookside – "a great place to live," according to neighborhood association co-president Dori Morton – residents were more concerned about what to do if someone with a gun showed up at their work or favorite grocery store.

"We're trying to get people beyond the hope-and-pray mode," IMPD's East District School Liaison Officer Lori Phillips told the group. "Just hoping and praying doesn't make you safe."

Click the image above to see homicide data for all of Indy's neighborhoods.

Revitalization & the Near Eastside: 'That story's been written'

It's tempting to see Officer Phillip's admonition as a metaphor for the Near Eastside as a whole. The area's problems with poverty, unemployment, addiction and crime aren't anything new. But their longevity isn't because no one is willing to act.

In the early 1970s, a former nun named Pat Farrell helped the neighborhood form the Near Eastside Community Organization. It continues to this day working to attract development and address social issues in the Near Eastside.

To do that, NESCO serves as an umbrella organization for smaller groups like Near East Area Renewal (NEAR).

In the last seven years, NEAR has helped build or refurbish around 90 homes in the Near Eastside's St. Clair Place. The majority of those homes are designated as affordable housing and offered below market value to families they hope will help rejuvenate St. Clair.

"We did that in response to the quality of life plan for the Near Eastside, and in response to the fact that this area of the neighborhood had over a 40 percent vacancy rate," said NEAR Executive Director John Franklin Hay. "They were really hard-hit by the foreclosures. We've only built on vacant lots or abandoned houses – there are plenty of those – but through that we hope to revitalize the neighborhood and make this a safer place to live."

Just below 10th Street on Hamilton Avenue, you can see NEAR hard at work. New construction is visible all up and down the street and bright blue NEAR signs proclaim new housing is "coming soon."

Above: NEAR Executive Director John Hay talks about development projects. Behind, crews work on a NEAR home in St. Clair Place.

It's a hopeful sight to Hay, but not one that washes away the memories from a street that saw one of the worst murders in Indianapolis history just 10 years ago.

In 2006, seven members of Emma Valdez and Alberto Covarrubias' family, including three young children, were gunned down in what prosecutors would later describe as a cold-blooded robbery.

The two suspects, Desmond Turner and James Stewart, were sentenced to life without parole and 425 years in prison, respectively.

His home now sandwiched between two NEAR construction projects, Frank Dodson, who's lived in St. Clair Place for the past 35 years, says he'll never forget that night in June 2006.

Above: Frank Dodson

"I remember everything from that day," Dodson said. "The buildings going up aren't going to change that. That'll always be there."

Another neighbor, who asked not to be identified out of fear of retaliation from criminal elements in the neighborhood, said the narrative of the "resurgent Near Eastside" isn't anything new, either.

"That story's been written and written and written," she said.

Dodson didn't shy away from the realities of the neighborhood where he raised his 12 children either. He knows he's surrounded by crime – although he insists his street doesn't see anything like other nearby areas do. But his daughter is moving into the house across the street with her children, and he's got no problem with that.

"It's home to us," Dodson said. "You see the bad things and the good things, but I'm sure you're going to see that in any neighborhood you live in. But it's just been home to us. We like it here."

'A powder keg for mayhem'

"East District historically has always had the reputation of being a very busy district," said IMPD Commander Roger Spurgeon, who leads the department's operations on the east side.

It's no secret within the department that East District officers will likely face more of everything: more crime; more drugs; more violence.

"The new officers that are just now being assigned across the city, many of them that are being assigned East District are being assigned that because they specifically requested it," Spurgeon said. "They want that challenge. They want to come to work and know that there's going to be a lot to do."

From where he sits, Spurgeon takes a nuanced view of the area's problems.

"It's hand-to-mouth living for a lot of people in this area."

"It's a combination of things that make a perfect storm. You've got high-density neighborhoods with high poverty, lack of food, transportation, every factor associated with life – shelter, food clothing – all of those things that we take for granted … it's not to be taken for granted at all," Spurgeon said. "It's hand-to-mouth living for a lot of people in this area. You top those issues off with mental health issues and addictive personalities and it's a powder keg for mayhem."

On Hamilton Avenue, residents are more direct: It's the drugs.

And the Near Eastside does lead the city in drug violation reports – at least during a two-week period RTV6 analyzed between October 14-28. IMPD officers filed 27 drug violation reports in the Near Eastside during those weeks. Downtown ranked second with 22. The Near Westside came in at third with 20.

Below: Drug violations reported by IMPD between Oct. 14-28 mapped by neighborhood.

Spurgeon, too, says it's the drugs.

"You've got not only the users, but you've got the dealers trying to vie for territory, the dealers looking to rip off other dealers, people selling fake product or impure product that makes people unhappy, so there's retaliation for that sometimes," he said.

Out of the Near Eastside's 21 homicides so far this year, IMPD has released a suspected motive in 14 of them. Of those, six are linked to robberies. Three others are linked directly to drugs. Two of them are believed to be revenge killings.

For Hay and NEAR – which he calls a "small non-profit looking to do good" – all the headlines about crime on the Near Eastside tell only part of the story.

"Crime has been an issue on the Near Eastside, but it is not the defining issue for the community," he said. "Out of the houses we've developed, we haven't had a problem finding neighbors to live here. Building relationships is critical for dealing with crime issues and bringing down violent crime. Violent crime in St. Clair Place is down dramatically according to IMPD, and we believe part of that is because of our work in development."

Dodson also hopes the new houses going up will bring positive change.

"Hopefully it'll get better," he said. "The next generation's gotta live here."

Jordan Fischer is the Senior Digital Reporter for RTV6. He writes about crime & the underlying issues that cause it. Follow his reporting on Twitter at @Jordan_RTV6 or on Facebook.